Earlier this year, Alibaba announced that Zhang would move into the role as chairman of the board in September 2019.
Zhang said that had been planned “for a long time.”
“He tried to convince me to accept this, and we had several times a conversation, but I understand why he decided this, it’s all about the future of Alibaba,” the CEO said.
While Ma has been the public face of the company for a long time, Zhang, who does not often appear in front of media, has been a key figure behind the company’s transition into mobile and its so-called New Retail strategy.
He joined the company in 2007 as chief financial officer of Taobao Marketplace and general manager of Taobao Mall, which later became TMall. Both are key products in Alibaba’s e-commerce portfolio. He was the architect of the company’s huge annual shopping event called called Singles Day. He’s also been a key driver of Alibaba’s online-to-offline strategy, which looks to merge online shopping with brick-and-mortar stores.
Zhang is viewed by analysts as a safe pair of hands because of his achievements at the company, but reaction to the succession news has not been uniformly positive. Alibaba’s stock dropped on the day of the news announcement and some media outlets ran articles saying Ma was a tough act to follow.
But Zhang said he just focuses on doing the best job he can and tries to “forget about the pressure.”
“Try everything you can for the best results — and of course you need a little bit of luck,” Zhang told CNBC.