Jim Wilkinson explains why the Alibaba Group has a front-row seat on China’s vital changes and how he is helping Alibaba achieve its global goals.
Main image: Celebrations for Alibaba Group's 10th anniversary in 2009. Photo: Alibaba Group
Up until May 2014, you led a high-profile career as a communications head for PepsiCo, having also served as a communications leader in the US government. What attracted you to take up your current role at Alibaba?
First off, strategically, if you look at the world in the next 100 hundred years from a global economics perspective is going to be decided by Asia. Second, within that, certainly technology will play a key role, and within that certainly ecommerce will be key and big data will drive a lot of change. When I met with Jack Ma [founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group – Ed.] he explained to me his vision of how big data can be used to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, from healthcare to climate change, the big issues. Certainly Alibaba is the success story of ecommerce but I saw a chance to come to work for a company that is changing China and is a big part of changing the world. So I was in a unique opportunity, one that I thought was too important to miss. I think that in China a lot of great vital change is happening there and I think Alibaba has a front row seat on that change.
The Wall Street Journal described your hiring at Alibaba “a sign of its global ambitions”. What’s your view on this statement?
Jack and our senior management team have been very open about their desire to help Alibaba become more global and to carry out important work around the world. That requires people who have different perspective and bring different experiences to the table. And so I think that was principally why they thought of a chance to have a new international professional on the team. We like to say that, although we are currently based in China, we’re not a Chinese company, and so I think from Jack’s perspective he saw it as a chance to test some of that new international ambition. If you’re going to grow and try to be global you have to hire globally-oriented people.
“A chance to test some of that new international ambition.”
How did your background as a political communicator help prepare you for the responsibilities at Alibaba?
It clearly trains you to see the bigger picture. The communications landscape today is vast and there is so much happening across different parts of the world that communicators today who are successful have much more diverse experience. It’s just not enough to have corporate experience, you’ve got to have experienced a lot of different facets or you’re not as multi-dimensional. That’s just what the landscape requires.
So are communicators with public affairs background better prepared for a communications role?
You have to know how government and regulators and people across the corporate spectrum in different parts of the world are going to react to things because that is a real-world part of the equation for any company, no matter where you are. It’s nothing new, it just requires a company that wants to have a team that is more diverse and cross-trained than other companies.
We’re interested in how organisations can successfully and authentically engage with international markets. How does Alibaba seek to position itself as a Chinese company, while also stimulating markets across all these culturally different regions?
Our entire approach is not to focus on where we’re from, it’s to focus on serving customers. So the first thing we try and do is to make sure that people understand that our whole approach is built on a philosophy that customers come first, employees come second and shareholders come third. That is our overall approach and that’s the first thing we want people to understand. Second, we want people to understand that we’re a transparent, well-governed company, we’re listed on the New York Stock Exchange, we live under the security laws of the United States, and we care deeply about that. It is part of corporate ethics and values and something that’s very important to us.
“I saw a chance to come to work for a company that is changing China and is a big part of changing the world. So I was in a unique opportunity, one that I thought was too important to miss.”
What are the main hurdles Alibaba needs to be overcome in engaging customers in Europe and the US?
The only serious obstacle is language. People in the west can’t have an experience with your products and services if it’s in Chinese because most people in the west don’t speak Chinese. Also, a lot of people have a view of China that is at least 10 years out of date, so you have to show them what is really happening in China versus what they saw on television happening in China. Most people in the west have not been in China, or if they have their view of China is Beijing and Shanghai, it’s not really based on what’s going on across the country. That is important if you’re going to understand what’s happening in the company and in the country.
Alibaba faces tough established competition from eBay and Amazon. What will your role be in helping Aliababa stand apart from these marketplace giants?
First, if you add all them up together they’re not marketplace giants when you compare them to our scale and size. Second, we don’t consider them as natural competitors because we are more focused on using better technology to help our customer succeed, so we don’t really see them as direct competitors. People are always trying to figure out what we are, are we eBay, are we Amazon, and so it’s important to know what we are and what we’re not.
Celebrations for Alibaba Group's 10th anniversary in 2009
You are based in San Francisco: can you describe for us how you work with Alibaba’s HQ on coordinating and aligning the company’s international corporate affairs?
We are an in-person culture, we like to talk and get to know each other, so you have to be there a lot and spend extensive time in China: I was just there for a month in Hangzhou. Second, it’s a global company, things are happening world-wide, in all hours of every day, and that requires a level of coordination that takes a lot of work.
Given that Communication Director has both European and Asia-Pacific editions, we read a lot about perceived differences towards communications in the west and in Asia. Have you experienced these different approaches and if so how do you overcome them?
Within China, I think the communications battles are much more aggressive than they are in, say, Europe or the United States. That’s one of the biggest differences, it’s a much more competitive environment than I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of environments as you know from my background.
And what are your mid-to longterm plans for Alibaba?
Our team is focused on the fact that we are building the mechanics and infrastructure of a public company and we’ll continue to communicate to key influencers around the world our basic vision that we want people to understand: we’re a well-governed company with a strong runway for growth, and we’ll keep hammering on that message for some time to come.