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Chairman and chief executive officer of Alibaba Group Jack Ma delivers a speech at the 8th Netrepreneur Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province in this Sept. 10, 2011 file photo. One of China's best known corporate leaders, he is stepping down as CEO of Alibaba Group.

LANG LANG/REUTERS

One of China's best known corporate leaders, Jack Ma, will step down as CEO of Alibaba Group, the e-commerce firm he founded in 1999 to tap the nation's enormous online shopping potential, saying younger people are better placed to run the company.

Mr. Ma said he would name a successor by May 10, when he switches to the role of executive chairman. He said most of Alibaba's leaders "born in the 1960s" would also pass their leadership responsibilities to younger colleagues.

"As a founder CEO, stepping down ... is a difficult decision. It's not because I wanted to take things easy (though the job of Alibaba CEO is no easy task), it's because I see that Alibaba's young people have better, more brilliant, dreams than mine, and they are more capable of building a future that belongs to them," Mr. Ma wrote in an e-mail to employees. Reuters obtained the letter on Tuesday from a source close to Alibaba.

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The shift is a significant one for Alibaba and follows moves announced last week to chop the group into 25 smaller divisions - to give managers more flexibility.

It also comes after a transformative deal Alibaba struck with Yahoo Inc last year, in which the Chinese company agreed to buy back about half of the stake in itself held by its U.S. partner. Alibaba had long sought to buy back the shares to help regain control over its own corporate destiny.

In an interview with The New York Times, 48-year-old Mr. Ma acknowledged he was feeling the strain. "When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking. I had nothing to worry about," he said, adding the role of executive chairman would let him focus on broad strategic issues, as well as corporate development and social responsibility.

"I will still be very active," he said. "It is impossible for me to retire."

Alibaba Group includes Alibaba.com, an online market for small businesses; Taobao, a consumer shopping site; and Alipay, an online payment platform.

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