Jack Ma has always been good at surprising people. With his decision to set up an online sourcing directory in China when the country’s internet was little more than a handful of slow dial-up lines in the late 1990s, the former English teacher provoked mostly incredulous looks.
Now Mr Ma has done it again: last Friday, he told an internet conference at Stanford University that he was “very, very interested” in buying Yahoo.
It was no secret that several funds and bankers working on potential bids for Yahoo over the past two years had been talking to Mr Ma.
His Alibaba Group is one of Yahoo Inc’s most valuable assets, and the 2005 deal under which Alibaba gained control of Yahoo China, and Yahoo Inc in turn acquired a 40 per cent stake in the Chinese ecommerce group, gives him a right of first refusal on any Yahoo Inc acquisition deal.
In addition, his various disagreements with Yahoo, often fought out noisily in public, have driven Mr Ma before to try to buy out this unloved large shareholder.
But the surprise this time lay in that Mr Ma said he was interested in acquiring all of the US company, which Alibaba management had ridiculed as worthless, and that he would be so open about it.
As the Alibaba founder’s revelation came just a week after the group received $1.6bn in investment from a consortium including Silver Lake, the Californian private equity fund, DST, the Russian group and Temasek, the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund, some observers said Mr Ma was likely to be about to bid for Yahoo together with the new Alibaba shareholders.
A source close to the situation denied this, saying Mr Ma’s statement was a warning to potential rival bidders who might believe that his right of first refusal was not watertight.
“Nobody can want to run the risk that their bid gets stuck in lengthy court battles,” the source said.
Sources familiar with Mr Ma’s thinking also said that the chaos at Yahoo greatly complicated any attempt at a deal.
“Why are they now searching for a new chief executive? If you do that, that indicates you still intend to keep running this business and not looking to sell,” said one, complaining about board members at Yahoo opposing a sale.
But beyond tactical attempts at deterring rival bidders and despite the limited attractiveness that Yahoo’s remaining business might seem to have for him, Mr Ma’s interest in the company is probably genuine.
For Alibaba has started moving beyond its traditional area of ecommerce.
In July, the group launched its own mobile operating system in China and started offering cloud services to consumers very similar to those provided by Google.
Its move has since been matched by two other Chinese technology heavyweights, the telecoms equipment maker Huawei and online search company Baidu.
“The consumer business is a huge and growing pie, and we want to be in that business,” said an Alibaba executive.
In that business, especially when it comes to markets outside China, Yahoo could still have a lot to teach Alibaba.
Mr Ma has not visited Yahoo during his current trip to California.
However, he is scheduled to stay in the US for two more weeks – which would be enough time for serious talks about an acquisition deal.