“We want to carry everything. We have some 230 million products and we are building it up. So literally everything I can see in your room behind you—I always do a scan—I am thinking, ‘do we sell it?,’” says Manish Tiwary, country manager and vice-president of the India consumer business at Amazon, as we begin a video call to discuss the company’s journey in India over the past nine years, and his own career in the country’s complex, ever-changing retail landscape.
It is a bit disconcerting to have the head of one of the country’s largest retailers judge your shopping choices and a quick mental scan tells me that many of the products Tiwary can see—from a stack of books and a Kindle device on the bookshelf behind me to the planters and lampshade on the table next to it—and some that he can’t, like the Amazon Echo Dot device on my desk, are from Amazon.
It is a recognised fact that for many urban Indian consumers, especially those in metropolitan cities, Amazon has become the go-to e-commerce destination for most things we purchase online. Sure, for the big-ticket items like a smartphone or a new refrigerator, we may do a wider search to see who is offering the best price, but for those impulsive “I need more socks” kind of purchase decisions that happen multiple times a day, Amazon has become the default search engine, trumping other broad-based e-commerce competitors like Flipkart and Snapdeal, which also have the advantage of having been founded in India.
How did this happen? “We realised early on about customers…what do they like? They like huge selections. They want to be able to buy anything. And to create that infrastructure—it has been a lot of hard work. In 2013, we started with 70-odd sellers, mostly selling books. And today we have 1.1 million sellers. In 2013, Amit (Agarwal, senior vice president, India and emerging markets) and team would go and sit at wholesale markets, trying to bring sellers on to our platform. There were unexpected challenges and few known models—for instance, sellers worldwide would be onboarded using desktop (through the website). Our sellers were largely on the mobile, and while they understood their markets and customers thoroughly and better than any of us, there was less awareness about some basic things like cataloguing. Mobile networks were patchy, we had to figure out things like exchange—Indians don’t want to throw anything away…these were all pieces of the puzzle,” says Tiwary, 53. “So for each of the three main fronts in the e-commerce space—customer, seller and infrastructure—the last nine years have been quite a journey.”
Ask him to name one statistic about the company that blows his mind today and he delivers two. One is a quick-recall number, the fact that Amazon today has 43 million-plus cubic sq. ft of warehouse space in India—“we built that kind of expensive infrastructure because if I don’t have a warehouse close to you, I can’t ship what you want,” says Tiwary.
The other is a number whose origins he recalls fondly. “When we started, delivery was not as common as it is now. Initially, our delivery folks would take a lot of time to enter an apartment complex for each delivery. It was inefficient. The other thing was, a lot of times people wouldn’t be at home to take the delivery—there was no concept of unattended delivery. Then we started leveraging an insight—that almost every complex has a small store, selling kirana items, etc. The owners know almost everyone in the complex. It’s a well-developed ecosystem. So we started enrolling them to deliver our packages for a small payment. It was a win-win-win for us, the store owner and the customer. Today, every day, more than half a million packages get supplied through this system.”
Do these kinds of stories make him feel that Amazon, for all its ubiquity in our lives, often suffers from the absence of the kind of origin story Indian startups enjoy—that it is perceived as this shadowy, US-based behemoth? Tiwary refutes this energetically. “I used to work for Unilever, travelled across India, and people never said Lux was not an Indian soap. Today, I travel a lot for Amazon and fall into conversation with people, and I see that they have a lot of respect for Amazon as a retailer, for our voice devices, for our cloud services. So if you say people think of Amazon as this Seattle-based behemoth, I must say I don’t experience that. Just as people would talk to me with a lot of love and respect for their favourite Unilever brand, they talk with a lot of love and respect for Amazon and Amazon products.”
It is natural that many of Tiwary’s points of reference spring from his 20-plus years at Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), where he started working as a brand manager for the company’s popular Pond’s brand in 1996. He went on to become its executive director, heading its customer development function, before moving to Dubai for a few years to head the company’s business in the Gulf Region—a role he quit in 2016 to join Amazon India’s leadership team. In 2020, he took over the role of country head from Amit Agarwal, who had steered the Indian division from its inception before moving to the US headquarters to assume a larger role within the company.
