Not many finance chiefs can claim to have steered two record-breaking listings and still be around to line up a third. But Maggie Wu, chief financial officer at Chinese tech giant Alibaba, is on track to pull it off.
“She’s got staying power, that’s for sure,” said one longtime observer.
It nearly did not happen. Alibaba’s top executives spent several months trying to lure Ms Wu from Beijing, where she was an accountant at KPMG, to its Hangzhou headquarters, but they secured her in time for the group’s first initial public offering in November 2007.
The record-breaking flotation generated $57bn in orders, and subsequent trading strained the stock exchange trading systems, according to news reports at the time. But even after such a promising debut, unanswered questions remained: just what was this company’s business model?
According to Alan Hellawell, an analyst turned venture capitalist, Ms Wu remained an unflappable constant — “a real steady Eddie” — as Alibaba morphed from a B2B company with 5,000-plus employees generating revenues of Rmb2.16bn ($315m) to a tech conglomerate staffed by more than 100,000 people and with sales of $56bn.
Ms Wu’s consistency sets her apart from many of her peers, he added. “I’ve seen a lot where internet stardom goes to their heads and the way they treat analysts and other constituents changes for the worse.”
Colleagues applaud her understanding of the multiple units that make up one of the world’s most complex organisations. “Maggie isn’t just a numbers CFO,” said one executive who has worked closely with her. “She is very much an operational, get-down-and-understand the business units. And we have a lot of business units!”
Those who have worked with her also attest to her approachability and lack of ego. Like the rest of Alibaba’s top executives, Ms Wu lives in Hong Kong, which is where the group has its finance and legal functions.
As chief financial officer, she keeps the books for one of the world’s most valuable companies — and also one of the most acquisitive. Following last week’s management reshuffle, Ms Wu will also now oversee Alibaba’s strategic investments, working alongside vice-chairman Joe Tsai.
Bankers, with whom she has regular dealings on both capital markets and dealmaking, are fulsome in their praise for her.
“She’s highly professional, highly competent,” said one who has worked with her for many years. “She always seems totally in charge, totally on top of things.”
There is a lot to be on top of. Alibaba is a sprawling and complex empire with 600-plus subsidiaries. It has its share of lossmaking business lines, such as movies and healthcare, and has clashed with regulators at home and overseas.
There is an ongoing investigation into its accounting practices by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and it is on the blacklist of “notorious markets” for violations of intellectual property rights.
Following a controversial privatisation in 2012 as part of continuing efforts to refocus its business strategy, Alibaba returned to the public markets with a splash in October 2014, launching what remains the world’s biggest initial public offering nearly five years later.
However, the path to market second time round was riven with conflicts, not least over venue. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange balked at Alibaba’s unique structure, which hands disproportionate control to a small group of partners. The exchange’s subsequent rule change to allow weighted voting rights paved the way for Alibaba to plot a planned secondary listing there later this year.
One veteran investor, who participated in both flotations, credits Ms Wu with promoting greater transparency and communication when Alibaba ran into headwinds. The company hit a trough around October 2015, she said, when Chinese consumers were migrating from PCs to mobile. “The numbers were not stacking up as well as they had thought,” the fund manager said.
“That’s probably when Maggie stepped more into the investor communications role and really helped to steer the message towards ‘let’s give more facts and data to the investor community and let them understand what we are doing to overcome these challenges’.”
Mr Hellawell said Ms Wu helped instil a similar “voice of reason and stability” after the first IPO, when investors were questioning the many changes in Alibaba’s business model, founder Jack Ma’s thinking and the company’s somewhat ropey corporate governance.
She may control the finances of one of China’s most forward-thinking companies, but Ms Wu is also a believer in more ancient arts, including yangshen, or “nourishing life”. She lost her voice just before the last quarterly earnings, but after dosing up on traditional Chinese medicine she was able to field questions during the hour-long call and attend a smaller investor lunch the following day.
During the lunch she sang the praises of the medicine, and her doctor — whose contact details she was sure to pass on to anyone who asked.
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