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Category winner: Ant Financial (A)

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This case won the Production and Operations Management category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2021#CaseAwards2021

Presentation of the trophies for the Production and Operations Management category 2021
Production and Operations Management Production and Operations Management

Celebrating the win

Like last year, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we were sadly unable to visit Ying Zhang and Nancy Hua Dai in person in Rotterdam and Shanghai, and present their trophy for winning the Production and Operations Management category in 2021.

But we’re pleased to say that the trophies still safely made their way to Ying and Nancy in the Netherlands and China.

We are delighted to celebrate Ying and Nancy's win by sharing the pictures of both of them with their award – congratulations!

Find out more about the Case Awards here.

The case

Ant FinancialWho – the protagonist

Long Chen, Chief Strategy Officer of Ant Financial Services Group.


Ant Financial is a Chinese financial technology company behind products such as the Alipay third-party mobile and online payment platform. It was able to process payments for 1.1 billion transactions on Alibaba Group’s e-commerce platforms on the Global Shopping Festival on 11 November 2016, which is known as ‘Singles Day’ and the 11.11 Festival in China.

The company has an estimated evaluation of $75 billion and has effectively established an ecosystem centring on Internet finance with 451 million active users in the third-party payment business alone.


Chen had visions of expanding internationally and providing inclusive financial services to small and medium sized businesses and the underprivileged in China, but cultural differences, difficulties to reach China’s vast rural areas and regulatory uncertainties provided major stumbling blocks.


Ahead of the Global Shopping Festival in November 2016, MYbank (established by Ant Financial) devised the 11.11 Loan Assistance Program on 30 August to provide loans with little or no interest to relive working capital pressure for small businesses.


Ant Financial is headquartered in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province in China.

Key quote

“Sometimes when we were communicating with regulators about what could be done versus what could not, they might not give you a clear answer, which aided to the uncertainties involved.”Hang Jia, Senior Director of Ant Financial’s International Business Division.

What next?

stockAnt Financial was poised for an IPO of unprecedented proportions, but Chen faced several dilemmas as he was about to address the executives in the conference room.

Was Ant Financial’s current strategy of globalising its business an optimal one? How should the company roll out its inclusive finance initiatives in China’s vast rural areas? How should the company manage its relationship with traditional banks and navigate the regulatory uncertainties?

Instructor viewpoint

Discover how this case works in the classroom.

Sergiu Negut“Ant Financial is an extraordinary financial institution, covering so much ground from social impact (banking for the unbanked) to modern technology-based disruptive innovation (embedded banking).

“The case admirably covers broad discussions of strategy, entrepreneurship, and fintech as well as adding a human dimension in a very concise yet powerful story. It is very seldom that a lecturer finds so much value in one case, giving course participants an excellent anchor for guided discussion and reflection on very powerful strategy related topics.”

Sergiu Negut, Associate Dean of Entrepreneurial Growth, Partner at Maastricht School of Management Romania.

The authors


Feng Zhu, Krishna G Palepu, Anthony K Woo, Nancy Hua Dai and Ying Zhang

All five of the authors can lay claim to this being their first Case Award.

It’s a staggering 34th trophy for Harvard Business School, and the second time they’ve claimed the Production and Operations Management prize (2015 and 2021).

Meanwhile, it is the fifth award for Rotterdam School of Management.

Ant FinancialA great honour

Ying said: “We are honoured to receive this award. We are also excited to learn that many educators find our case useful.”

Student awareness

Feng continued: “Our case illustrates how a digital firm leveraged data, AI, and platform business models to make financial services accessible to a population underserved by traditional financial institutions in an emerging economy. As a result, it could be taught in courses on digital innovation, platform strategies, entrepreneurship, scaling technology companies, fintech, and international businesses. 

“Also, the company had become the world’s highest-valued start-up before being asked by regulators to restructure its business. Many students are likely to have heard of this company from the news and would be interested in understanding the drivers of its growth.”

Challenges faced

Krishna added: “The setting is unusually rich. The company grew many popular products and services while managing its relationships with regulators and traditional financial institutions. It also sought to expand into rural markets and other countries. We were challenged to succinctly present all the relevant facts for a productive case discussion.”


Ying commented: “It’s good to be open-minded, be curious, be logical, and be sharp to embed yourself into the case and keep asking yourself ‘what if I am the person who needs to make a decision?’, rather than just writing a case for the sake of it.”

About the authors

Feng Zhu is Primal Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
e fzhu@hbs.edu

Krishna G Palepu is Ross Graham Walker Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
e kpalepu@hbs.edu

Anthony K Woo was a researcher at Harvard Business School's Asia Pacific Research Center when the case was written, and is now Associate Director at Alpha Intelligence Capital.

Nancy Hua Dai is Managing Director and Executive Director at the Harvard Center Shanghai.
e ndai@hbs.edu

Ying Zhang is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Chinese Economy and Business at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.
e y.zhang@rsm.nl
tw @DrZhangYing

Interested in finding out more?

Download the case and teaching note

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Ant Financial (A)
Ref 9-617-060

Teaching note
Ref 5-619-030


View all the 2021 winners