Alibaba gears up for €100bn stock market listing

Retail giant rides the wave of huge e-commerce expansion in China


Assembling the ingredients for traditional mince pies can prove a headache in China, and we spent hours scouring markets and local shops for the necessary spices and ingredients.

In the end, we found the most difficult of these within minutes – we located allspice on Taobao, the online shopping platform owned by Alibaba, China’s hottest company.

Hangzhou-based Alibaba dominates the headlines of the business press in China as it gears up for a listing which looks certain to value it at over €100 billion.

Taobao has become the default setting for online retail in China, with more than 760 million product listings, and it is only part of the Alibaba empire. The company’s nine business areas comprise all parts of the ecommerce chain, from supplier marketplaces to online shopping to payment processing.

Alibaba’s two main platforms, Taobao and Tmall, which covers luxury goods and brands, accounted for more than half of all package deliveries in China last year, and sales were over 1 trillion yuan (€120 billion) in 2012. That’s nearly 2 per cent of China’s entire gross domestic product (GDP).

Alibaba sales rose 65 per cent in the year to end-September 2013, while profits jumped fourfold.

On November 11th last year, a day designated by Alibaba as “Single’s Day”, a holiday invented by Alibaba to encourage bachelors to spend money on themselves, online shoppers purchased about 5.35 billion yuan (€640 million) worth of goods on Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba’s two main platforms, through their mobile phones.

Earlier this month, Alibaba announced that its Alipay unit, already China’s leading third-party payment platform, was now the world’s biggest mobile payment service, with nearly 300 million registered real-name users, including 100 million who accessed services via mobile phones in 2013.

Alipay’s mobile users made 2.78 billion transactions, valued at 900 billion yuan, or €108 billion, and said its active mobile usership beat its US counterpart PayPal in the second quarter of 2013. The group also covers wholesale through its AliExpress business, ecommerce for small businesses, it has a search engine for shopping, it carries out daily deals, a la Groupon, and Aliyun. com sells cloud computing and data management services.

Alibaba began life in 1999 as a small business-to-business site, set up by the man often described as China’s smartest chief executive, Jack Ma. An English teacher by training, Ma officially retired a couple of years ago, although he still has a key role in deciding strategy and leadership.

His recent focus has been on developing tai chi and kung fu skills in China with the martial arts star Jet Li, but he remains one of China’s most powerful people, and has strong links to the ruling Communist Party, especially premier Li Keqiang.

He remains active in the company, and wrote to employees last month about the previous year’s performance. “To be honest, we have achieved great results in 2013, but overall this has not exceeded my expectations. I believe we all feel that in 2013, there were many things we could have accomplished or done better,” he wrote, as cited by the Wall Street Journal .

Taobao and Tmall have been able to build on the fact that China is the world’s largest internet market with 591 million users, and in the last year the number of people who surf the web from smartphones and tablets rose by 20 per cent. Of those users, nearly 80 per cent own smartphones or tablets.

The scale of the company is enormous. As one recent report pointed out, it has three data centres in China that can process over one petabyte of data in one day, which is around three times what it takes to store the entire US population’s DNA.

China’s ecommerce market grew at an average rate of 71 per cent from 2009 to 2012, and its value is expected to reach 3.3 trillion yuan (€400 billion) by 2015, according to a report by Bain & Co.

There is a giddiness about the company’s much vaunted IPO, which is due to take place at a major stock exchange, and which could value the company at up to €110 billion.

With a view to giving the company as strong a competitive position as possible ahead of the offering, it has spent around €1.5 billion on buying some or all of the equity in more than 10 smaller companies, ranging from the map software maker AutoNavi to UCWeb, which manufactures the most popular smartphone browser in China, to the US ecommerce delivery group ShopRunner.

One of its more recent investments was in Kuaidi Dache, a smartphone app that lets people hail taxis and pay for them with Alipay, which has transformed the way people get around congested cities.

Among its major competitors are Tencent and Baidu.

Tencent is behind WeChat, which has evolved from being a chat app into a service offering ecommerce and investment services. People are switching to WeChat in their millions, and Alibaba bought an 18 per cent stake in Sina Weibo, the microblogging service similar to the banned Twitter service, as a defensive measure.

Even though there is still huge potential in China, Alibaba already owns most of the market, and competition is intensifying for the rest. Alibaba is looking overseas, focusing, like many other expanding Chinese companies, on mature markets in Europe and the US, as well as on developing markets such as Russia.

So powerful has Alibaba become that it has provided a lifeline to Yahoo, which has struggled during a period of restructuring and has performed well thanks to the stake it bought in Alibaba in 2005, in exchange for $1 billion (€730 million) and the sale of its Yahoo China business to Alibaba. It currently holds 24 per cent of the company, having sold 40 per cent of its original 40 per cent stake back in 2012 for €5.5 billion.

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