S4E1: Senior Management Across Borders with Scott Lalor at Amazon

Guest: Scott Lalor started his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University where he studied economics and finance. After graduating he had the opportunity to work for a few local companies in Utah including Zango, Goldman Sachs, and England Logistics. He then got his Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame. After receiving his MBA Scott recruited straight to Amazon at their headquarters in Seattle. A few years later he transferred to their Luxembourg office where he is currently living with his family and filling the role of Senior Vendor Manager.

Overview: Have you ever wondered what it’s like getting a career in international business? Or how to manage diverse teams representing a variety of cultures and countries? Join us as we learn from Scott Lalor, Senior Manager at Amazon in Luxembourg as he shares with us his experience managing abroad.

Transcript

Meg: So first Scott could you give us a little bit of a background about yourself?

Scott: Absolutely, first thank you for inviting me out. I’m excited to be back on campus and speaking about business. So, I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and then out of high school I came to BYU. I played on the lacrosse team, had a ton of fun doing that. And then I spent two years on a church mission in California. I came back from that and focused more on my studies. I ended up graduating in Economics but also spent a fair amount of time in the business school studying finance. And then I ended up getting my MBA at the University of Notre Dame.

Personally, I am married to my wonderful wife Allie. We have two boys ages eight and four. We absolutely love to travel, it’s one of our favorite things to do; my two boys have been to twenty-one countries already, so they love to travel as well so we passed that on to them. And anything outdoor-related hiking, biking, fly-fishing, and most recently I’ve picked up soccer or as my European colleagues a called it Futbol. I am still pretty bad, but I have a lot of fun doing that.

Meg: Tell me a little bit more about some of your travel experiences…

Scott: So, we’ve lived in Luxembourg for two and a half years. It has really become kind of our leap pad to the world. We’ve been able to travel to a lot of European countries and we’ve also been able to go a little bit farther. So, we’ve spent time in Israel, Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt. Some really some special places and it’s really taught our family about the world and different cultures.

Just a few fun stories that I like to tell. First, a funny one. So, we were in Germany’s late one night visiting some Christmas markets and we were all hungry and so we went to this pizza place. They didn’t speak English, our German is quite bad and so my son ordered a pepperoni pizza for dinner and when it came out it wasn’t pepperonis like we know here in America, it was actually huge peppers across every inch of the pizza. So, he looked at me in fright. We all had a good laugh about that. So, we ended up picking the peppers off and enjoying now a cheese pizza.

I would say, on the more serious side, we visited Egypt. Egypt as many know, has been through some real challenges over the past five or so years after Arab Spring and you know their economy is struggling. So, we went to a city called Hurghada which is on the Red Sea and visited Luxor and some of the some of the neat Egyptian sites that a lot of people know. When we’re there we got a taxi every day and went into the city and we met this wonderful taxi driver named Mohammed. We became close friends with him. The first day he picked us up and said, “Hey do you do you need a taxi the next day?” and we said, “Sure.” So, we ended up going with Mohammed four or five nights in a row. So, the third night he turned around in the cab and said “Are you interested in meeting my family and coming to my house?” And you know we were in Egypt in the middle of nowhere and we felt a little hesitant about that. We didn’t know how safe would be. I think what I’ve learned so much about living abroad is we have preconceived notions about people and countries and religion and often that is driven by what the media tells us. And so of course we felt hesitant, but we were able to build a relationship with him. And so, my wife and I just said, “Sure.” We ended up going to his parents’ house. Just to kind of paint a picture, it was a very run-down apartment. We walked in, still a little bit nervous and right when I walked in Mohamed told us to sit down on the floor. We met his parents, they were wonderful. But Mohammed ran out the door. So we were now thinking “Wait, what’s going on? You just brought us unto your home you ran out the door.” I didn’t know what he was doing, if he was going to get whoever. He ended up bringing his whole extended family in. So, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of kids can run in the door and his sister and his other sister and brother-in-law. They were speaking in Arabic and basically saying, “The Americans have arrived.” So, they made us tea and we sat on the floor, they showed us their wedding video, and his kids start playing with my kids. They were telling us about their lives in about the challenges that they’ve had with the Taliban and have his brothers fought terrorism and how his brother died in the Army. We walked away from this experience just loving the Egyptian people. It was such a special moment to connect with these people from a completely different part of the world, but they want the same thing that we want. Like a stable government, good jobs, and a safe place for our family. We actually still keep in contact with Mohammed. We’ve been able to support him in some ways. His mother is quite sick and unable to support him. That’s a really special experience that I was able to share with my family.

