Early April in Bengaluru, the weather is still bearable, as some swathes of the fast-disappearing greenery of the city helps to keep the temperature in early thirties. We are driving to Whitefield for a meeting with Manish Tiwary, Vice President and Country Manager, India Consumer Business, Amazon, at Sheraton Hotel, opposite the e.comm giant’s India offices at the World Trade Center.
We quickly realise why his office preferred the hotel. No, it is not just the proximity to Amazon’s office. When Tiwary walks in, most of the hotel staff greet him with warmth and familiarity. During the Covid pandemic Tiwary stayed and worked from the hotel for two years. Which is why the waiter even knows what he likes before he even orders and gives him a bowl of chicken shorbet soup.
We order fresh orange juice – which arrives after considerable delay – accompanied by an unsolicited plate of oily fritters. We ask Tiwary to look back at his upbringing and the things that shaped him. He reminiscences that the Tiwaris’ were a ‘Tata family.’ His grandfather worked for the group, both his parents, uncles and two sisters did too. Even his first job as a system trainee after his BTech in Computer Science from BIT Mesra (now in Jharkhand, then in Bihar) was with the Tatas.
Since his parents worked in nondescript colliery towns across Bihar, Tiwary says while he grew up in Jamshedpur, he eventually moved to Delhi to continue his studies. Parents and sisters were a key influence. Tiwary’s father was a batchmate of B Muthuraman (who eventually went on to become VC of Tata Steel) and was in a senior capacity.
However, Tiwary’s father passed away when he was in class 8. “It is to Tata Steel’s credit that they did not change a single thing, either the big bungalow, the car or other facilities though my mother was not in such a senior role.” The family emphasis was always on ‘studies, values and staying humble. Jamshedpur city’s vibe has influenced me all my life.’
Initially, he wanted to be a civil servant and even got into St Stephen’s, where a number of the country’s top bureaucrats used to graduate from, to study economics. But the Mandal agitation in the late ’80s meant that his mother got worried about the violence and called him back, and that is when he joined BIT Mesra to study computer science. “I wasn’t too good in coding,” he admits. Even as he was awaiting results for the IIM entrance exams, he joined TISCO for a couple of months.
Eventually he got into IIM Bangalore where he met his wife, Pooja. “Interestingly, she had studied at Stephens too but in the arts group. I had never met her in Stephens where the arts folks would disdain at us ‘sciences’ and would not mingle with the hoi polloi like us. We met only at IIM-B,” Tiwary says, with a laugh, recalling memories. From the IIM campus he got picked up HUL where he spent the next 22 years of his career.
Lever’s was a revelation. For training he was sent to Korba, a mining town in Chattishgarh (then Madhya Pradesh), to hawk 555, Liril and Moti soap bars. “I stayed at a ₹15 per night Santhosh lodge which had only a common bathroom, the neighbour would be a truck driver and daytime temperature was 47 0C,” recalls Tiwary.
Starting from there he slowly began to climb the corporate ladder at HUL. That also meant that every three years he would be posted in a new region. Of his 22 years at the company, his last stint at Lever’s was the longest, where he ran the company’s West Asia operations. Pooja had joined Amex from campus and they had been juggling their schedules whenever he had to move.
Finally, Pooja met with the then CFO of TCS, S Mahalingam, who promised her that if she joined them, she would be posted wherever he was sent. Pooja continues to be with TCS in a senior capacity. But in spite of that arrangement, they wanted to come back to India at some time. Leena Nair, the former HR head of HUL, who is now the global CEO of Chanel, played the matchmaker, helping him to get in touch with Amazon.
Tiwary was promptly hired and moved back to India. The tech company was a stark contrast to Tiwary’s time at the 90-year-old Unilever. “The first time I walked into Amazon, they said we are doing an off-site the same day. Coming from from HUL, off-site for me meant going to some of the fanciest hotels. So, I got excited. Later, I realised that the off-site was in a conference room. It took me some time to get adjusted to Amazon’s culture,” says Tiwary.
He adds that there is no hierarchy at the e-commerce firm. For instance, when the conference room gets crowded, people have to sit on the floor. “I was probably the oldest person in that room and it is not easy to sit cross-legged for three hours. So, the first three to four months were challenging. I realised that everything in new-age companies is different,” he elaborates.
Culture of frugality
Tiwary also highlights the inherent culture of frugality at Amazon. “Everyone in Amazon flies economy. My reporting manager’s office would look like my office and so on. “The egalitarian concept and frugality are very strong. And over time you start appreciating it. it’s not that we pay people less, it is just a culture of saying if we have an extra dollar, we give it to the customer first and the sellers second,” he explains.
By now we are through with our drinks. Manish orders a dal and a tawa fried fish while we order some tandoori rotis and a mixed vegetably curry.
Talking about the impact of Amazon on his leadership style, Tiwary says, “I give a lot of importance to who I am, to where I come from, to what I learnt in HUL and then at Amazon. It has taught me to be humble, be middle-class in thought, and be people-centric. There are some things in life you never compromise on like integrity, and employee-facing; in my previous company, I had to be distributor-facing, and in this company seller-facing. I think what got added on, is a much better framework on how to analyse decisions and make decisions. My mind has gotten trained to the very logical structured manner of working.”
Font and point
Illustrating one of Amazon’s operational styles which imbibed this quality in him, Tiwary notes that Amazon has an artefact called an internal press release. If anyone wants to suggest a new product launch, they have to write an internal press release on it. Incidentally, all of Amazon internal communication is on the Calibri 11 font. Yes, there is a particular font and particular point size which everybody uses as a standardised template.
Tiwary notes that there was an engineer in Amazon Transport in Delhi, who wrote a one-pager press release saying ‘I want to start a pharmacy business in India’. “The standardized artefact to raise a new idea is called an internal press release. If we didn’t have the artefact, someone would make a presentation, someone would write a note and you would not be able to digest it,” he elaborates.
He says that it is because of systems like this that a company as huge as Amazon is able to maintain a coherent company culture across geographies and teams.
Even as he juggles about expanding the market, taking competition on and managing regulatory issues, in his personal time, Tiwary is a marathon runner and a golf enthusiast. He is up 4:45 am every day for his daily one-hour run listening to an Apple podcast on Bhagavad Gita. He got into the habit of running when he was at Unilever and has never stopped since. He shares the joy of running with his family as well, who every year join him on a vacation to run marathons across the globe. Tiwary has run marathons in Budapest, Australia, and Ireland among other locations. For the marathon man, running Amazon India is just another race.