“I keep making these references because both these organisations are so special to me, they are both amazing and I love both of them irrespective of where I work today,” says Tiwary.
Speaking of where he grew up, Tiwary says, a bit diffidently: “I am from a place called Jamshedpur”—which this writer calls home as well. The next few minutes are given over to the kind of reminiscing people from the small town indulge in when they meet someone else from there—where did you go to school, where did you live, which batch are you from, did you know X and Y?
While his parents worked at Tata Steel, Tiwary did most of his schooling from one of the city’s top schools, Loyola. He had a short stint at Delhi Public School, RK Puram, in Delhi, staying at the hostel for a few years when his parents were transferred out of Jamshedpur. He went back to the city to finish his class X after his father died, unexpectedly, when he was in class IX, following a stroke while at work.
It was a formative experience, he says. “You know how the city is, everyone took really good care of us, my mom continued to work with the Tatas…so there wasn’t a material gap, but there was always an emotional gap. I still have very strong ties with the city, I go there every year,” says Tiwary.
After completing his class XII, Tiwary was interested in taking the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam, so he enrolled in the economics course at St Stephen’s College in Delhi University. Soon, however, the Mandal Commission agitation against caste-based reservations started, and he decided to move out of Delhi and pursue an engineering degree instead, joining Birla Institute of Technology Mesra in Ranchi. “I became a typical Jamshedpur kid in that sense—you know how everyone was doing either engineering or medical there?” he says. After his graduation, he joined the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, and was recruited by HUL. He worked at the company for 21 years. His wife (a batchmate from IIM, Bangalore) and he moved cities every three years across India, working in every metro city and then some, in addition to stints in Singapore, Vietnam and Dubai. “When my kid was in class IX, I felt it was time for me to build some stability and this amazing opportunity at Amazon came along,” he says.
Tiwary’s long stint at HUL has had a huge impact on his leadership style and skills. “HUL was, and I am sure continues to be, amazing for people development. I was mentored at every stage of my career and given opportunities to develop my skills in organised trade, in technology…. Their training, coaching is world class.
“Then I joined Amazon and met the leaders here. Amazon has a very involved interview process, during which you meet all the senior vice-presidents—so I met the worldwide heads of so many divisions and they all spent literally an hour each talking to me. It felt really good that such senior leaders were investing so much time in me,” he recalls.
He found that there was a culture match between the two companies—something that’s important to him personally. He admits that six-and-a-half years have not been enough to understand all of Amazon’s moving parts. “I still don’t know enough about Amazon, I must admit that. It’s such a fast-moving company. Therefore the learning opportunity is what has been crazy,” he says. “I must also admit that I didn’t have a great passion for retail or consumer goods…. I landed up in retail from college. What is really important for me is that I should feel excited about what I do, and that excitement, beyond a point, does not come from money or a designation. What is most critical for me is the company I work for—does it have a larger purpose than this month’s sales?”
There is no doubt that Amazon is a globally disruptive, game-changing company but its culture has not always been spoken about in glowing terms. A 2015 article in The New York Times called it “a bruising workplace” and was followed by many accounts of an extremely pushy—even toxic—work culture, though there were counter-arguments about it being “intense” and “productivity-driven”.
“It’s important for me to know that the company is invested in a vision that is far bigger than itself,” maintains Tiwary. “And that is tied to the India story—I have always found the India story fascinating and I have been lucky to work with companies that are innovating very hard for India,” he says. “I remember people would ask me why I hadn’t moved to the (Unilever) head office in London and I would ask, why? I have always felt I have enough opportunities to fulfil in India and to keep learning alongside. We may have good years and bad years but the enablers of business—the education system, the political system, our democracy, the age demographics—everything is going in the right direction for India.”