Meg: Sounds pretty amazing. It’s one thing to visit another country, but really amazing thing when you can actually connect with the people. Thanks for sharing those cultural experiences with us.

So now can you give us a little bit of a description of your career path, where you’ve been, what you’re doing now?

Scott: When I was at BYU, I was very lost. All my friends seem to know exactly what they want to do, whether it be investment banking or consulting and I frankly didn’t. I didn’t know what to do. So, like I said I did economics and was interested in finance. I graduated around 2010 right after the financial crisis so there were a ton of jobs out there. The economy wasn’t doing great. So, I ended up starting a company called Zango. They have a big international presence and I knew I want to work in finance, and I knew I want to work in an international environment. I started as a treasury analyst managing the European business consisting of money movement, foreign exchange policy, and working to ensure that we have the right cash in the right places. So that was a fun job.

I was then recruited by Goldman Sachs in their Salt Lake office working with hedge fund clients, so being both operational support and customer support to that. I learned a lot at Goldman. Very tough environment.

After that, I was recruited by a company called England Logistics, also a local company here in Utah. It is mainly a trucking logistics company, but they had a separate arm where they did accounts receivable factoring. So, basically buying receivables from trucking companies and then paying out at a discounted rate. I manage that whole division risk and risk portfolio. So, we would analyze the risk of each receivable and manage the trucking companies that we work with. We grew really fast, had a big team, both from a finance standpoint and an operations standpoint. I learned a lot. That was like a crash course on management. Things are going really well but I always knew I wanted to get an MBA. I wanted a broader business education and I knew I wanted more International exposure.

I ended up applying to the University of Notre Dame, I had friends go there, and got accepted. That was in Indiana and just a wonderful experience. I loved culture Notre Dame, and the people were really special, and of course the sports and the football games were extra fun.

Out of my MBA I was recruited by Amazon. They came on campus and did four interviews in two days and then I was lucky enough to receive an offer. I started to Amazon in Seattle as a Senior Product Manager over a Prime Now. Prime Now is an ultra-fast 1-2 hour shipping and it was brand new. Honestly, the best way to describe it was like the wild west. We were trying to figure out how to continue to meet our customers promise, which is 1-2 hours, which is much faster than what we’ve ever done at Amazon. So, I got thrown in there when it was part of the product team. So, I help to define what selection our customers would want in 1-2 hours. It was more of a consumable base model than what you traditionally buy at Amazon.com. I did that for about two years and really enjoyed it. But that desire to do more international work was still in me. I hadn’t ever worked in-country and so after that two years I did a lot of networking in the different global companies within Amazon. I reach out to the London office, and the Luxembourg office, and Singapore, and any of the more English-speaking countries. I ended up finding this role in Luxembourg.

When I started Luxembourg, I was a manager of vendor management for the automotive team. So, I’ve been doing that role now for about two and a half years.

Meg: So now that you are working internationally will you explain to us a little bit more of the nature of your business interactions with different cultures and countries?

Scott: The Amazon that Americans know and love is the retail Amazon. It’s basically three things in our business model, it’s selection, convenience, and price. What we try to have is the best selection of the whole world, which means a really broad selection. We always have good prices or sharp prices. Third is convenience and the way we think about convenience is that we can deliver it to you fast and that whatever products you want we have in stock. So, we’re basically taking that Playbook from the US and taking it to Europe. So, within the automotive team we’re were much younger. So, the automotive division that I work in has only been around five or six years. So, we’re building our selection, we’re making sure we can deliver fast, and that we have the proper prices. So, in my role as a Senior Manager I interact and my team interaction with vendors across the EU, the US, and Asia to sell products in our five Amazon EU websites. So, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the UK. My team manages all aspects of the vendor relationship from introducing them to Amazon, to contract negotiations, and then to account management. I love it because we get a build a strategy the start of the year and how we think to grow this business profitably and then we got to go execute that strategy and we have full P&L responsibility.

