As I flip through my notes to prepare for the interview at the Oberoi’s Club Bar, in walks a tall American with a luxurious Yosemite Sam moustache. Trailing him is a group of young Indian suit-clad men and women. They sit down at the next table, laughing and chatting. I look back at the entrance and continue waiting for William S. Pinckney, managing director and CEO of Amway India.
But then I turn back. And the group, as one, turns to me.
Hard sell: Soon after his move to India, Pinckney realized that Indian shoppers are very different from American shoppers. Jayachandran / Mint
“Are you?” I ask.
Why, of course they are.
Suddenly I’m in the boisterous group and before I can fire away my questions, Pinckney has managed to get me talking about my life. Somehow we’ve landed on the subject of love lives. All within 5 minutes. Among total strangers. At an interview I’m supposed to be conducting.
But there’s just something about Pinckney. The man gets you talking, comfortable and laughing, as any good salesman should. If he had some of his Amway products with him, I would no doubt have walked out with a bagful of cleansers and vitamin supplements.
When we finally do get down to talking about Pinckney, it’s clear that his easy-going, personable skills have come in handy over the years, working for a company almost entirely based on the great sales pitch.
Amway, accused at various times of being a cult, a pyramid scheme and a get-rich-quick scheme, is essentially all about sales. An Amway business owner—any person with Rs995 for the registration fee—can choose from the 110 products in the Amway catalogue and sell these to friends, family, neighbours.
It’s a booming business. Amway India officially opened in 1998, after three years of preparation. Eleven years later, Pinckney runs a company with 500 employees and 450,000 “business owners”. He says their annual revenue reached Rs1,128 crore in 2008.
Pinckney shrugs off the nasty accusations. “Listen, the US supreme court decided we were not a pyramid scheme in 1979. There are illegal pyramid and ponzi schemes. They are incredibly easy to shut down. A pyramid is where the primary source of income is the sheer recruitment of people into the business.”
Pinckney says Amway institutes strong safety nets for consumers and business owners —money refunds, education classes and no recruitment schemes: “The only way you can make money is by selling the products.”
And sell they do. The top business owners can make about Rs2.5 crore a year, Pinckney says, adding, however, that “most of the really successful people don’t make a lot of money… I’m much more proud of the thousands and thousands who earn the extra Rs10,000-15,000 a month”.
Pinckney spends a lot of time with the business owners, travelling to see them, talking to them about Amway’s set-up and learning how to improve the business: “I’m on the road eight to 10 days a month. You need to go where your business is.”
When Pinckney moved to India, he already had 17 years of experience with Amway. Though originally from Washington, Pinckney settled in Australia when he met his wife there as “she thought it was a good idea if I stayed there”. From Sydney, he helped set up Amway businesses in the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina and Taiwan, but hoped to be permanently posted abroad. When India came up, “nobody really wanted it”. They feared a nuclear war breaking out between Pakistan and India. But for Pinckney and his wife, it was good timing. His son and daughter were away in school and Pinckney and his wife “were looking for adventure. You look back on decisions you’ve made and say ‘wow’”.
There was another motivation for the move: “We thought if we go to India, we’ll both lose weight,” Pinckney chuckles. “This part of the plan was a huge disaster: This is the worst place in the world to try and lose weight! I could just eat Indian food 24/7.”
The losing weight challenge wasn’t the only obstacle Pinckney has come across in his 10 years here. “I realized it was not to try to change India for me, but me changing for India,” Pinckney says. The first obstacle came in the form of import restrictions on Amway products. Everything had to be manufactured within India. It took about three years to set up the manufacturing side of the company. Then, when the company launched, another quick realization set in: Indians shop differently from people elsewhere in the world.
“Our belief was that in India, as in other countries, we would set up a home delivery model. That’s how Amway works in most parts of the world. Eighty per cent is home delivery, 20% is pick-up products.” But in India, Amway realized that buyers weren’t comfortable paying up first and then waiting three days for a delivery: “Trust in who you buy from is a big deal.”
Therefore they had to rework their product distribution set-up completely. “Australia had one warehouse for distribution. India has 127.”
But that same trust in the seller helped develop networks quickly, discovered Pinckney. “In Asia, you see close-knit families; you don’t see it that much in the US,” Pinckney explains. “Here, if you say Amway’s okay, I say it’s okay. In the US, if you say Amway’s okay, I say prove it.”
Amway also had to adapt its products to meet Indian standards. Elsewhere, products came in one size. But people here were used to trying out products, and wanted sample-size sachets. Rather than drop the prices to lure people, Amway launched a series of smaller sizes for less money. Finally, it developed localized products, marketing cosmetics specifically geared to the country’s preferences, such as coconut oil and hair cream.
The challenges, though, have been part of the excitement for Pinckney. “The other markets are boring compared to India!” he laughs. “It’s frustrating, but on the other hand it’s invigorating.”
He’d like to see India develop into a launch pad for Amway in the subcontinent, and see Amway starting in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. “We still think we have the best years ahead… If our business in 10 years isn’t ten times bigger, I will be shocked.”
When he retires, he and his wife hope to buy an apartment in Delhi and spend at least three months a year in India. “I hate to imagine saying goodbye to India,” he says. “It’s been a flash.”