Stint on the shop floor must for retail knowledge: Ameesha Prabhu, CEO, TRRAIN
Ameesha Prabhu started her career in retail over 20 years ago. She has worked with leading organizations such as Tesco Hindustan Wholesaling, Aditya Birla Retail, Crossword Bookstores, Swatch Group and Shoppers Stop Ltd. At the helm of her corporate career, Ameesha quit her job at Tesco to lead an effort at Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India (TRRAIN) with the goal of empowering people in retail.
With her diverse skill-sets and experiences across leading retailers, Ameesha is an inspiration for all the young professionals looking to start a career in retail. What makes this leader tick?
Love for Nancy Drew lead to a job on the shop floor
Ameesha was born in a Gujarati family and grew up in Mumbai. She studied Economics at the University of Mumbai and later studied marketing at Narsee Monjee. She was deeply influenced by reading a lot of western novels, like Nancy Drew, through her childhood. That developed in her a huge drive to be independent. “I always wanted to be independent having read about how youth and students in the western world worked as sales reps or waited at tables to earn their allowance or pay for studies. Hence my early inspiration came from books like Nancy Drew, etc.” While giving her final exams at Narsee Monjee, Ameesha chanced upon an advertisement. It was the beginnings of modern retail in India. One of her favourite theatres was being converted into a shopping mall, what was to become the popular retail chain Shoppers’ Stop. “I immediately decided to apply for a job there. The whole dream of being independent was very exciting,” says Ameesha.
“I was interviewed by Mr. B.S Nagesh who is considered the godfather of retail in India. He asked me to work on the floor the next day. I started my career with 1100 INR as my salary,” says Ameesha fondly recollecting the memories of early days. Ameesha was dedicated and moved up the ladder quickly. She handled multiple departments at Shoppers Stop. “I remember Biba from early days. I remember when no one knew that brand, and today it is a 1200 crore enterprise. I was one of the first buyers of Biba.”
Climbing the ladder despite a few stumbling blocks
There was no looking back for Ameesha post the diverse experience at Shoppers’ Stop. She moved lead sales at Swatch in India (Omega group), “I took a year off due to complications in my pregnancy at that time, but once I was back I joined as the Buying and Merchandising head at Crossword. Taking a break is absolutely alright. I kept myself updated during this phase about what was happening in the industry.” Ameesha says, “Women should not take a back seat despite a few setbacks. It is actually quite easy to make a comeback.”
After Crossword, Ameesha went on to work at Aditya Birla Retail. “I joined all the four companies when they were just starting out, that way I was involved with the creation of many retail brands early on in India. I consider myself very lucky for these opportunities. My last job before taking up TRRAIN was at Tesco. I was heading buying and merchandising for their non food business.”
When you speak to Ameesha her passion for retail and deep domain knowledge are palpable.
“I had a chance meeting with my mentor B.S.Nagesh at Grand Hyatt. He spoke to me about starting a retail trust, which would be the first of its kind for the retail industry in India. I was kicked by the idea. I jumped on the boat,” she says. The core mission of TRRAIN is to empower people in the retail industry. “There is a lot of difference in what I was doing previously to what I am doing now. Earlier, I was working with one retailer, now I work with many. I had one company specific objective, now I have many objectives. I derive a great thrill by networking with like-minded people and bringing them together to explore synergies.”
Talking about some of the successful initiatives Ameesha said, “We started a disability project at one of the retail stores in Hyderabad. We placed and trained 500 people with disability and today all of them have jobs. There is immense satisfaction in seeing something like this happen.”
Changes in retail landscape
In the early 1990s, retail in India had very few local unknown names. “I was a part of the transition that happened from unknown names to a very organized retail. Previously, buying was very festive driven. From that phase to now, we have advanced a lot. The aspirations and awareness of consumers due to internet have become very high. Consumers know what they want, and they are willing to pay a price for it.”
Talking career highs
“Creation of my first private label for Shoppers’ Stop to creation of my first private label for Tesco are my biggest highs. Making a product that customers want excites me. I consider myself an expert in consumer profiling.”
“My second biggest career high was understanding the books business. It is not an easy business to understand 30,000 titles and multiple publishers. So being able to manage this business for Crossword was a big high for me.”
Talking career lows
“At some point, the whole management at TESCO was in the UK and the managers there were not willing to understand the Indian consumer. Sometimes you need to fight back; in this case I took a stand, and insisted that I knew our customers better.”
Advice to younger women and what she did right
“There are 3Ps in my life, Passion, People and Purpose.
If you are not feeling good about what you are doing, leave the organization right away. Otherwise you will enforce your negativity on everyone around you.
The third most important thing is focus on people and teams. I remember early in my career, I went to my boss and complained about non-performers. My boss said something profound, ‘It reflects your leadership abilities, and not his poor performance.’ I took it to heart. Since then I had some amazing experiences of working with and creating great teams.”
Advice for professionals looking to start career in retail
Ameesha advises all young professionals to start working on the shop floor. “Work there for six months, and you will understand the basics of retail. From then on, career opportunities are many. Retail is going to double by 2020 and the opportunities for senior and mid-level managers will never end,” states Ameesha.
Having a mentor helps
Vice Chairman of Shoppers’ Stop, Mr. B.S Nagesh was Ameesha’s mentor since her early days in retail. “He is a man with tremendous vision. Working with him is like having an open canvas to paint. Even in my other jobs, I have continued to ask myself what would Mr. Nagesh do in this situation and that has been a guiding path for years.”
Biggest success secret
Always looking for perfection and never taking the shortcut has taken Ameesha to new heights, “If I take the high road, then I have to take the high road. Many of my colleagues used to hate this about me, but they also respect me for this. I give 100% to whatever I take up,” says Ameesha.
Read a lot. Keep yourself updated via the internet. Network with people in the industry and outside, that’s her constant advice. “I love being on Twitter and interacting with people. Find your avenues to learn every day,” adds Ameesha.