Meg: So, you mentioned that you’re kind of taking the amazon structure that they have here in the US and taking it there. What are the main differences of working here in the US versus what you do there?

Scott: My experience is that Europeans have a more balanced approach to work life. Secondly, working a Luxembourg offers much more International diversity for such a small country. Luxembourg is a special place. Many people don’t know much about Luxembourg. It’s a tiny country that is in between Germany, France, and Belgium. It has about 600,000 and half of the people are expats or not from Luxembourg. That makes for a very International community that you just don’t find in too many places. I think big cities like London, and New York, and Singapore have that and so I would put Luxembourg out there. So, you get that international feel.

A fun story that I like to tell or two different stories I like to share. So, my son had a party a couple months back at our house and all the kids are playing and there were 8 or 9 kids over there. The countries of those children represented where India, China, England, Greece, Italy, and Turkey. In his classroom there’s 12 or 13 different countries represented, and we love that I think it’s so cool. The conversations that we have with our boys about these different cultures and about how different parents are and different relationships are is something that that we love.

Meg: I bet. And they’re probably learning a lot from their different experiences.

Scott: Absolutely, we have conversations that we just wouldn’t have if we lived here in Utah or somewhere else. We’ve talked about currency and how a Euro isn’t exactly worth a dollar and why that is, and we talked about languages and how the different languages work. Both boys are learning French so that’s exciting to see them progress in their learning. And like I said we talk about culture because the way our friends’ parents interact with their children is different than us.

Another funny story is our Italian friends invited us over for dinner on a Saturday night. So we said, “great, we’re excited,” good fresh Italian food. That was earlier in the week and so it was Saturday and so we text them and said, “okay what time should we come over? us Americans usually eat dinner let’s say 5 or 6 p.m.” and they said, “come over around 8:30 and we’ll start eating at 9 p.m.” So, we kind of laughed, our kids typically go to bed around 8, but all Italians culturally they have really late dinners. Kind of as a joke we bring our two boys in their pajamas because we knew we were going to be over there till 11 or 12 and we were thinking about getting up early in the next day. So that was a funny experience.

Meg: That’s funny that you mention that because I noticed even when we were in Luxembourg there everything seems to close a little bit early. The city goes to sleep. So, what’s the day to day like at your job in Luxembourg?

Scott: It’s quite similar to my time in Seattle. Generally, working in Europe the way I described it is that it is a little bit more complex. You have the EU, European Union, which bring some unification to working in those different countries, but every country has its differences. So, whether it be different currencies or different languages. Logistically each country does it a little bit differently, the regulations I would say or less unified than the US. So, when we manage 5 websites with 5 different languages and multiple currencies it’s a little bit harder to scale and to accomplish some of the things that we need to accomplish. So, it becomes challenging you have to be really creative about where you spend your time and you have to ruthlessly prioritize on the most important things.

Meg: Sounds like you have a little bit more steps along the way. So, how do you approach management and leadership when working in a multicultural team or working in a multicultural environment?

Scott: This is something I’ve learned a lot working internationally. The first thing I would say is listen more and talk less, which is hard for me. I would say one of the greatest takeaways from working and living abroad is it has made me more unsure of myself and how I think the world works. And I mean that in a good way. Regardless of who you are if you live and grow up in the same location your whole life you come to believe your surroundings are how the world works or how the world should work. When you get thrown into a different country, a different culture, you see other ways of solving problems and you say to yourself “wow maybe there is more than one way to solve a problem. Maybe the way we do it isn’t the best way or maybe there’s other ways.” And even better you say, “you know these people and these cultures they understand something that I don’t understand.” So, I love that as I’ve re-evaluated how I think about different cultures and think about the world. As a manager I’ve learned that diversity is so important in building a team. If you can build a diverse team then you can tap into different strengths and have greater outcomes. I’ve also noticed if you have people that are all the same whether it be all from a country certain country or from a certain part of a country, or all male or all female it often quiets the minority group. The ideas aren’t as good, because not only do the majority think a lot alike and agree with each other, it can hurt the team dynamics. So, being attentive to diversity on a team is super important. I try to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak up and has a platform to share his or her opinions.

