Ma Huateng is the richest man in China, according to the Forbes World’s Billionaires list. On Thursday, the man known as Pony Ma also won a spot on the Forbes list of the World’s 10 Most Powerful CEOs for 2018.
As CEO and chairman of Tencent, one of the world’s largest internet companies, Ma is one of the world’s 15 richest people. That makes sense, given that about one-seventh of the world’s population uses Tencent’s social media networking app and Facebook competitor WeChat.
Ma’s net worth reportedly grew to $47 billion in March, up from $25 billion this time last year. Although his net worth has since declined a little from those highs, he is still the richest person in China with a personal fortune of about $45 billion as of Thursday, Forbes said.
The entrepreneur grew up in southern China, where his father worked as the manager of a major state-owned port. After graduating from Shenzhen University with a degree in computer science in 1993, he landed a job developing software for pagers.
At the time, China had an average of just one computer for every 100 people. Still, Ma stayed in Shenzhen, making $176 per month at his first job. As a result, he had a front-row seat to China’s tech boom in the mid-1990s.
Five years after graduating, the 27-year-old Ma joined forces with four of his old college classmates to co-found Tencent. They created an AOL Instant Messenger-like service called QQ, which connected the early adopters of desktop computers and mobile phones. It quickly became China’s largest instant-messaging platform.
Tencent started making money through advertising and monthly fees for premium QQ chat users. By 2001, the company had raised over $32 million in investments and, in 2004, it went public in Hong Kong. Then, in 2011, Tencent debuted its mobile-only messaging app WeChat as a separate entity from QQ. It has since been dubbed “the one app to rule them all.”
WeChat is often compared to Facebook because of its ubiquity in China, where Facebook is banned along with its messaging service WhatsApp. But WeChat’s “super app” model also goes even further than Facebook for its nearly 1 billion monthly active users, allowing them to text, call, play games, send money, shop, pay at restaurants, hail cab rides and even engage in online dating.
Tencent has branched out successfully into other arenas as well, such as cloud providers, artificial intelligence ventures and entertainment. Epic Games, a subsidiary of Tencent Games, produces the massively popular battle royale game “Fortnite.” Tencent is now spending $15 million to bring it to China, according to Variety. Even without that lucrative market, “Fortnite” has been a phenomenon: It reportedly made $126 million in February just through in-app purchases.
Tencent often butts up against e-commerce giant Alibaba, whose market cap is about $500 billion, as it tries to expand in China and abroad. The two companies are competing to dominate China’s trillion-dollar mobile payment market through services like Ten Pay and Alipay.
Although the rivals have traded criticisms, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, who is not related to Pony Ma, said last year that he appreciates the competition because it allows them to learn from one another. Pony Ma has recalled that he and Jack Ma were like “younger brothers” when their companies were gaining traction.
The two business moguls have competed for the title of China’s richest person since August. Even now, while Forbes puts Pony Ma slightly ahead of Jack Ma, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index gives the Alibaba CEO the edge, calculating that his net worth surpasses Pony Ma’s by $8 billion to $10 billion.
Still, Pony Ma was the first Asian to make it into Forbes’ global 10-richest list. Given that China is home to 10 percent of the world’s nearly 2,400 billionaires, he likely won’t be the last.