May 6, 2014, 4:46 PM

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba files for an IPO

The company, which claims to be the world leader in e-commerce, will go public on either the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. Alibaba’s e-commerce sites handled $248 billion in transactions in 2013, more than Amazon and eBay combined.

Lead Photo

Jack Ma, founder and chairman, Alibaba

The company that bills itself as “the largest online and mobile commerce company in the world” formally filed today to sell stock on a U.S. stock exchange, either the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq.

The filing by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was anything but a surprise, as Wall Street has been buzzing for months over the forthcoming IPO, which is expected to value the Chinese company at well over $100 billion. By comparison, Amazon.com Inc. is valued at nearly $137 billion based on today’s share price, and eBay Inc. about $64.5 billion.

Alibaba says in its filing today with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is the world leader in the value of goods sold on its e-commerce sites. Gross merchandise value on Alibaba’s three big marketplaces in China, which dominate e-retail sales in that country, totaled $248 billion in 2013, according to the prospectus filed today. The company says it has 231 million active customers who purchased on average 49 times in 2013, up from 39 times a year earlier.

Alibaba’s filing says it will raise $1 billion, but that is typically a placeholder in F-1 filings like today’s. The actual amount to be raised will be disclosed later, and analysts have been speculating the company would see to sell about $15 billion worth of shares. Alibaba says it will offer the shares “as soon as practicable.” Typically, companies preparing an IPO spend at least several weeks meeting with potential investors before offering shares publicly.

One unusual aspect of Alibaba’s organization is the control of the company by 28 individuals who together make up what the company calls the “Alibaba Partnership.” The prospectus says the members of the Alibaba Partnership will retain the right to nominate a majority of the members of the company’s board of directors.

Alibaba says in the filing that the partnership structure has worked well since the company was founded in 1999 in the apartment of Jack Ma, a former English teacher, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, 110 miles southwest of Shanghai. Ma remains the company’s chairman.

“We believe that our partnership approach has helped us to better manage our business, with the peer nature of the partnership enabling senior managers to collaborate and override bureaucracy and hierarchy,” Alibaba says in the prospectus.

Alibaba’s claim to be the world leader is based on the value of purchases on its web sites, or gross merchandise value. Amazon does not report gross merchandise value, but Internet Retailer calculates its global GMV—including goods sold by Amazon itself and by merchants that sell on its web sites—was around $100 billion. EBay reported its 2013 GMV worldwide was $76.5 billion. That means Alibaba’s GMV of $248 billion in 2013 was more than 40% greater than that of Amazon and eBay combined.

Alibaba, like eBay, does not sell items itself, instead providing a platform for other merchants. The company makes money largely through retailer advertising and commissions. Alibaba reports in its prospectus that it generated fiscal 2013 revenue of RMB40.5 billion (US$6.5 billion) and net income of RMB17.7 billion (US$2.9 billion). The company’s fiscal year ended March 31.

The figure reports today show Alibaba was more profitable than either Amazon or eBay in 2013, despite lower revenue. Amazon booked net income of $274 million on $74.5 billion in revenue, and eBay $2.86 billion in net income and $16.05 billion in revenue.

Alibaba says in its prospectus that it expects to grow because Chinese retail consumption will grow. The company points out that consumption accounted for only 36.5% of China’s gross domestic product in 2013, compared with 66.8% in the United States.

The Chinese company also projects growth in the number of online shoppers in China, currently 302 million. Alibaba also projects growth through the growing use of mobile devices by Chinese consumers. There are 500 million mobile consumers in China as of Dec. 31, 2013, Alibaba says, citing data from the China Internet Network Information Center. Some analysts say Chinese competitors like Tencent may be ahead of Alibaba in mobile. Alibaba says in its prospectus that 19.7% of purchases on its web sites in the three-month period ended Dec. 31, 2013, came from mobile devices, up from 7.4% a year earlier.

While China account for the overwhelming majority of Alibaba’s business, the prospectus notes that the company does have some cross-border units. They include Tmall Global, which allows foreign retailers and brands to sell to Chinese consumers; AliExpress, which connects Chinese to suppliers to international retail markets; and Alibaba.com, a wholesale site that many U.S. and other foreign retailers use to source goods from Chinese factories.

Alibaba’s main business consists of three marketplaces that cater to Chinese online consumers: Taobao, a wide-open, highly price-competitive marketplace where 8 million entrepreneurs, retailers and individuals sell their wares; Tmall, geared for larger brands; and group-buying marketplace Juhuasuan. The company says 5 billion packages were shipped as a result of transactions on its marketplaces.

Alibaba’s payment affiliate, Alipay, which is similar to eBay’s PayPal, processed $519 billion in transactions in 2013, Alibaba says.

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