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Alibaba seeks new growth beyond the Great Firewall

CP Group Chairman Dhanin Chearavanont, left, gives Jack Ma Yun, founder of Alibaba Group Holding, an image of the late Thai king on Nov. 1. (Photo by Joyce Ho)

BEIJINGAlibaba Group Holding is launching an ambitious drive to expand its empire overseas, but the push will expose the company to challenges it has not faced behind the Great Firewall of China.

"In 20 years, we hope to serve 2 billion consumers around the world," founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma Yun told shareholders in a letter in October. In other words, Alibaba aims to win over about a quarter of the world's population.

This is not just an idle wish for the e-commerce titan. The company has already been laying its foundations overseas, with an initial focus on Southeast Asia.

STRATEGIC ALLIANCES On Nov. 1, Ma shook hands with Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman of Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, in Hong Kong. The two were attending a ceremony to mark the new strategic partnership between Ant Financial Services Group, Ma's company that provides popular mobile payment service Alipay, and Ascend Money, a financial technology subsidiary of CP Group.

Ant Financial, formerly known as Zhejiang Ant Small and Micro Financial Services Group, will invest an unspecified sum in Ascend Money, which offers payment services through the brand TrueMoney and lending through Ascend Nano across Southeast Asia. The move will allow the 2-year-old Chinese company to tap the mass retail distribution network of 9,000-plus 7-Eleven outlets under CP All in Thailand, which is second only to Japan in terms of the convenience store chain's footprint.

For Ma, this partnership is a steppingstone for expanding the number of Alipay users to 2 billion worldwide within 10 years.

Earlier this year, Alibaba invested $1 billion to throw its mantle over Lazada Group. The Singapore-based online retailer has a solid presence across the region, with operations in six countries -- Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Chinese company further tightened its alliance with Singapore Post by completing an $86.2 million Singapore dollar ($62.3 million) investment in October to take a 34% stake in a logistics joint venture formed by the two. Alibaba is also expected to spend S$187.1 million to increase its share in the city-state's postal service provider by more than 4% to 14.4%.

Investment abroad is starting to bring returns. Revenue from the overseas commercial retail sector totaled 1.3 billion yuan ($192 million) in July-September, soaring 178% from a year ago.

Alibaba management refers to its global expansion drive as "a long journey." During an earnings conference call on Nov. 2, CEO Daniel Zhang Yong said the company "will continue to invest in the international business" and will seek opportunities where there are promising conditions in terms of demographics, retail sophistication and mobile penetration.

Going global dovetails with a policy objective being pushed by the Chinese authorities. But for Alibaba, the move is about more than toeing Beijing's line.

Ma's goal is for his company to survive for more than a century. When Zhang was appointed CEO in May 2015, the very first thing he told employees was, "We must absolutely globalize and it must be a successful effort. ... If not, Alibaba won't be able to last for more than 100 years."

SIZABLE WAR CHEST This overseas expansion blitz carries a hefty price tag. Fortunately for Alibaba, growth in its core business, domestic e-commerce, has been robust, giving it a sizable war chest to work with. In the quarter through September, the company logged 24 billion yuan in revenue from domestic retail operations and 1.4 billion yuan from wholesale, up 40% and 37%, respectively, on the year. This added another quarter of double-digit growth since its initial public offering in 2014.

November brings the biggest harvest for its e-commerce business. Nov. 11, acknowledged in China as Single's Day, has now become China's shopping brouhaha day, and already exceeds that of Black Monday in the U.S. After selling 91.2 billion yuan worth of goods and services on its online services last year, the company is aiming to boost even more sales this year by launching a pilot program in Hong Kong and Taiwan to bring shoppers beyond the mainland.

In addition to online shopping, Alipay has also played an important role in supporting the company's growth. According to marketing consultant Prophet, Alipay ranked as the "most relevant" consumer brand in China. Chinese users' enthusiasm for the mobile payment system surpassed their love of Tencent Holdings' popular messaging app WeChat, taxi hailing app Uber, and even Adidas.

Part of the reason for this is the wide -- and steadily growing -- range of services the company offers. To encourage greater user engagement, for example, Alibaba has added social features such as peer recommendation and live broadcasting to its e-commerce platform.

With these technological advances and increases in merchants and clicks, "the company sees ample room to grow its online marketing services," noted a team led by analyst Julia Zhu at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.

Though Alibaba's expansion push is still at an early stage, analysts are confident that investing beyond its domestic online shopping business will pay off for the company.

In the three months through September, revenue from cloud computing soared 130% on the year to 1.49 billion yuan, with paying customers increasing to 651,000 from 577,000 during the last quarter.

Goldman Sachs analyst Piyush Mubayi expects this business to be profitable in the next two years as "it rolls out new products and features that we believe will enhance its value proposition and drive higher average revenue per user."

Analysts are confident despite a slowdown in China's economy. "Alibaba's revenue should fare better than e-commerce peers' thanks to more resilient marketing services," said Jialong Shi, an analyst at Nomura International in Hong Kong.

UBS analyst Erica Poon Werkun believes the company's increasing global user base and unique set of user data that is directly related to consumption will "facilitate its evolution from a sales channel to marketing medium not just for its e-commerce merchants but also global brands and distributors."

BRAVE NEW WORLDS But there is no guarantee that Alibaba can replicate its domestic success overseas, at least not at the same lightning pace.

One likely hurdle will be stiff competition from strong local brands. "Local consumers are not familiar with Alibaba," said John Choi, a Daiwa Capital Markets analyst in Hong Kong. In Alipay's case, the majority of users in Southeast Asia are still Chinese travelers, not locals. "Alibaba has to continually invest in its brand and also has to further diversify the product offerings that suit the local needs," Choi said.

Competition could be even stiffer elsewhere, especially in developed markets, something Alibaba's management seems to understand.

"Right now we are trying to steer clear of each other's swimming lanes," Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai told a business conference in Hong Kong on Nov. 3, referring to He pointed out that while its bigger American rival is strong in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Japan, Alibaba dominates in its home market and has a small but rapidly growing business in Southeast Asia.

"The next battleground may not be in each other's backyard; [it] may be in a third area. We don't know where that's going to be," Tsai said. He made no mention of previous Alibaba attempts to break into developed markets, such as the short-lived boutique e-commerce site 11 Main in the U.S.

Competing against global giants in developed countries will mean gaining trust from consumers who are worried about their privacy. Alibaba, along with other Chinese internet companies, agreed to share data with China's National Development and Reform Commission in October to tackle fake online reviews.

Critics, however, warn that such cooperation will help Beijing tighten its grip on online activities, further enhancing its surveillance of the public. The big question is how consumers outside China will view this move.

Nikkei staff writers Yukako Ono in Bangkok, Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore, Debby Wu in Taipei and Joyce Ho in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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