When the going gets tough, the empowered team gets going - IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

When the going gets tough, the empowered team gets going

In a turbulent business world, a commitment to building high-performance teams can make all the difference, says Henry Low, Director & Country Manager, Amazon Singapore and IMD MBA 2009.
March 2022

Remember what the world was like before e-commerce? Things were considerably different; shopping was something that involved brick-and-mortar commercial spaces, and mobile phones had yet to become the ubiquitous accessories they are today. Then, in 1994, it all started changing. Amazon launched – famously from Jeff Bezos’s Washington garage – followed by eBay, which started in San Jose in 1995. Over the next five years, Japan’s Rakuten and China’s Alibaba also entered the e-commerce market. The rest, as they say, is history.

One thing is for sure: the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 made it hard to imagine how we could live without e-commerce. From ordering a takeout meal to buying in emergency school supplies for our kids when schools closed as a result of the pandemic, e-commerce became essential. For Henry Low, Director & Country Manager, Amazon Singapore, it was a crucial moment – but one that his team were more than prepared to meet.

“We were fortunate in that much of our company DNA was already aligned,” he says. “We are all empowered to make bold bets and to move quickly and, therefore, we reacted really fast to early signals and rallied our partners to come along with us.”

Additionally, says Low, Amazon Singapore took those bold bets in three areas: it pulled back on some lines, made changes to other types of inventory, and doubled down on safety.

“We’ve always been big on safety, so we knew when COVID hit that we had to keep our employees and our customers safe. At the same time, we knew that our communities needed us. We saw early signals that essentials were key, so we said: ‘Okay, let’s ringfence capacity for essentials.’ This led to: ‘So how do we then adjust the way we buy, the way we store, and the way we offer capacity just for essentials? How do we adjust availability and sales on the non-essentials while trying to build more capacity?’”

With customers content to switch to the provider that best suits their product/delivery/price needs in a competitive market, such agility and careful calibration is in high demand. According to Statista, 2021’s global retail e-commerce sales amounted to around USD 4.9 trillion – and that figure is set to grow by almost 50% to about USD 7.4 trillion in 2025. The sheer scale and growth potential of the market demands high-performance teams capable of navigating it deftly, and Low is in no doubt about the four things he looks for when building one.

“First, I want teams who can do everything, from the most tactical work all the way to the most strategic stuff,” he says. “I’m looking for the element of fungibility; of being able to roll up sleeves and not draw lines between teams.

“The second element is, of course, speed – but more than that, the ability to assess risks. Where is that risk and speed trade off? Where does perfection become the enemy of good?

“Third is communication; it’s really important to say what you do in order to collaborate to communicate, but at the same time it is also important to hold a high level of accountability, which is why, besides saying what you do, you need to do what you say.

“Last but not least, I’m also looking for leaders. The principle we have here in Amazon is to hire and develop the best, and then scaling through teams, by building and developing local talent and cross-border talent.”

Innovation in the online market

Investment in e-commerce is high, and Low is also enthusiastic about the level of personalization that AI technologies promise to deliver, as well as innovations around in-app customer journeys. One such example shared from neighboring China is a recent partner innovation which entailed the launch of the Amazon Global Store within the WeChat app, enabling Amazon China’s customers to access its international selection.

Low explains: “WeChat is China’s number one social app. So, putting two and two together, we decided to launch the Amazon Global store experience in WeChat. This then doesn’t require customers to download a standalone app, as it operates within the WeChat ecosystem, meaning that we have immediate reach to all WeChat Chinese customers. It reduces the friction, our user numbers grow, and the initial results have been very strong.”

A global view

Low spent 14 years in the Singapore Navy and completed a degree at UCL in London, before finalizing his decision to complete an MBA with IMD. Having joined Amazon’s MBA’s pathway (fast-track development) program in 2010, he worked his way up the corporate ladder via positions based in both UK and Japan.

“That one year at IMD gave me a chance to clarify my thinking, and reiterated my need to spend time outside of Singapore. I was choosing between Europe, America and the UK as well. But I wanted to choose a company whose values matched mine, that would value my past leadership experience, and would invest in coaching and development and Amazon fit the bill perfectly,” he said.

Having gained global exposure and grown into his post-naval career, Low was pleased in 2016 to be asked to return home to Singapore to drive Amazon’s business there.

“It was exciting to be given the shoulder tap to say: ‘Hey, Amazon wants to expand in Southeast Asia, and Singapore’s the first place to go; how would you like to do the job?’ Singapore is at such a different stage of maturity in terms of where e-commerce is, and the level of comfort in transacting online is very high here so there’s a lot of choice and challenge.”

Among the challenges is looking at how to continue listening to the customer to deliver on their evolving needs while also driving creativity. “We are constantly trying to figure out which are the short-term versus the long-term trends, and which of those local trends could become global,” he explains. One thing is for sure: Low’s reiteration of the importance of the bigger picture and picking up on those crucial early signals, makes it clear that he always keeps one eye firmly on the next horizon.