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Who is (about to be) the richest person in the world?

Last month, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos briefly overtook Bill Gates as the wealthiest individual on the planet. The meteoric rise in the value of ecommerce giant Amazon had followed a series of acquisitions ending in the purchase of Whole Foods for $13.7b. Amazon made the purchase with cash.

As speculators sobered up, Amazon fell back leaving Gates back in pole position. Both Microsoft and Amazon have each shown strong growth over the past year. Microsoft has grown 30.4% in the past year with a market valuation of $561.13b. Amazon has, over the same period grown 28.3% with a market valuation of $474.41b. The difference is that Gates only owns 4% of Microsoft while Bezos owns 17% of Amazon. Gates and Bezos is each worth close to $90b.

So who else could be in the running for being top of the rich list? America’s Buffet and Spain’s Ortega are worth around $70b each with people like Facebook’s Zuckerberg or Oracle’s Ellison back in the mid $50b bracket. Who else could possibly be in the running?

When Ecommerce Giant Alibaba launched itself on the markets in September 2014, it created the world’s largest IPO. It’s founder, Jack Ma, is now claimed to be the second wealthiest person in China. His estimated wealth (ref) is $28.3b. According to Forbes (ref) he is way back in the rich-list coming in at number 23. His company, Alibaba, market cap. has grown by 76.3% with sales turnover up 58% (ref) in the past year and how has a total value of around $400b of which Ma owns $6.2%. Unless he had something rather unexpected up his sleeve then there’s absolutely no way that he might be in contention for the top slot. The point is, he does.

Ecommerce in China has, in many ways, leapfrogged ecommerce in other parts of the world because it took advantage of China having a largely under-developed traditional retail marketplace. Alibaba didn’t have to compete with strong legacy businesses. It had free reign to expand and it did so spectacularly.

Jack Ma doesn’t hold one ace in his hand, he holds two. In the same way that Ma was able to take advantage of a weak traditional retail marketplace with his technology-driven Alibaba, an organisation called Alipay was formed in 2004 and then spun out from Alibaba. Financial Services was backward in China and Alipay jumped in to fill the gap. Alipay has helped transform personal banking where in just a few years, many individuals in China have moved from payments in cash to integrated digital wallets that work seamlessly with platforms such as Tmall and TaoBao. Today, Alipay is China’s largest online payment service.

For over a year there have been rumours that Alipay will float on the stock markets. A year ago, Bloomberg reported it would be worth $60b. A few months later Bloomberg upped its estimate to $75b (ref). Since then, Alipay has continued to rapidly expand its operations. As well as being a key driver behind Alibaba, the holding group that now owns Alipay, Ant Financial, has been purchasing a string of businesses around the world that are involved with online finance. Ant Financial also owns a massive insurance business, credit scoring business and cloud computing business – none of which were included in the original Bloomberg estimate.

When Ant Financial does eventually float, I don’t think that anyone should be surprised if the IPO places a value on the business of over $100b. Interestingly, 50% of Ant Financial is owned by Jack Ma.

As to Jack Ma the man. It’s a fantastic story of somebody who started out not too well academically but persevered, became an English teacher (earning around $15 a month – ref) and then translater. Alibaba was only formed in 1999 and, as they say, the rest is history.

If, as the data suggests, Ma could be the next richest person in the world then that would mean that two out of the three wealthiest individuals are ecommerce people who have grown and developed their assets around the global shift towards internet-based trade.However you look at it, there really is no getting away from the fact that ecommerce is the biggest thing in business today.