In various ways Abhiram Chowdhry epitomises Asia’s new generation of corporate leaders. At ease in both east and west, schooled in management theory, entrepreneurial in outlook and attuned to the latest technology, he is making his mark in a sector all set to experience exponential growth.
“To be perfectly honest, my initial foray into e-commerce business was by chance not design,” says the Asia-Pacific managing director of Hotels.com, a division of Expedia Inc specialising in online bookings. “I wanted to work in Asia after finishing my MBA in the US, so in 2001 I joined an online education start-up in Singapore as an in-house strategy and marketing person. It was a quantitative role, measuring clicks and conversions, but I was able to get involved in a lot of different areas and soon fell in love with the space.”
As for many people, interaction with MBA classmates – in his case at the Kellogg School outside Chicago - had been a spur to reassess plans and recognise where individuals with ambition could now find or create new opportunities and alternative career paths.
Previously, Chowdhry had been moving fast, but in a somewhat different direction. Son of a civil servant, he studied economics at Delhi University before landing a marketing job with a big consumer electronics company, which was well positioned to cash in on the boom as Indian households started to buy global brands in the 1990s.
“I was always interested in the whole idea of understanding what the consumer wants and providing a product that appeals,” he says.
That interest no doubt helped to secure a place as a research fellow at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC in 1998. There, he had the chance to work with American companies in everything from insurance and financial services to telecoms and consumer goods, who were looking to get a foothold in the Indian market. It meant dealing with senior executives and government officials and, fortuitously, also coincided with a high-profile visit to India by then US president Bill Clinton, who was keen to enhance trade and other ties.
“I was part of the business delegation for that trip,” Chowdhry says. “It was a chance to observe how things work at that level and, afterwards, I started to talk to the US-India Business Council and they were willing to take me on.”
The subsequent MBA had long been planned; the following move to Singapore was more a matter of instinct and interest.
“Even after the dotcom bust, it just seemed like a good place to do business, though I had to be quite resourceful in finding a first job,” Chowdhry says. “I networked quite a bit and did an internship before getting an offer from Thomson Learning, a start-up looking to sell higher education and graduate programmes online. I read up strategies, figured out which markets to enter, ran their call centre, and was soon interacting with the likes of Google and Yahoo.”
One lesson was that you had to learn on your feet. Another was that you might as well think big. Both still applied when Chowdhry joined Hotels.com in Hong Kong with the brief to expand fast.
To date, the site offers rooms at about 485,000 properties around the world. These range from international chains and upmarket resorts to family-run favourites and bed and breakfast options. Standards, feedback and traffic are closely monitored.
Tellingly, as the market changes in Asia, the total share of travel bookings made online is predicted to jump from 25 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent in 2016, with the trend still upward after that.
“We believe there is plenty of room for growth for ourselves and our competitors, but we still need to be aggressive in investing in the business in Asia,” Chowdhry says. “We look at the metrics and try to focus on executing well, so having a call centre is an important part of our proposition for the customer, if we want to ride the wave of e-commerce in the region.”
In running the business, he sees himself as a facilitator or conductor, someone who sets goals which are specific, measurable and achievable. Then, as far as possible, he lets staff get on with what they do best. There is, for example, a product team taking care of the look, feel and functioning of the software. A marketing team moulds the message for existing and potential users. And members of the supply team, not necessarily based in Hong Kong, are in charge of identifying and negotiating terms with new hotels to include on the site.
“If things are going perfectly, I tend to be more worried,” Chowdhry says. “My mantra is to accept failure in small ways and correct course as necessary. Our business is one where you can do that on a daily basis. You have the ability to measure and optimise what is available to the customer all the time, and that makes it easier to improve the service or remove any roadblocks.”
A tennis enthusiast, he tries to play every weekend, other commitments permitting, and aims for a clear separation between work and leisure.
“I have a young family, with two kids under six, and believe it is important to maintain some sort of balance from an exercise and health perspective.”