Author: Thomas Clouse
Investors hedge their bets on Ma's business savvy.

Chinese entrepreneur and Alibaba chairman Jack Ma will soon lead his company through what could be the largest-ever IPO for a technology company. Alibaba, which is China’s largest e-commerce business, submitted its prospectus to the US Securities and Exchange Commission on May 6 and will likely list late this summer in New York. The deal could potentially raise more money than Facebook’s $16 billion IPO in 2012.

Ma, who started the company in 1999, initially focused on
connecting Chinese producers with domestic and international retailers before launching an online consumer-to-consumer marketplace called Taobao in 2003 and an online venue for name brand retailers, Tmall, in 2008. These and Alibaba’s other business lines pushed up net income by more than 300% year-on-year to Rmb17.7 billion ($2.8 billion) in the final nine months of 2013. Alibaba accounted for 76.1% of China’s mobile purchases last year, according to consultancy firm iResearch.

The company’s growth and market share are not the only items garnering interest from investors, however. The management structure set forth in the prospectus will allow Ma and other company partners to nominate the majority of board members, curbing the influence of outside investors. Limitations on foreign ownership will reduce that influence even further. Because of these limitations, most of Alibaba’s companies are variable-interest entities rather than wholly owned subsidiaries. VIEs can act without investor approval.

Ma demonstrated the risks of this structure when he spun off the company’s profitable electronic payments division in 2010. He did so without gaining approval from investors. Ma cited regulatory concerns to justify the move, but investors pushed for compensation and reached a settlement in 2011.

For potential investors, Alibaba’s growth prospects may outweigh the risks. Last year total retail sales in China rose by 13.1%, with online sales up 42%. Ma’s entrepreneurial savvy and tightly controlled management structure may prove to be assets and, at the same time, obstacles for outside investors.