Michael Evans of Alibaba on Singles Day and Olympic Rowing

Nov. 11 was Singles Day in China, the unofficial national celebration of shopping. And once again Alibaba posted record numbers. The Chinese e-commerce site sold $1 billion in goods in the first 85 seconds, almost $31 billion by the time the day was over, and sent more than 1 billion packages out for delivery.

Michael Evans, a former banker originally from Canada, was responsible for overseeing much of those efforts. As president of Alibaba, Mr. Evans works closely with Jack Ma, the company’s co-founder and outgoing chairman, and Daniel Zhang, its chief executive officer. He first got to know Alibaba while working for Goldman Sachs, where he was head of Asia before leaving the firm at the end of 2013. He joined Alibaba in 2015.

Mr. Evans grew up in Toronto with five siblings, including a twin brother, Mark. The twins would go on to join the Canadian Olympic team, which won a gold medal in rowing at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted Nov. 12 at The New York Times International Luxury Conference in Hong Kong.

When did you start rowing with your brother?

There was a little bit too much competition when we were young. My parents sort of purposely kept us out of the same schools. But then we started rowing together in my junior year at Princeton to train for the world championships. This was two years before the ’84 Olympics.

How was that, rowing with the twin you’d been so competitive with?

When it came to race day, our heads were always aligned. Our real focus was to beat the other crew, not to beat ourselves. And we were in a boat of eight. The whole crew had to be aligned and focused on the mission.

And then you had a good Olympic Games.

Yeah, we won. It doesn't get better than that.

What was your first job out of college?

Keeping consistent with what my parents had done, my brother and I didn't want to join the same investment bank. He went to Goldman and I went to Salomon Brothers.

You eventually got to Goldman, too.

I was recruited by John Thornton (the former president of Goldman Sachs), who tried to recruit me many times to come over, then finally succeeded. Then I spent the next 21 years there.

How was the Goldman you joined different than the Goldman you left?

At the time I joined, there were probably 100 people with us in London. There were probably 20 people in Asia. Goldman Sachs at this time was really a U.S. investment bank with remote locations. By the time I left, they had 7,000 people in London, 3,000 or 4,000 people in Asia, and they built businesses all over the world.

When did you first get to know Alibaba?

I first met Jack in 1999, and we invested $5 million. We were one of the first. In your lifetime you might meet four or five true visionaries. Of those four or five, maybe one or two are actually able to convert it into something real. Jack was one of those guys.

So how did you wind up joining the company?

I left Goldman in 2013 and I started thinking about what I wanted to do. One day I got a call from Jack and he said, “Hey, we want you to come on the board.” Then, right after the I.P.O., Jack said, “Hey, why don’t you join us as the Alibaba president?” And I said, “Oh, O.K.” My wife thought was terrible idea because she knew it was going to be a huge amount of travel.

It was just Singles Day and Alibaba did almost $31 billion of sales in one day. Against the backdrop of a trade war and slowing economic growth in China, what do these numbers tell you about the Chinese economy?

To sell $31 billion in a single day would not suggest that there’s a lot of softening in the Chinese economy. When we're selling $31 billion of product in a day, we’re processing about 325,000 payments a second. We sent out just over 1 billion packages, many of them delivered last night and this morning. Clearly, the economy has slowed down, but we see continued growth in consumption by consumers.

‘President Trump once said that trade wars were easy to win. Either he mistook his adversary, or he hadn’t done enough of them to know that they are actually prolonged and very difficult.’ — Michael Evans

There are still tensions between Alibaba and luxury good providers over the issue of counterfeits. What are you doing to address their concerns?

Several years ago we decided that if we wanted to be the global leader in commerce and represent brands everywhere in the world, we were also going to have to be the global leader in brand protection. So we’re working in partnership with brands, conducting 24/7 surveillance on our platform, and working offline with law enforcement to go after the counterfeiters. This is about protecting consumers and protecting brands but it’s also about protecting our brand and reputation. If we can’t lead in brand protection, we will not lead in global commerce.

Consumers now expect goods delivered to them almost instantaneously, and you’re investing heavily in your delivery and logistics capabilities. Why is this so important to you?

When a package gets lost, when it’s not delivered on time, when it comes broken, when it comes in a box that’s already been opened, when it comes in a soft package that’s torn or looks terrible, it’s a bad consumer experience. Bad consumer experiences generally do not result in conversion to repeat customers. We are highly, highly focused on the logistics experience, and when you are delivering 70 million packages a day, every day, it’s impossible to keep track of everything with humans. With need bots. We need technology, and we obviously need delivery people who are going to do a terrific job.

What did you learn from Singles Day this year?

One of the most interesting things that comes out of Singles Day is that we have the capacity to operate for one day a year at this scale and capacity, whether it’s logistics, payments, cloud or all of our enabling infrastructure. We believe there will come a day in the future when we operate at that scale, and that capacity, every day.

Jack Ma recently called a trade war “The most stupid thing in the world.” What’s your outlook on this issue?

There are no winners in a trade battle, or other battles between China and the United States. President Trump once said that trade wars were easy to win. Either he mistook his adversary, or he hadn’t done enough of them to know that they are actually prolonged and very difficult. The one thing we know is that there will be no winners if there’s a trade war. And if the trade war between China and the U.S. continues, we know that the impact on the rest of the world, and particularly smaller economies, is going to be significant.

David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles

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