(Bloomberg) -- Lucy Peng has been dubbed Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s most influential woman.
The co-founder of the e-commerce giant rarely speaks in public and is little known outside of China, but over the past two decades she’s played a key role guiding Jack Ma’s empire. Peng, 47, helped set up Alibaba’s human-resources department, was Ant Group Co.’s chief executive officer and is now executive chairwoman of Lazada Group SA, the Southeast Asian e-commerce platform.
The former finance teacher is also emerging as one of the wealthiest people within the wildly successful Alibaba ecosystem and one of the richest women on the planet. Peng holds a 1.7% stake in Ant, the fintech firm that’s set to raise $34.5 billion in a dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong that could take its valuation to $320 billion. She’ll be worth about $5 billion, based on the pricing of the initial public offering, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Ant declined to comment on Peng’s wealth.
“Jack famously considers women a key asset in his success; Lucy is the embodiment of that,” said Duncan Clark, author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built” and chairman of investment consulting firm BDA China. “That’s why she’s been deployed on new ventures at critical moments of the company’s development. She’s been very focused on the key behind-the-scenes work, especially on human resources, and as such has earned and retained the trust of Jack.”
Women represent almost 40% of Alibaba Partnership members, the elite group that has the power to determine the management’s annual cash bonuses. Along with Peng, six other female leaders are heading for billionaire status thanks to Ant’s record IPO, with a combined stake value of $14.5 billion. They include Trudy Dai, one of the 18 Alibaba co-founders and president of its business-to-business unit; Judy Tong, the e-commerce giant’s chief people officer; and Ant’s vice president, Yijie Peng.
China has been the main engine for self-made female billionaires in recent years: Among the world’s 500 richest people, two-thirds of the 15 women who created their own fortunes are Chinese entrepreneurs, according to Bloomberg’s wealth index.
Peng met Ma through her husband, Sun Tongyu, when they worked together at China Pages, a Yellow Pages-like online directory Ma set up before Alibaba. She was born in Chongqing in southwestern China, graduated from Zhejiang Gongshang University’s Hangzhou Institute of Commerce with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1994 and taught at a finance college for five years before joining Ma’s e-commerce venture, according to Alibaba’s prospectus in 2014.
Peng served as chief people officer for most of her time at the e-commerce giant before taking the role of Alipay’s CEO in 2010 to enhance the app’s payment process and user experience. In about a year after she took over, the payment success rate had increased to 95% from 60%, the company said on its website. The platform, owned by Ant, started in 2004 as an escrow service for buyers and sellers on Ma’s shopping site Taobao.com as it competed with EBay Inc. for market share in China.
“Alibaba treasures talent, teams and culture from day one,” Peng said at a panel discussion at Stanford University in 2012, adding that about 30% of Alibaba leaders’ performance metrics are based on team management. “We set very detailed requirements for culture and values supported by systematic structure, and it is not just hollow words.”
After Alibaba spun off Ant in 2011, the unit quickly acquired licenses and expanded into wealth management, consumer lending and insurance. With more than 1 billion users globally, the firm’s valuation has already surged eightfold over the past five years.
Now Ant is about to sell shares in the world’s largest IPO, unlocking one of the greatest wealth-creation machines in history. Peng, who owns the biggest individual Ant stake after Ma, and Ma himself aren’t the only ones winning big. At least 17 other people are becoming billionaires from the listing, which has enticed retail and institutional investors alike. The was said to stop taking investor orders for the Hong Kong leg of the IPO a day earlier than planned because it was already heavily subscribed.
Peng handed over Ant’s chairmanship to Eric Jing in 2018 to focus on Lazada, an e-commerce venture that Alibaba bought a stake for $1 billion in 2016 before increasing its investment over the years. Peng served as its CEO for nine months and remains its chairwoman.
At Ant, Peng is again behind the scenes. She left the company’s board in August, and her name appears only seven times in the 674-page prospectus. Still, the behemoth listing and Ant’s rise mark the achievement of her goal from four years ago, when she said an IPO would give the firm an opportunity to tell its story and raise money for acquisitions.
“Perhaps we should be better at letting everyone know what Ant actually does,” the then-executive chair of Ant said in a 2016 interview. “Payments is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s big is under the water.”
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