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Tencent's always-urgent CEO stays ahead of the pack

Pony Ma pursues innovation-fueled foreign expansion for the Chinese IT giant

Tencent CEO Pony Ma Huateng works hard to instill a sense of urgency in his executives. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

SHENZHEN A shy boy who loved astronomy while growing up, Pony Ma Huateng is now one of the brightest stars in China's information technology firmament.

Ma, the 45-year-old co-founder of internet giant Tencent Holdings, is still affectionately called Pony Ma, despite his meteoric rise. According to the 2017 ranking of billionaires by U.S. magazine Forbes, he is the fourth-richest person in mainland China and Hong Kong, with assets worth $24.9 billion.

His company's rise has been no less astounding. After getting off the ground less than two decades ago, it now boasts a market capitalization of over $250 billion, making it the most valuable company in Asia, ahead of such giants as online retailer Alibaba Group Holding.

Tencent operates WeChat, a social media platform with nearly 900 million registered users. WeChat is a part of daily life in China, but in the minds of its users, it is even more: It makes anything possible.

Tencent CEO Ma Huateng works hard to instill a sense of urgency in his executives. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Though it is the world's largest maker of smartphone games, Tencent's strengths go beyond games and other interactive features. Over the past several years, the company's WeChat Pay has dramatically altered the way Chinese consumers shop, allowing them to buy whatever strikes their fancy without having to carry around cash, credit cards or debit cards.

Tencent has distributed dedicated quick response, or QR, codes to checkout counters across the country. To make payments, WeChat Pay users simply swipe their smartphones over the code.

"ONE-MAN SHOW" Tencent's towering headquarters building is located in central Shenzhen, a city of some 10 million people in Guangdong Province, southern China.

Shenzhen is now called "China's Silicon Valley," but it wasn't always that way. It used to be known as a rather sleepy city in the shadow of Hong Kong.

Every two weeks, Tencent holds an executive meeting starting at 10 a.m. -- the beginning of a long and grueling day for the company's suits.

After listening to subordinates' business ideas and reports for hours on end, Ma gives a pep talk and tries to instill a sense of urgency among them. One executive described his boss's performance as a late-night "one-man show."

During one of these monologues, Ma's boyish face turned bright red as he told his executives, "The situation in our world can change drastically in just one second!"

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME Ma's family is from Chaoshan, a region in Guangdong Province that has produced numerous entrepreneurs, including 88-year-old Li Ka-shing, the tycoon who built Hong Kong's biggest conglomerate.

When his father, who worked for a state-owned company, was transferred to Shenzhen, Ma went with him. He was a student at Shenzhen University when then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping made what became widely known as the "southern tour."

Deng initiated a policy of reform and opening up in the 1970s. During his 1992 tour of southern China, he called for an acceleration of those economic reforms, which had lost steam by that point.

Shenzhen became a focal point of the renewed reform drive. As a result, it began to prosper -- and to escape Hong Kong's shadow.

In November 1998, Ma and four friends established Tencent as a mobile messaging company, one that would go on to benefit greatly from Shenzhen's blistering economic development.

In what became a well-known slogan, Deng called for the ruling Communist Party to "let some people get rich first." If there was a list, Ma seems to have been on it.

But for China, "reform and opening up" mostly meant closing its markets to foreign competition while absorbing overseas technologies.

That policy, now nearly four decades old, is coming under pressure as the internet bridges borders and unifies global markets.

Ma is revving up Tencent's overseas expansion drive with e-commerce and payment services in Europe, and his big weapon is WeChat. "Emulation has reached its limit," Ma said at a press conference held in Beijing in March. "In the future, technology will determine who wins."

The value of payments made through smartphones in China doubled in 2016 from a year earlier to the equivalent of $5.32 trillion, 50 times more than the total for the U.S.

WeChat Pay and other mobile payment systems could fundamentally transform the global financial services landscape.

American entrepreneurs were once the leaders when it came to creating new industries: Henry Ford put assembly lines in the world's factories, and Steve Jobs put smartphones in our pockets.

Today, China's visionaries are keen to take over that vanguard position.

Ma's tireless push to open up new frontiers is just one indication of how far the innovation pendulum has swung toward Asia.

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