Meg: Has it ever been difficult for you in trying to form teams and deciding who should be on what team?

Scott: Yeah cause the core of what you do is your people. Our Vice President said it the other day. He said, “our main focus is to build and develop our people. Luxembourg makes it a little bit easier maybe then some locations. So, within my vendor management team we have people from Italy, Germany, France, Turkey, India, America, and the UK. That geographical diversity is so valuable, and you know the questions you asked was “is it difficult?” I think it’s really difficult. Also, from a female perspective I work in the automotive world and there’s these preconceived notions that it’s only a male driven culture. And so, we’re trying to be the leaders in the automotive world to bring with more women into it. We as a leadership team focus a lot on that and not only just wait for female applications to come in but go out and recruit female employees. That’s been really important for me and it’s led to such great success.

Meg: When it comes down to it would you say the diversity really trumps the specific skill needs, or is it a balance of both?

Scott: That’s a really hard question to answer. Let me answer it in this way. At Amazon we don’t believe so much in industry knowledge. We specifically have on our application “no Automotive experience necessary.” Which I think it completely different than a lot of other companies. We believe if you’re smart and you can meet our leadership principles, core values, and our culture we can teach you about the automotive industry. But it’s very difficult to teach culture. It’s difficult to teach diversity. But if you can build a strong culture and you can build a diverse team, we can teach you the necessities of the industry.

Meg: That’s an interesting perspective that not many have. I like that. Does your approach to vender management differ between different countries? How? In what way?

Scott: For sure. As mentioned, different cultures approach business differently and to get positive results I have to adjust accordingly. For example, Italian vendors that I work with, in my opinion, value relationships more than other cultures. In the US when I worked with vendors everything is very email-based. We didn’t necessarily build a relationship. It was more of a transactional relationship than a personal relationship.

I’ll give a story to illustrate what I mean. As I mentioned my vendor managers and I we go out and we try to bring vendors onto Amazon. So, we were working to sign a vendor on Amazon, this was a very important vendor, we called them and sent them emails and tried to convince them to join Amazon for years really. Things were just not moving. We could always get kind of wishy-washy answers and “yeah we’ll join” or “yeah we’ll do this” but we just never saw the results. Finally, my Senior Vendor Manager and I got on a plane down to Milan, drove a couple hours, and went to meet this vendor face-to-face. We shook their hands, we visited their factory and we sat we and just talk for a half an hour 45 minutes about them, about the history of their company, about their products, about them personally. And then after we built that trust, after we got to know each other, after they looked in our eyes and trusted us. Then we could actually talk about business and the conversations we had there so different than the ones we had on our phone.

What I learned from that experience and others like that is that each culture has a different style of doing business. To be successful you first have to be aware of these differences. It has taken me a year to really understand these differences. Secondly, adjust accordingly. We had a lot of success with that vendor after that meeting and we’ve had subsequent meetings where they’ve come to Luxembourg. Now they know me personally, they know about me, and they know about our business. So, it required a higher level of trust than what I’m used to. Like I said once I realize that then I’ve become much more successful in knowing what’s important to these vendors.

Meg: That’s very interesting. And that kind of leads to my next question. What would you say are necessary skills that you need when working in vendor management with different countries?

Scott: What we call vendor management at Amazon other companies can call different names. We’re kind of like a sales team and we’re kind of like account managers. We do both functions. The way I would answer that question is first you have to have good strong interpersonal skills.

Like I said earlier you have to be able to listen. Close your mouth and listen because what’s going to come isn’t maybe what you expect. Because each business has a different strategy and different philosophy and that’s especially true of the international level. So, being able to listen, to ask questions, and being able to build those relationships at a personal level are absolutely necessary.

Second is negotiations. We negotiate every day. We have interest and the vendor has interest and sometimes those are aligned and sometimes those aren’t aligned. You have to be creative to find solutions that benefit both parties and where both parties can gain. You have to understand where there is value for them and where you can add value. Sharpening this negotiation skills is really important.

