Wilke, an 18-year veteran of Amazon, was at the Bengaluru headquarters of Amazon India this week to meet the company’s leadership team. Wilke is one of the most influential executives at Amazon and a favourite of Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and chief executive officer (CEO). In the Amazon biography, The Everything Store, Wilke is described as having a “cerebral and occasionally impatient management style" that is similar to that of Bezos.
In an interview, Wilke said Amazon India’s business will grow at a high rate for a long time and that he spends more time on India than any other global market for Amazon. The 50-year-old also spoke of Amit Agarwal’s future as Amazon India country manager and the threat from Flipkart. Edited excerpts:
Analysts say India has turned out to be a much more shallow market than anyone thought. What’s your take?
I’m delighted with the growth of the India business. It was 124% last year (in calendar 2016), 82% in Q1 and 88% in Q2. It’s our fastest growing country. It was the fastest to get to in (product) selection which is 160 million.
The Prime business is doing really well in India. We will continue to invest aggressively here because I think (the India business) can grow for a long time.
I’m very bullish about the opportunity for us and for all of retail in India. It’s a great opportunity to expand e-commerce from just urban-focused and very infrequent visits and purchases to a much broader availability. In Diwali, more than 99% of pin codes had at least one order. Our selection is really broad, so we can offer customers products that weren’t available through e-commerce earlier.
There’s a perception here that Amazon lost a chance to achieve complete domination in India by letting Flipkart back into the game last year. Do you agree?
I don’t think about what’s happening in India that way. First of all, I’m focused on customers and not competitors. Competitors’ strategy changes all the time. We don’t want to distract ourselves from customers by obsessing over what competitors are doing or not doing. I also don’t think India or the rest of the world’s retail space will have any single dominant player. I think there will be opportunities for many winners in each of the countries we’re in. That’ll be true in India, too.
Is there pressure from shareholders to make India count more on the top line and reduce losses here?
I’m not aware of any. As I’ve said, the pressure that we put on ourselves is to invent on behalf of customers. Our shareholders would expect us to do that like we have in every other area, and so far we’re doing a good job here.
So the rate of investments will continue?
We promised in 2014 that we’ll invest $2 billion, and in 2016, another $3 billion. We’re committed to spending all of that and we’ll continue to invest more as India grows.
Amit Agarwal was promoted to the seniormost leadership team at Amazon in 2016. There’s been talk that he may go back to the US to take up a bigger role. How long will he be here and what’s the succession plan?
First thing is, Amit is in a giant role right now. And I don’t have any plans to ask him to do anything else. He and the team are doing a great job. We use the term single-threaded, which means you work only on one thing. And Amit is the single-threaded leader for India. And I hope (he stays here) for a long time.
You head the entire consumer business for Amazon globally. How much time do you spend on India?
I spend a larger amount of my time on India than I do on any of the other single international countries. We’re in 14 countries now. The US, of course, gets a reasonable amount of my attention; but of the other 13 countries, I spend more time in India.
You’ve seen a fair amount of churn in middle and senior management levels in India. What’s your view on the quality of the team you have?
I think it’s terrific. It’s technical; we’ve been able to hire really good technologists and business people.
What’s your view on the quality of competition that you face in India, compared with your other markets?
It’s hard to rate any country on this measure. We face intense competition in every geography and every business we are in.
In your global Prime business, your head Ray Price left recently. Even in India, the head of your Prime business is no longer with the firm. How are you managing the change in leadership? And how do you plan to ensure you don’t go wrong again with hiring leaders in this business?
Over a number of years, we’ve proved we can build award-winning content in TV and feature-length movies. India has a strong content environment and we’ll continue to invest in content here. We have a very high standard of leadership. It’s hard to speculate on what may happen in the future. I’ll just tell you that I have a lot of confidence in the leadership team (at Prime). We have a code of conduct and have zero tolerance for people who violate that.
Any learning points from what went wrong?
Not at this point.