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How long do you have to have been in business to be a business pioneer? The judges spent time debating the merits of some newer faces in business. A few were clearly creating path-breaking businesses, but would they be remembered in 50 or 100 years?

There are many social, business and technological developments that seem important at the time but later fade without having the expected impact. Think, for example, of the Concorde supersonic passenger jet. When it first flew, many predicted most air passengers would, by now, be flying faster than the speed of sound. 

The judges could not be sure, of course, which of the new faces would make a lasting impact, but they felt, in the end, that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook had done enough to help develop the social side of the internet to warrant inclusion.

Two who came close were Elon Musk, the technology, space and electric car entrepreneur, and Jack Ma, a leader in Chinese ecommerce. Some judges argued for their inclusion; others felt it was too early to say. The judges concluded these too should be profiled as ones to watch.

Elon Musk

It is fun to count the ways in which Elon Musk is unlike every other car industry chief executive, writes Andy Sharman. He owns about a fifth of Tesla Motors, the electric car maker. He also runs a space exploration outfit, SpaceX, and would like to be on Mars in the next few years.

Musk, who was born in South Africa, established his business credentials by co-founding and later selling PayPal, the electronic payment service, for $1.5bn in 2002.

His charisma, messianic vision to electrify transport and entrepreneurial chutzpah are beyond question. He inspires adoration and loyalty among the employees who can cope with the relentless pace. “I’ve worked with cabinet-level officials at the White House. I’ve worked with high-level executives in the tech industry,” says Ricardo Reyes, Tesla’s communications chief. “Elon’s the most brilliant person I’ve ever worked with.”

Elon Musk

Musk has shown a different way of operating in the world of cars, considered one of the most disruptable industries. Tesla’s $70,000 saloons are all-electric and offer 250-plus miles of range. They can be fuelled on Tesla’s own, free “supercharger” network and are only sold through Tesla showrooms, some of them in shopping malls. The company uses “over-the-air” software updates to upgrade everything from the infotainment system to the suspension.

There are signs the industry is catching on to the ideas Musk is championing. Makers of upmarket cars are increasingly incorporating zero-emission powertrains into their vehicles, propelled by legislation possibly more than commercial hopes. Mass-market brands such as Opel in Europe are embracing wireless software updates. And Toyota, the world’s biggest car company, opened up its hydrogen fuel-cell patents in January, copying a similar move by Tesla in June.

Tesla thinks of itself not as a carmaker but as a technology company that happens to build cars. But as a listed entity in an established manufacturing industry, it cannot evade the scrutiny of financial analysts or constant benchmarking against rival carmakers.

Many in the industry see Tesla as a company that has shaken the tree but has yet to achieve scale — making about 35,000 cars versus BMW’s 1.8m — or even profitability.

It had a head start by picking up a factory on the cheap in the depths of the downturn. But having been founded in 2003, its teenage years are likely to be characterised by the awkward task of achieving mass-market scale with the upcoming Model 3 car.

The space business has also faced delays and failed launches. But no one said getting to Mars would be easy.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma

Catapulted into the ranks of the global super rich by the listing of his ecommerce company Alibaba, Jack Ma has always been something of an enigma in his native China, writes Charles Clover. Now worth about $19bn, he represents a new phenomenon: the top ranks of China’s rich lists until last year were dominated by real estate moguls — now most are internet entrepreneurs.

Few things say more about the power of the emerging private sector in the nominally communist country than this. Ma has long been a cult figure in China but came to global attention when he offered investors the chance to own a slice of the fastest-growing internet market in the world — masterminding the largest ever listing on the New York Stock Exchange, raising $25bn, in September.

The value of goods sold on Alibaba make up about 6 per cent of total retail in China, and the company handles about 70 per cent of Chinese ecommerce transactions. This is probably just the beginning, considering half of China is still offline. With 632m people using the internet, the country will soon overtake the US as the world’s biggest ecommerce market.

He is godfather of China’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit, an enthusiast of martial arts and an keen entertainer whose parents were showbusiness performers.

Ma is a true innovator — his contemporaries have mostly copied established business models to create “China’s Google”, “China’s Amazon” or “China’s Twitter”. But when Ma started Alibaba in his apartment in 1999, this type of business-to-business ecommerce website did not exist.

Unlike Amazon, Alibaba has no inventory or logistics, and does not sell anything itself, aside from space on its servers and advertising for its search engine. It is a pure platform — the only thing it sells is traffic.

One analyst likened it to an open-air flea market: “They say, ‘we’ll bring in the shoppers, we’ll rent you [the] floor space, you are responsible for making the money.’ Jack Ma transferred that whole model online. [Alibaba drives] traffic to the site and the merchants do the rest.”

The company is branching out into finance, transport, healthcare and logistics, seeking to use the power of ecommerce to rationalise state-dominated (“antiquated” in the words of Joe Tsai, executive-vice chairman) sectors of the Chinese economy by injecting them with competition, speed and marketing nous.

How that game plan will play out is not yet certain. But with Alibaba’s multi-billion-dollar warchest and vast experience “disrupting” industries in China, few are betting against it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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