NEW YORK — Alibaba debuted as a publicly traded company Friday and swiftly climbed nearly 40 percent in a mammoth IPO that offered eager investors seemingly unlimited growth potential and a way to tap into the burgeoning Chinese middle class.
The sharp demand for shares sent the market value of the e-commerce giant soaring well beyond that of Amazon, eBay and even Facebook. The initial public offering was on track to be the world's largest, with the possibility of raising as much as $25 billion.
Jubilant CEO Jack Ma stood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as eight Alibaba customers, including an American cherry farmer and a Chinese Olympian, rang the opening bell.
"We want to be bigger than Wal-Mart," Ma told CNBC. "We hope in 15 years, people say this is a company like Microsoft, IBM, Wal-Mart. They changed, shaped the world."
The company's online ecosystem stands apart from most e-commerce rivals because it does not sell anything directly, preferring to connect individuals and small businesses. It enjoyed a surge in U.S. popularity over the past two weeks as executives made sales pitches centered on Alibaba's strong revenue and big ambitions.
"There are very few companies that are this big, grow this fast and are this profitable," Wedbush analyst Gil Luria said.
Trading under the ticker "BABA," shares opened at $92.70 and hit nearly $100 within hours. By the end of the day, the stock rose $25.89, or 38 percent, to close at $93.89.
Some Institutional investors, such as banks or hedge funds, were able to buy the stock at $68 per share, the amount set Thursday evening. Most other investors had to wait until shares started trading publicly, which meant paying a much higher price after adjustments for demand.
Alibaba's Taobao, TMall and other platforms account for some 80 percent of Chinese online commerce. Most of the company's 279 million active buyers visit the sites at least once a month on smartphones and other mobile devices, adding to the stock's attractiveness as online shopping shifts away from laptop and desktop machines.
Online spending by Chinese shoppers is forecast to triple from its 2011 size by 2015. Beyond that, Alibaba has said it plans to expand into emerging markets and, eventually, into Europe and the U.S.
The company does not compete with its merchants or hold inventory, serving instead as a conduit that links buyers and sellers of all kinds.
"The business model is really interesting. It's not just an eBay. It's not an Amazon. It's not a Paypal. It's all of that and much more," said Reena Aggarwal, a professor at Georgetown.
Yet the track record for Chinese stocks in general does not inspire confidence. Over the last two decades, they have earned a reputation for burning investors in both the U.S. and China. Many of those that do post gains fail to keep pace with inflation. Returns have been depressed by a range of factors, including fraud allegations, questionable accounting and cumbersome regulations.
Alibaba's revenue from the quarter ending in June surged 46 percent from last year to $2.54 billion. Its earnings climbed 60 percent to nearly $1.2 billion, after subtracting a one-time gain and certain other items.
In its last fiscal year ending March 31, Alibaba earned $3.7 billion, making it more profitable than eBay Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. combined.
Friday's closing price gave the company a value of $231.44 billion, compared with $150 billion for Amazon and $67 billion for eBay.
Based in Ma's hometown of Hangzhou in eastern China, Alibaba began in 1999 when Ma and 17 friends developed a fledgling e-commerce business on the cusp of the Internet boom. Today, its main platforms are its original business-to-business service, Alibaba.com, consumer-to-consumer site Taobao and TMall, a place for brands to sell to consumers.
The IPO's fundraising target easily eclipses the $16 billion Facebook raised in 2012, the most for a technology IPO. If all of its underwriters' options are exercised, it would also top the all-time IPO fundraising record of $22.1 billion set by the Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. in 2010.
Yahoo stands to be a big winner. The U.S. company, which has been struggling to grow for years, is in line for a windfall of $8.28 billion by selling 121.7 million of is Alibaba shares. And founder Jack Ma is selling 12.75 million shares worth $867 million.
Some analysts think the pricing is conservative.
Wedbush's Luria gives the stock a one-year price target of $80. Research firm PrivCo said the stock is worth $100 a share because of all of the private companies that Alibaba has taken stakes in.
Alibaba offered 320.1 million shares for a total offering size of $21.77 billion. Underwriters have a 30-day option to buy up to about 48 million more shares.
Gartner analyst Andrew Frank said Alibaba's success shows that Chinese Internet companies are beginning to challenge Silicon Valley.
"It's not the first Chinese company we've seen in the Internet space but it's certainly the biggest one that seems to be resonating," he said. "It's a symbol that the Internet dreams of wealth and power are not just limited to a few small cities in the West Coast in the U.S."