On April 25, in a 600-word memo circulated to the company, ByteDance co-founder and chief executive Liang Rubo announced the appointment of veteran corporate lawyer Julie Gao as ByteDance’s new chief financial officer.
Gao is ByteDance’s second CFO since the company’s inception. Based in Hong Kong and Singapore, she is filling a key role that has been vacant since the Beijing-based company underwent a corporate reorganization last year.
Born in Shanghai, Gao earned a bachelor’s degree in law from Peking University. She pursued her postgraduate studies in the United States, where she received a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Alabama in 1991.
Upon graduation, she worked as a legal assistant in a nonprofit legal aid organization serving an underprivileged Asia Pacific community in Southern California. A year later, at the encouragement of her supervisors, who noted her enthusiasm and ability to handle more challenging work, she enrolled in law school at the University of California, Los Angeles. Three years later, she graduated with a Juris Doctor degree.
Between 1998 and 2004, she practiced at global law firm Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles. In 2009, Gao joined multinational law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, as a partner.
During her stint at Skadden, she racked up an impressive list of accomplishments, advising on capital markets transactions of over 100 companies from diverse industries.
Notably, as head of Skadden’s China practice, she specialized in initial public offerings of Chinese companies. Since 2019, Gao has worked on the million-dollar IPOs for 27 Chinese companies seeking ticker codes in the US, with a total listing value of USD 18.5 billion. Some of the most high-profile Chinese IPOs she has successfully steered include those of Chinese e-commerce group JD.com and Tencent-backed food delivery giant Meituan.
Besides being the go-to legal advisor on Chinese IPOs, Gao has a wealth of experience in M&As and private equity financing. A recent significant corporate transaction she advised was for a special committee in New York Stock Exchange-listed video game streaming site Huya Inc. on a merger with rival site Douyu International Holdings Ltd in 2020. (However, the merger was blocked by regulators in China.)
According to her biography on Skadden’s website, Gao has received numerous accolades from various publications. They include The American Lawyer, which named her one of “45 under 45” outstanding women lawyers globally, and The Wall Street Journal, which featured her accomplishments in a 2019 article.
In an interview with Chambers Associate, a legal research guide, Gao said, “I ultimately focused on corporate work because of the stimulating nature of cross-border work and the chance it allowed me to utilize my bilingual and bicultural background.”
One major reason why Gao was tapped for the CFO role was her past experience on strategic ByteDance projects. This was reaffirmed by Liang, who highlighted in his internal memo that Gao “will be of great help to the firm,” given her familiarity with the company’s mission, culture, teams, and business.
Indeed, as a key legal advisor on two of ByteDance’s largest acquisitions, Gao is well acquainted with the company’s business operations and inner workings—she has been involved in the company’s major acquisitions and financing projects since 2016.
The first was the acquisition of Musical.ly, a short-form video app that was popular with teenagers. In November 2017, Musical.ly was sold to ByteDance for as much as USD 1 billion, and incorporated into TikTok in August 2018.
The other was in March 2021, when ByteDance acquired Shanghai-based gaming studio Moonton Technology, which is famous for its Mobile Legends Bang Bang game, for around USD 4 billion. The deal would allow ByteDance to diversify beyond advertising and take a slice of the USD 86 billion mobile gaming market.
Gao’s predecessor, Shou Zi Chew, who is the current CEO of TikTok, was also involved with ByteDance in its early years.
Chew used to work in Goldman Sachs and venture capital firm Digital Sky Technologies. He had been in contact with ByteDance since the company’s early phases. When ByteDance co-founder Zhang Yiming’s team still operated out of an apartment in Beijing, Chew was one of the investors who was contacted about taking an early stake. He facilitated DST’s investment in ByteDance.
Another striking parallel between Gao and Chew is their experience in executing IPOs. Before joining ByteDance, Chew was the CFO of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi and oversaw the company’s IPO in 2018, a major milestone in his career. In preparation for the IPO, he worked with Gao, who as senior partner at Skadden, was advising on the approximately USD 4.7 billion IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Besides her legal expertise and acute business acumen, Gao has carved out a reputation for being industrious. In her commencement address to the graduates at Peking University Law School in 2018, Gao extolled the virtues of diligence and perseverance. “Over the past ten years, I have never been out of reach from my laptop and Blackberry for more than 24 hours, even during my maternity leave,” she said.
Gao also firmly believes in dedication at work. “Professional dedication is the most fundamental character trait for any job, no matter where you are working, at every level of your professional path. Your first job will probably not be your final role or position, and perhaps you have higher ambitions, but you must be dedicated at every post,” she shared on how she has built a successful legal career.
Meanwhile, the appointment of Gao as new CFO of ByteDance has revived speculation that the tech conglomerate might be seeking a public listing soon given her extensive experience as a legal advisor on Chinese IPOs.
ByteDance, founded in 2012, is one of China’s most successful global technology companies. Besides being the developer of short video app TikTok, which has become an international phenomenon, ByteDance also owns other apps such as news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and video-streaming platform Xigua.
As one of the world’s biggest private tech companies with recent trades in the private-equity secondary market valuing it at about USD 300 billion, ByteDance is one of China’s most hotly anticipated IPOs.
Since the company started, it has grown exponentially. In 2021, ByteDance’s total revenue grew by 70% year-on-year to USD 58 billion. In those 12 months, it also had 1.9 billion monthly active users in 150 countries, and an employee base of over 110,000.
As far back as 2019, there have been rumors that ByteDance was planning an IPO. At that time, the market was buzzing with talk that the company was mulling an IPO on the Shanghai Stock Exchange Science and Technology Innovation Board, or Star Market.
Launched in July 2019, the Star Market was a new Nasdaq-style tech board that focuses on firms from industries with major growth potential, such as biotechnology and high-tech equipment manufacturing.
In March 2021, when Chew joined ByteDance as CFO, it reignited speculation that the company was looking for a public listing. According to Reuters, ByteDance was considering an offshore listing of its short video app Douyin, the Chinese sibling of TikTok, in New York or Hong Kong.
This year, rumors of an imminent IPO were driven by ByteDance’s recent renaming of its subsidiaries. Earlier this month, the TikTok owner added “Douyin” to the name of several subsidiaries, including one based in Hong Kong, where the company was reportedly considering to float part of its business. A separation of Douyin’s business operations in China from the overseas business of TikTok is widely believed to be a precursor to a ByteDance IPO.
Given that ByteDance is one of the most successful Chinese companies with a global audience, the world will be watching developments related to a potential IPO closely, including Gao’s next move.
This article was adapted based on a feature originally written by Gao Xinchi, edited by Hu Zhanjia, and published on LingTai (WeChat ID: LingTai_LT). KrASIA is authorized to translate, adapt, and publish its contents.