By CINDY YAP
The invasion of e-commerce sites such as Zalora, Lazada, Home24 and Foodpanda began in Malaysia late 2011, fronted by the Samwer brothers who are the founders of Rocket Internet.
The Leaderonomics Show meets up with Italian-born Luca Barberis, the managing director who spearheads the top fashion e-commerce site in Malaysia, Zalora.
Previously the director of marketing, Barberis was appointed managing director of Zalora Malaysia in December 2014, with a remarkable track record which spans a number of countries.
He has had an impressive stint with Google as an industry analyst and subsequently, Google’s account manager where he managed a US$6mil/quarter portfolio of businesses (from start-ups to large enterprises) which involved advising customers on digital advertising and their online business strategy.
Since taking the helm of the largest and fastest growing fashion-focused e-commerce site in South-East Asia, Barberis has been working in a super-fast paced environment.
“There are long hours, but it offers work-life balance and a fun environment.”
With almost 300 people in the Malaysian team now, including the warehouse, marketing and production teams, Barberis explains that in the past one year, the team grew by more than 100 persons. In terms of revenue, it recorded a very healthy growth exceeding 100%.
Internal and external challenges
Sharing on the external challenges faced, Barberis says: “The main challenge is in building corporate partnerships with the big players in Malaysia. We are strong when we work with partners like Samsung or Digi, although negotiations for the best deal usually takes a significant bit of time.”
Nonetheless, Barberis opines that it is the best channel to reach out to Malaysians and works even better than paid advertising with Google or on billboards.
“Corporate partnerships such as promotions, exclusive fashion shows and leveraging on the different brands have really proven to be the best strategy we adopted in 2014,” he continues.
Internally, the challenge is to keep the growth balanced with the organisation.
“Growing too fast may result in the warehouse not delivering as fast as it should, thus stressing the customer service. The key is to keep the growth fast, but not too extreme so the organisation can keep up to this speed.”
Being part of something significant
Barberis studied economics, accounting, finance and law but pursued a career in the digital arena instead. An ambition to make a difference and do something significant motivated his career diversion.
“When I graduated, I pondered that in the next five to 10 years I wanted to do something memorable which will end up in the books of economics history, regardless of how much money I can make,” he recalls.
There were two big trends happening then which were inter-related, i.e. the internet and globalisation.
“I chose not only to work in the internet but in emerging economies, in particular South-East Asia – one of the fastest growing economies in the world,” he muses, thinking that going where the speed is would expedite his career growth.
Leaving a Google dream
Barberis was 21 when he chose to leave Italy due to the high unemployment rate for youngsters and the local business environment which was not robust.
After he landed a dream job in sales at Google which exposed him to various consumer behaviour and businesses as an insider behind the walls of Google, Barberis went from zero to an expert in the digital economy within six months.
Why quit then?
“Google is a big, extremely profitable corporation with a fantastic corporate culture, where employees have a lot of perks and have an easy life,” he admits.
However, after some years, he felt the desire for change and doing something more.
“Generally, if you aspire to create an impact, see ideas get executed, fast growth, while having fun at work, working in a rocketing trend company like Zalora is definitely a better opportunity!”
Barberis insists that managers who understand the business, have fantastic ideas, great vision and are extremely good with numbers may not be the best when it comes to execution.
On the other hand, some are fantastic at execution, very efficient, fast and well-organised, but may lack the big picture, vision and creativity to inspire the team to grow fast.
He opines that work leadership in a fast-growth environment entails the ability to strike the right balance between having vision and execution.
He also stresses that the idea of leadership and expectations of a leader differs based on location.
In Zalora, Barberis adopts the North European management and leadership style, mainly due to its German influence.
“The key difference in leadership style in Europe is countries in the South like Italy or Spain are similar to Asia, whereby authority and titles are very important. Whereas in North Europe, people are more easygoing and happier to share,” he claims.
“Generally, Asians are shy to share their thoughts and not so comfortable with disagreeing with the boss. But overall, it’s improving thanks to globalisation. The younger generation tends to be a little bit cheekier, more arrogant and less shy. In business, a bit of arrogance and the “I-don’t-trust-you-just-because-you-are-the-boss” attitude is a good thing for better performance in certain roles,” he remarks.
At the end of the day, open discussion is required to agree on what to do and how to do it, whereas authority comes in simply to close things in a quick way.
Here are Barberis’s tips for a sharp mind and to keep the creative juices flowing:
- E-mail management: No replying emails until 2pm to 3pm, in order to focus on what needs to be done.
- No Facebook-ing: In terms of managing the general flow of busy-ness, Barberis chooses to avoid the main trigger of Facebook, i.e. boredom by ceasing to login to Facebook on the day he started Zalora.
For 2015, Luca aims to keep up Zalora’s astonishing growth shown in 2014, which he attributes to the extremely well executed marketing activities.
Below are snippets of Barberis’s response in The Thinkonomics segment:
Is the world better with or without reality shows?
With. Giving people what they like, especially good and simple entertainment would overall make the world a better place. Instead of merely studying and working hard, people need pleasure. Apparently, reality shows are one of the best options.
If Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not exist, would the world be a better place today?
I think someone else would have done exactly the same.
Individuals are important, but not as important as trends, such as software, cool design hardware or perfectly-designed products.
Although we had smartphones since the end of the 1990s, people started using smartphones only when Jobs came up with the iPhone, I think this trend would have happened anyway, albeit a few years later.
The people who surfed these trends are smarter people, but the control and power of a single person is, in my opinion, relatively limited.
What would your life be like without the internet?
I cannot even imagine. I’m in that generation who always had the internet since high school.
Probably I would be unemployed, a lawyer or a banker. Definitely a more boring life.
For more interesting interviews with diverse leaders on The Leaderonomics Show, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/leaderonomicsmedia. For more The Leaderonomics Show articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 9 May 2015