It is two days before Kalyan Krishnamurthy’s 45th birthday – but the only “bash” that he could be bothered to put together is that of Flipkart’s competitors. He is tasked with staging the Indian e-commerce giant’s victory in a race where formidable internet players are closing in, faster than ever.
In a major management reshuffle – something that is becoming a bit of a habit at the giant – Kalyan, who was roped in just seven months ago to head sales de facto- marketplace, retail and advertising businesses, has now been asked to assume the top spot of CEO. Binny Bansal, his predecessor, graduates to heading Flipkart Group – the alliance of Jabong, Myntra, Flipkart, PhonePe, and Ekart.
Kalyan holds an MBA degree from Asian Institute of Management, the Philippines, and another MBA in Finance from UIUC College of Business, Illinois (US). They say he is Lee Fixel’s trump card, his right-hand man. As the former MD and Director of Finance and Portfolio Companies at Tiger Global Management LLC, this is not the first time he was sought out by Flipkart to run the show. For a year and a half starting May 2013, he served as the Interim CFO at Flipkart Online Services Pvt. Ltd.
He brought with him his sharp acumen in the dynamics of e-commerce, having served as the Director of Financial Planning and Analysis at eBay Asia-Pacific and Country Finance Director (South-East Asia, Hong Kong) at eBay prior to joining Tiger. He has also clocked stints at Procter & Gamble, in a supply chain finance position, and Sunshine Teahouse Pvt. Ltd.
Kalyan is known to play the longest games of hide-and-seek with the media and is hard to track down – in keeping with the ways of most of his colleagues back at Tiger.
An entrepreneur who knows Kalyan and the Bansals, however, says, "That had better change. As CEO, he will have to talk to the media and be more open."
Yet, anybody who has worked with him, at any level, be it a subordinate or a senior, vouches for his people skills. During his first stint at Flipkart, the workforce was taken by his sense of interest, involvement, and accountability with even the lowest level of workings.
However, he was never too cautious with the whip, and took some tough calls to make at least four tricky executive-level firings. These risks, however, instilled a deeper sense of accountability in the 30,000-strong internal taskforce at India’s highest valued internet player, which was said to have gotten complacent.
He was also tasked with undoing the blemishes that the first Big Billion Days (BBD) left on the company, again under his own regime in 2014, by churning out a more foolproof third edition in 2016. He did succeed, if surpassing the sales of arch-rival Amazon in sale-season is an indicator. Forced by his commitment to the annual flagship event, Kalyan had joined Twitter in November 2016, only to make all of 11 tweets, each surrounding the workings of Flipkart's Big Billion Days.
"Kalyan is a fantastic numbers person. He is also extremely perceptive. He can see a person and know instinctively whether that person will be good for the job," says a source not wanting to be named. They were part of a portfolio company of Tiger, and have worked closely with Kalyan.
This time around, he is tasked with strengthening the mother ship, which has encountered tempests, even if one doesn’t benchmark its performance against the competition. After all, it was devalued from $15 billion to $5.5 billion in multiple markdowns last year.
Media and social media conjecture suggests that he was brought onboard to take on Amazon head on – even though Flipkart still commands more market share, albeit marginally, in India’s $15 billion e-commerce industry, the gap is ever decreasing. People also haven’t missed the fact that he is but an outsider, and that for the first time, an Indian unicorn will be run by someone who is not a founder. Whether it was a case of strategic headhunting and placing the right man in the right job, or an instance of investors losing confidence in the founders and stepping in to right the wrongs is anybody’s guess at this stage.
"When I came in in 2013, it was agreed that I would go back. There was no big reason behind it. This is a different chapter. I'm here to stay and put my head down and work," he had told TOI in a December interview, before he was appointed CEO.
Flipkart decided to combine a number of verticals under Kalyan; within a few months of him coming onboard in June, private label, marketplace, marketing, and customer experience product were all asked to report to Kalyan. So, even as Kalyan is to report to Binny on paper, inside sources revealed, as reported by this article in Mint, that he is his own boss and answers directly to the board.
As of now, Flipkart continues to lose tens of millions of dollars every month. Popular consumer feedback suggests that there are gaps when it comes to their customer service, after-sales service and returns and refund policies. Hence, one can infer that their priorities are skewed and that their customer acquisition strategy, at a time when India is still appeasing its billions to adopt digital, is hardly up to the mark.
This, however, happens to be an area that Amazon is rather overtly gunning at and might prove to be the reason for the turn of tables in this gripping great Indian startup story.