Ma’s Alibaba, China’s online-shopping giant, completed the largest initial public offering in history–$25 billion–on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares started trading on Sept. 19, and the value of the company exceeded that of Facebook, Coca-Cola or IBM.
• CLAIMS TO FAME
Fifteen years ago, Ma, a former English teacher, started Alibaba in an apartment in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. Today Alibaba is the undisputed champion of online retailing, handling twice as much merchandise as Amazon. An indifferent student, Ma built his empire without the top diploma or political connections usually needed to succeed in China.
• BIGGEST CHALLENGES
Ma will be under pressure from his new investors to deliver ever larger profits. He must expand outside his home market while also fighting off opponents at home. Chinese Internet giants Baidu and Tencent and property group Wanda recently joined forces to start a rival e-commerce firm.
• BIGGEST THREAT
China’s authoritarian rulers still wield tremendous control over business. A big wild card in Alibaba’s future will be Ma’s ability to stay in the good graces of the Communist Party while building trust with consumers in the West.
• BIGGEST CRITIC
The investor Peter Thiel passed on Alibaba’s IPO, arguing that a bet on the company was ultimately a bet on Beijing–with the political uncertainty that implied.
• CAN HE DO IT?
Ma has a proven track record of competing with global e-commerce titans–and winning. He’s shoved aside eBay and Amazon in China. And with his post-IPO war chest, Ma has the financial muscle to invest heavily and acquire other firms. The question is, Will he shop wisely?
This appears in the October 06, 2014 issue of TIME.