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China’s top entrepreneur, Jack Ma of Alibaba, speaks in Detroit on Wednesday, June 21, 2017.
John Gallagher/Detroit Free Press

Jack who? Jack Ma.

The sales office at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit received a call last spring asking about renting the convention venue for a summer event. The unusually tight window required the hiring of every stagehand, electrician, ironworker and Teamster available to work around-the-clock shifts building massive sets.

“Normally, we would’ve gotten a year’s notice for something this size, not three months,” said Claude Molinari, general manager of Cobo. “It was immense.”

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The client was Alibaba, an online Chinese shopping site often compared to Amazon. CEO Jack Ma and his company hosted 2,700 American entrepreneurs at the Gateway ’17 conference June 20-22, teaching them about the website and selling products directly to the growing Chinese middle class.

“The exhibitors and guests were learning how to do business with China,” Molinari said. “To a certain degree, it was reverse importing. As opposed to China doing business with the U.S., it was small U.S. firms selling to the Chinese population.”

About half the attendees came from Michigan, the rest from around the country, he said.

“The entire event was rather unique. It was a real introduction to doing business in China in an unprecedented way,” Molinari said. “When Jack Ma spoke, he gave his life story and excited the crowd.”

Ma, 53, grew up poor and learned English by talking to hotel visitors not far from his home in Hangzhou and giving tours to visitors, one of whom reportedly nicknamed him “Jack” because “Xiaohui” was too hard to pronounce. He tells of having applied to Harvard and some 30 jobs, only to be rejected by everybody.

In 2014, the Alibaba Group had the largest initial public offering in U.S. financial history.

At the moment, Alibaba hasn’t booked a return to Detroit, Molinari said. But tradesmen say Alibaba is expected to return in 2018. They often hear first because of the growing labor demand created by new projects in the Motor City, and companies are looking to pull together a labor force. Molinari said he has heard the rumors, too.

“There’s so much work. When I first came to Detroit, there were 2,000 electricians on the bench looking for work. Now less than 50,” he said.

The Alibaba conference turned out to be Cobo’s second most profitable convention in 2017, following the North American International Auto Show that attracted 865,000 in January. The Detroit conference was also the biggest Alibaba event in the U.S.

After Detroit, Alibaba went to Toronto.

When Molinari learned this week that Alibaba struck a deal with Ford Motor Co. to sell cars online to Chinese consumers, he said, “I think it’s fantastic if there’s another vehicle for American manufacturing to be sold in another country. Wherever we’re exporting, that’s a great thing.”

Molinari said, after nearly six months, he still thinks about a key point from the Alibaba conference: “I can’t forget that graphic on the screen, showing there will be more middle class Chinese in 25 years than American citizens total.”

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @phoebesaid

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