The country manager of EBay India, the local arm of the international online retail and auction giant, prevented me from paying any attention whatsoever to an India TV breaking news special that played out on the big screen behind him—for the entire hour and a half that we spent over lunch at the Spaghetti Kitchen in the Phoenix Mills compound in Lower Parel, Mumbai.
That’s because Ambereesh Murty, who took over as country head six months ago, is like the guy in the college canteen with all the good stories. You are mainly there for the experience, and the soft drink.
Earlier, when Murty walks in for our meeting, he spots me in a ground-floor corner of the large, bright and airy Italian restaurant and summons me to follow him upstairs. I ask if he has a favourite table. The EBay India office is in the same complex and Murty no doubt has eaten at the restaurant several times.
“No, no. They let you smoke upstairs,” he says as he bounds up the glass-bannistered staircase.
We are ushered to a table just underneath the afore-mentioned TV screen, and Murty promptly orders two portions of garlic bread with cheese.
“Whoever was the guy who first decided to pair cheese with bread...sheer genius, I tell you!” Murty quips as he lights up the first of the three or four cigarettes that punctuate our lunch.
Murty took over as head of EBay India in March, when his predecessor, Rajan Mehra, left. Mehra moved on to venture capital firm Clearstone Venture Advisors in August. Incidentally, Mehra’s move was just the latest in a series of senior management moves from EBay India to private equity and venture capital firms—Mehra was the fourth. I ask Murty about this trend. Why is EBay India such a rich poaching ground?
Past perfect: Murty hopes to one day sign up for a full-time programme in history and archaeology.
Partly, Murty explains, it’s because they were all pioneers in the Internet business. Any fund that wanted to make and manage investments in online businesses swooped on veteran EBay hands. “And then, we’ve always had very entrepreneurial guys as heads,” Murty adds.
As the waiter brings him a green lime ice-cream soda and me a cold coffee, Murty tells me about his family. His father worked in Indian Airlines while his mother was a scientist. “A plant pathologist with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, to be precise,” Murty says.
There are no awkward pauses or protocol-laden small talk. I ask a question and Murty launches into an answer, accompanied by expansive hand movements.
Murty went straight from engineering college to business school, and then joined Cadbury India as a management trainee. Starting as a “sales guy”, he was soon asked to lead a newly formed new business development team. Murty goes quiet when I ask him to name a few hits and misses from those days. While thinking, he meticulously stirs soda water into his ice-cream soda.
“One product that failed because of technical reasons was a jelly product called Gollum. We had to stop it because it wouldn’t store very well.”
Wait. It was called Gollum? After the creature in Lord of the Rings?
Murty laughs. “When we were thinking up of names I threw in that one too. Eventually it was used.”
Murty is a big fan of the fantasy genre of literature. “Well more ‘funny fantasy’ than anything else,” Murty clarifies. So while the Gollum was a brand decision inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s dark world, Murty’s heart lies with Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series of books. When I tell him I haven’t read a single one, his face falls.
While the Gollum was a less-than-successful project, Murty’s other baby, the Temptations series of premium chocolates, was a triumph.
As he takes a rare pause to spread mustard on a crusty piece of garlic bread, I ask him about something he calls his “personal adventure”—Origin Resources, a start-up he launched with some success when he moved to Bangalore in December 2003. Murty figured that Bangalore, with its cost-effectiveness, was a perfect place to try and set up a company. “And I had a healthy appetite for risk. I still do, in fact,” he says.
So, after reaching an amicable agreement with his then employers, who let him work part-time, Murty set up a consulting and training firm that would work with financial companies to train advisors.
The start-up did well and Murty would nurture it through a subsequent stint with Britannia as well. But he finally called it off after he joined EBay India in December 2005, more than a year after the Indian auction site Baazee.com had been acquired and rebranded by EBay. “Many of the early Baazee.com employees still work with us,” Murty explains. “And we still have to ask the local Udipi restaurant to deliver idlis to Baazee!”
Murty is proud of the amicable relationships he maintains with employees and employers, old and new. “I never left a job in bad blood and always got on fabulously with my bosses. I like people. I am good with them,” Murty says with a modest shrug of his shoulders.
These people skills, Murty later explains, are the key to his steep career graph—Murty went from management trainee to country manager in just 11 years. “I trust people to run with projects, and then I manage by walking around,” Murty explains as he makes a little walking man with his fingers on the table. Five minutes with the right person in office, he says, and a couple of good questions reveal much more information than any fancy presentation.
We then talk of how EBay India developed uniquely, as compared to countries abroad. For instance, its fixed-price transactions, without auctions or bidding, were very popular. Murty reckons it is because users are still new to the online trading platform and tend to opt for simple transactions. EBay India also has a unique payment system that was developed locally to make transactions more secure.
Earlier this month, EBay International announced www.worldofgood.com, a market for fair trade, environment- and animal-friendly products. The site currently has more than 1,000 listings by India-based NGOs and artiste cooperatives.
While the company is privately held, and financials are not made public, Murty says EBay India’s combination of promotions, retention strategy and shopping experience is working and will continue to do so. “And as broadband penetration grows, so will we,” he adds.
Before our meeting, I had placed a few calls with a friend who works with him at EBay— routine character reconnaissance. “Oh, he’s just one of the gang,” my friend told me.
Last year, for instance, Murty was part of the two-member team that reached the Mumbai finals of the Brand Equity corporate business quiz—“I am a ‘work-out-the-answer’ quizzer. I don’t mug up books or anything.” Murty is also a decent hand at the keyboards and the bass guitar, and often jams with the EBay band.
So yes, Murty has fun in the office. But what about outside? With greater work load putting paid to extravagant travel plans, Murty now enjoys his weekends with books, FC Barcelona football matches on TV, 1970s rock music and his extensive movie library. What happens to the movies he’s watched and never wants to see again? “I sell them on EBay. I am a pretty active trader. You should look me up.”
When we get up to leave, Murty asks a waiter to pack the leftover margerita pizza and garlic bread. “The guys in the office will love it!” he says.
Born: 30 June 1972
Education: Civil engineering, Delhi College of Engineering; MBA, IIM Calcutta
Current Designation: Country manager
Work Profile: Began his career with Cadbury India in 1996. After fiveyears, he moved to ICICI Prudential AMC Ltd before founding a financial consulting and training firm in Bangalore in 2003. Joined EBay India in 2005 as director, marketplace development, after a brief stint in Britannia.
Hobbies: Quizzing; history, especially ancient South American; 1970s rock and Seattle grunge.
Obsessions: Terry Pratchett and Robert Jourdan. Murty owns the entire collections of both authors. So eager were Murty and his wife to read Jourdan’s last book that they bought a copy each the day it launched.
Thrifty Travel Tip: Murty once backpacked across Egypt for 10 days with $210 (around Rs9,000 now) in his pocket. He lived off potato chips, hummus and pita bread.