Third is data analysis/finance. My core education, like I said, is economics and finance. You can’t own a P&L Statement, you can’t own an income statement if you don’t understand how the income statement works. So, things I learned at BYU and the Notre Dame, just those core fundamentals of how the income statement interacts with the cash flow statement and the balance sheet. Because I know that I can then take action that will impact those different line items. So being able to both understand the financial aspect and then the data analysis comes when you have millions of rows of data and how to tell a story. At Amazon as you can imagine we have so much data, more data than you could ever want. Data about what customers are looking at, what customers are clicking on, what’s the click-through rate, what’s the sell through rate, how often are we out of stock when someone comes and looks at a product, and our pricing. It’s easy for new employees Amazon and other companies to get totally lost in this data. We’re in a world of data now with the internet and with cell phones. So being able to know what data is most important and really sharpening those data analytics skills. And like I said in Europe at least you have to be able to deal with ambiguity. You have to deal with uncertainty. For example, you have situations like Brexit or certain situations like we’re having in Turkey where the currency devaluations day over day 25%. You don’t necessarily have those experiences in a more stable environment like the US. You have to wake up and be ready for whatever comes at you. So, dealing with ambiguity because there are more political, economic, and cultural differences and so sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and figure out the best solution.

Meg: Sounds like flexibility is a big key needed for success. So, it seems like a big part of what you do has to do with effective communication with different countries. Have you ever had any miscommunication because your expectations were different from another’s? Or just in general?

Scott: Yeah, very good question. So, speaking about myself and where I’ve grown is I was too direct. And I would say on the cultural Spectrum Americans are more direct or one of the most direct cultures. When I first arrived in Europe, I found myself mostly in internal meetings being very direct with people. Not necessarily in a rude way, but just like very direct to the point and I maybe missed some of the small talk and miss some of the relationship building. I remember after about a year my boss took me aside and said, “Scott I appreciate your hard work and you’re doing great things, but you need to be less direct.” And that took me by surprise. I guess at first I was a little mad. It’s hard to receive criticism or feedback when I thought she was wrong. But in retrospect she was totally right. What I learned is to be successful in the long run, in any culture, is you have to make friends. You have to make allies both internally, within your company, and external. What I mean by that is don’t just think about the business problem. Don’t think about people as somebody’s who is going to help you solve a business problem or a transaction. But get people on board. Get them on your boat. Get him going in the same direction, because you’re going to need those same individuals at a later point. When you work for a company for multiple years you interact with those same people whether it be in your department or in the finance department or the marketing department or in operation. You’re going to need those people again. You want to make sure you keep a high standard, you keep a high bar, and your work quality is high, but you don’t you’re not so driven in a way that you burn bridges or hurt long-term relationships.

Meg: That’s a good piece of advice for us to all keep in mind. With that, what other kind of advice would you give for someone who is planning on working internationally?

Scott: I think there’s a few different ways. I think it’s hard to find a job internationally direct from the US to a foreign country. I found it difficult. I tried that but it is very hard. What I’ve seen most people do is get hired within a local company that has operations globally. You do well in your current role, receive high feedback, and let your manager know that you want to work internationally. Then after a year or two or however long you go connect with those local Global office. You build a network there. When hiring internationally if the hiring manager already knows you fit the company culture and you have a track record and they can communicate with your current manager it makes getting hired a lot easier. So that’s what I did at Amazon. I worked for two years in Seattle, built a really strong relationship with my manager, told her exactly what I want to do next, which was work internationally. So when the call came in from my next manager she was prepared and we were all on the same page in terms of what my skill-set was and what was what I was able to accomplish.

Meg: So really prove yourself and then the doors will open. So how could a student like me prepare for a future job in international business?

Scott: The first things I would say is be curious. I would read about the different challenges that are going on in the world. I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, which has an international section so I can stay up to date on all the trends and all the world events both politically and economically in Europe, Asia, and America. So that first will give you an understanding of what’s out there. Secondly, I would say just be brave and get out in the world. Whether it be a vacation first, or a volunteer opportunity, an internship, or something else. My biggest message to young people today is, the world is a big beautiful place and has so much to offer the mind and soul. I love the different cultures, the food, the people, that I’ve been able to experience over the last few years. They all provide an element of excitement and joy. So those connections you make both personally and professionally will be some of the most important connections and the most important things in your life.

Meg: Thank you. We really appreciate you joining us today and all your insights.

Scott: Absolutely, great to be here. Thank you!