Simon Hu has unexpectedly resigned as chief executive officer of Ant Group Co., adding fresh turmoil to the financial technology giant as it grapples with Chinese government demands to overhaul its business.
Hu resigned for personal reasons, also stepping down from his role as an executive director on the company’s board, said a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Eric Jing, already Ant’s chairman, will become CEO as well effective immediately, the person said. A spokesperson for Ant, founded by billionaire Jack Ma, confirmed Hu’s resignation.
Hu, 51, joined Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in 2005 after working at China Construction Bank, the nation’s second-largest lender. He was known for rolling out innovations such as using data analytics to offer collateral-free financing services to small businesses and helping Alibaba beat Amazon.com Inc. to build Asia’s largest cloud business.
Hu moved from Alibaba to Ant in November 2018 as president, and took over as CEO in December 2019. He will focus on charitable work at Ant and Alibaba going forward, the person familiar said. Alibaba owns about a third of Ant.
Billionaire Ma’s financial juggernaut has been at the center of a crackdown as China takes aim at the push of technology firms into finance. Its $35 billion initial public offering was abruptly suspended in November, with the authorities citing a change in the regulatory environment. Ant, along with its peers, has been hit with a flurry of new rules aimed at curbing their influence in everything from digital payments to online lending and credit scoring.
“Simon’s joining and departure at Ant were both closely related to the IPO,” said Michael Norris, a research and strategy manager at Shanghai-based consultancy AgencyChina. “His leaving casts a cloud on the time line of the listing.”
Ant and Chinese regulators have agreed on a restructuring plan that will turn the Hangzhou-based firm into a financial holding company, making it subject to capital requirements similar to those for banks, people familiar have said. The change would also subject it to ownership scrutiny and the need to apply for fresh licenses.
With so much work needed and some rules not yet spelled out, Ant’s initial public offering may not get done before 2022, regulatory officials familiar with the matter have said. The firm’s valuation may drop about 60% from the $280 billion it was pegged at last year, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Francis Chan has estimated.
Hu’s resignation comes days after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged at the National People’s Congress to expand oversight of financial technology. The fintech sector should be developed in a “prudent” manner and China aims to create a “deviation correction” mechanism to fix and suspend innovative financial products when needed, according to a plan covering its policies for 2021 to 2025.
All three of the nation’s financial watchdogs have made it their primary goal this year to curb the “reckless” push of technology firms into finance. Ant rival Tencent Holdings Ltd. is seen to be the next target for increased supervision, people familiar have said. It too will probably be required to establish a holding company for its financial operations, with the two firms setting a precedent for other fintech players on complying with tougher regulations.
Hu was tasked with helping Ant expand beyond finance into digital lifestyle services. In a June 2020 interview with Bloomberg, Hu said he wanted to accelerate Alipay’s evolution into an online mall for everything from loans and travel services to food delivery.
The plan back then was to aggressively pitch Ant’s digital payment and cloud offerings to the local arms of neighborhood services and merchants including KFC Holding Co. and Marriott International Inc., expanding its focus from banks and fund managers on its ubiquitous Alipay app.
China’s regulatory crackdown and orders for Ant to become a financial holding company will curb those aspirations, as the company is regulated more like a bank.
(Updates with comment in sixth paragraph and more details)