Move Over Jack Ma: Pony Ma Takes the Lead in Race to Be China’s Richest Man

Ma Huateng, chairman and chief executive officer of Tencent Holdings Ltd. speaks during the 2017 China International Big Data Industry Expo at Guiyang International Eco-Conference Center in May. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

BEIJING (The Washington Post) - Jack Ma, the charismatic head of the Alibaba e-commerce platform, might hog the limelight. But a darker horse has just overtaken him in the race to be China’s richest man.

Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, is now listed by Forbes as China’s and Asia’s richest man, and the 18th wealthiest globally.

He is publicity-shy and low-key, but a man with a considerable and growing reputation.

Although no relation to Jack, Pony Ma is of the same breed: one of the internet innovators whose companies have risen to become among the largest and most powerful forces in the global IT industry.

The company he founded, Tencent, is already a huge force in global gaming, while its messaging and payment app is transforming daily life in China. His rise exemplifies China’s transformation from copycat to global IT innovator.

On Tuesday, Forbes’s list of the world’s billionaires estimated Pony Ma’s net worth at $37 billion, just ahead of Jack Ma’s $36.4 billion, based on real-time share price calculations. Bill Gates, with $89.8 billion, topped the list.

Alibaba and Tencent have benefited from China’s emergence as the world’s largest internet and e-commerce market, but they have also driven that expansion themselves. And in a ruthless and rapidly changing market, they have had to become innovators par excellence just to survive.

“What strikes me as great about Tencent is how original they are,” said Jeffrey Towson, a private equity investor, Peking University professor and author of several books about Chinese business and consumers.

“It’s not a one-hit-wonder company like PayPal and so many others,” said Towson. “They keep hitting another ball over the fence every two to three years.”

As Business Insider pointed out, when Ma founded Tencent in 1998 at age 26, its first instant-messaging product, QQ, was essentially a copy of the Israeli system ICQ, tweaked for the Chinese market.

But Tencent soon found a way to monetize its growing online audience through gaming, getting users hooked and then selling them services to unlock additional features within those games. In the process, Tencent ended up creating a “better business model than its Western peers,” the Economist wrote in 2014.

Today, it dominates the global gaming market, having bought American company Riot Games, as well as Finland’s Supercell, maker of another popular game. Yet many users would not recognize the name of the world’s biggest games company.

At home, its messaging and mobile payment service has developed into one of most innovative and multifunctional products in the online world, with 938 million monthly active users, according to the company.

Today Tencent is the fifth-largest internet company in the world by market capitalization, sandwiched between Facebook and Alibaba, according to website Statista. It made an operating profit of $2.8 billion on revenue of $7.2 billion in the first quarter. Ma has an 8.71 percent stake, making him its largest individual shareholder, Quartz reported, citing FactSet data.

Nicknamed a “Swiss-army knife for life,” it allows its users not just to send text and voice messages, images and files, but to live almost their entire life online. On it, you can top up your mobile phone, give to charity, hire a shared bicycle or a car, book a train journey or a flight,or arrange a hotel stay. You can send a friend money and pay for almost everything.

Even street vendors selling roasted horse chestnuts accept pay in China.

It may not be the radical innovation of, say, inventing gunpowder, but it’s the sort of incremental innovation that more often powers economic growth, said Duncan Clark, a businessman, internet expert and author of a book on Jack Ma. And it has left companies rushing to imitate its success.

“Some people say China is not innovative, but it is,” he said. “It is all about adapting existing technologies, using one technology in a new environment. The level of empowerment that they deliver through mobile is unbelievable.”

So what is Tencent’s secret?

Three things, said Towson: “Management, which is just outstanding. The speed and ruthlessness of China’s internet space: Your chessboard to keeps changing. And the development of the markets and consumers.”

Pony’s surname Ma is the Chinese word for horse: hence his nickname. But his reputation as a dark horse is well deserved. While Jack Ma traveled to New York last November to meet President-elect Donald Trump and promised to create one million American jobs, Pony Ma has stayed resolutely out of the limelight.

Wary of the spotlight, he seldom speaks in public, and then only in Chinese. “He is a very low-profile guy, and publicity-shy in Chinese as well as in English,” said Clark. “He does understand and speak some English, but he prefers not to.”

Pony Ma is a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, which meets for a fortnight every year, largely to act as a rubber-stamp for policies already adopted or put forward by the Communist Party government, and to add a veneer of democratic respectability to the one-party system.

You don’t become China’s richest man if you can’t play by the rules.