The man who’s taking up the torch from Jack Ma a year from now once explained why he joined Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group.

“At the time I told my wife I was going to Hangzhou to work for Alibaba. She thought it was pretty good because she’s a fan of Taobao,” Daniel Zhang told Fortune China last year.

Jack Ma (left) with Daniel Zhang at the New York Stock Exchange on November 11, 2015. (Picture: Reuters)

It turned out to be a wise decision. More than a decade later, on Alibaba’s 19th anniversary, Ma -- who turned 54 on the same day -- announced he will promote Zhang to executive chairman in 12 months’ time. Ma himself will stay on the board of directors until 2020 and remain a lifetime member of Alibaba Partnership -- a team of three dozen people tasked to preserve the founding spirit of the company.

It’s part of a succession plan that was 10 years in the making.

“No company can rely solely on its founders,” Ma wrote in a letter addressed to Alibaba staff, shareholders and customers on Monday.

“Teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere.’”

The career of Zhang, 46, has been intricately linked to Taobao and Tmall -- the two shopping platforms that cemented Alibaba as the king of ecommerce in China.

Hired as Taobao’s CFO in 2007, he was credited for creating the mega sales event that coincides with Singles Day each November. At first, Zhang wanted to build a Black Friday equivalent, but seeing there was no Chinese holiday during that month, he picked the little-known Singles Day (11/11) instead. Each “1” is supposed to resemble a lonely person, representing China’s unattached men and women. Today, annual sales on Singles Day are bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Daniel Zhang at the launch of Alibaba’s Singles Day shopping event in 2016. (Picture: Bloomberg)

Zhang was appointed Alibaba CEO in 2015, a year after Alibaba’s debut on the New York Stock Exchange. At the company’s annual party last year, he offered a glimpse of his vision for Alibaba in the coming decade.

“We hope to serve not just China’s 500 million consumers. We hope to serve 2 billion consumers around the globe,” Zhang said to a roomful of employees.

The lofty goal could leave Zhang, a fan of English football club Arsenal, with less time to watch his favorite matches, but the executive says he has one key to survival.

“My biggest competitive advantage is that I’m able to sleep no matter what. I have a knack for falling asleep and waking up naturally when I need to without an alarm clock,” Zhang revealed in an article he wrote for Fast Company.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)