The most important thing on Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang's plate is to "think about the future — not only about today".

While legendary founder Jack Ma waves Alibaba's flag around the globe, Zhang spends his time in the business of what is (by volume) possibly the world's largest retailer.

"I think the most important thing is that you have to think about the future, not only about today. So we always say that 'we work for now, we invest for tomorrow and we incubate for the future'.

"From time to time I come across a lot of new ideas. I will throw them to my team — maybe some are workable some not workable.

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"But I always said we need to create new business and think about the changing demand of our customers and technologies.

"Is it possible to come across some disruptive model?"

Given this mindset, it's not surprising that the chief executive who presides over the Chinese e-commerce behemoth isn't fazed by talk of a global trade war between the United States and China.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have threatened tariffs on each other's respective imports.

But Zhang puts his faith in the power of the consumer.

The key question, says Zhang, is "do customers want global trade?"

When it comes to the Chinese consumer market — where there is rapidly growing demand — the answer is a resounding "yes".

Says Zhang: "If the supply from one country is not ready, this means opportunities for other countries because the demand is already there."

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Alibaba is in a technology arms race to create a global digital trading platform which extends far beyond China, which is the mainstay of its business, and the six south Asian nations where it is currently forming partnerships to mirror its success in its home market.

In Auckland yesterday, Zhang was upbeat as he talked about how the power of the internet could be leveraged to create a global free trade platform.

It is a concept first floated by Ma nearly three years ago as a mechanism to break the deadlock in global trade talks at the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round.

Ma has since hawked what he terms an "eWTO" to institutions ranging from the G20 through to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

An e-hub has been set up in Hangzhou, home to Alibaba's headquarters.

Ma has led Alibaba's investment in similar e-hub trade zones in Malaysia and Thailand, which he hopes will together make up an electronic world trade platform (eWTP) to complement the WTO's organisational framework.

Neither Zhang nor Alibaba's Australasian CEO Maggie Zhou wouldn't be drawn on the Chinese giant's intentions here on this score. But they did confirm they were speaking with government officials, customs and customers, suggesting this is a live issue.

"The internet is all about transparency and free access," says Zhang. "If we can connect buyers and sellers all over the world through digital platforms together with all the business partners and suppliers, I think it will make global trade easy."

Alibaba faces growing competition. Not just from domestic Chinese competitors like JD.com but also in the international arena from Jeff Bezos' Amazon.

But Zhang is adamant a global trading platform should be open. "That is why we are talking with a lot of business partners but also governments, partners and customs to see how to make it work."

He says digital commerce is exploding in China, with 15 per cent of total consumption passing through digital platforms and bound to increase.

This is due to the growth of the millennials — "they are the generation born of the internet and living on the internet" — and the transition to "new retail", where online and offline are put together.

When it comes to Alibaba's "very important strategy of globalisation", Zhang sees potential for major NZ players like Fonterra to jump on board.

"The vision of the Alibaba Group is 'make it easy to do business anywhere'," he explains.
In Fonterra's case that might involve the NZ dairy company selling product on to Alibaba's growing platforms in South Asia, and ultimately India, as Alibaba begins building an e-commerce platform with its partner there.

Zhang points to huge opportunities in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Combined, they make up a market of 550 million consumers where "generally speaking, the people are very young".

He makes the point that Alibaba is a young company. "We are only 19 years old."

Zhang has been described as a quiet, bespectacled accountant. The CEO is personally unassuming, but the scale of Alibaba's ambition is far from that.

He was in Auckland to launch an initiative between Alibaba and founding partners, including Fonterra and NZ Post, which will use blockchain technology to improve supply chain traceability, for Chinese customers who are increasingly focused on the quality and safety of what they buy.

Zhang stresses that while Alibaba has developed the specific blockchain technology, it will be an "open platform".

"When more people join we can create more value for our customers and partners' brands. We have 600 million people with us every day, so it's how we can drive this from a customer perspective.

"If the customer is happier and buys more, then more businesses will be involved."

As to the future, Zhang notes President Xi's announcement that China will open its doors more broadly.

"I think this is a future opportunity and there is a very good time window in the next few years for Chinese people to buy more imported products.

"In the next three to five years I would say we will continue to work hard with our NZ partners to help them to bring more business to China."

He underlines, however, that Alibaba believes all retail business should be digitised — it is only a matter of time.