Whatever John Boumphrey thought he was taking on when he became Amazon’s UK boss, he almost certainly underestimated it.
When he was appointed in November 2020, Britain was mired in the second major wave of Covid-19 infections and Amazon was experiencing a surge in demand as customers stuck at home turned to online shopping.
It was then forced to face more chaos last year when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threw global supply chains into chaos, causing inflation to skyrocket and triggering the cost of living crisis.
Learning on the job: Whatever John Boumphrey thought he was taking on when he became Amazon’s UK boss, he almost certainly underestimated it.
But the extent of the company’s growth since the pandemic has surprised even veteran staff, and Boumphrey has seen its British workforce more than double to 75,000 since it started.
“It wasn’t easy and we learned a lot on the job,” he admits. “I really want to have a normal year, because I haven’t had one yet.”
Boumphrey’s calm, jovial demeanor contrasts with the frenetic hive of activity at our meeting place: the main floor of one of Amazon’s massive warehouses, or as the company calls them, “fulfillment warehouses,” near Dartford in the south bank of the Thames.
Behind us, machines and employees are busy picking, packing and shipping thousands of items to waiting customers across Britain in a symphony of whirring conveyor belts, beeping barcode scanners and appropriately named ‘Slam’ robots. (scan, label, apply and manifest) that stamp directions. in packages. The warehouse itself, the size of six and a half football fields, is only slightly younger than Boumphrey’s tenure as UK coach, having opened its doors in 2021.
And the rapid expansion he has presided over shows no signs of slowing down. Amazon plans to open two more warehouses before the end of the year, one of which will be located in the West Midlands town of Sutton Coldfield, creating up to 1,400 jobs.
The company will also continue to venture into the physical world of physical stores with its Amazon Fresh brand.
Boumphrey dismisses recent reports of store closures in some areas, saying it’s part and parcel of how the division works.
“One of my roles as country director is to champion the UK and make sure we are at the forefront of welcoming investment,” says Boumphrey.
Amazon launched in Britain in 1998. At the time, it was still primarily an online bookseller headed by its founder Jeff Bezos, who seemed intent on revolutionizing the traditional publishing industry.
Since then, it has become one of the country’s largest private sector employers and a one-stop shop for virtually everything that can be legally purchased.
This was emphasized by data released last week showing the 25 most popular products of all time on Amazon.co.uk. The list, topped by Andrex Gentle Clean toilet paper rolls, also includes the much-derided Crocs shoes, Earth Rated dog poop bags and Nizoral anti-dandruff shampoo, along with more predictable products like the Harry Potter books, the game of Dobble cards and the Echo Dot smart speaker.
Boumphrey has witnessed the marked shift in purchasing patterns over the past year as the cost of living crisis has increased pressure on household budgets.
AI: Amazon is already working to implement AI, and the technology is currently used in the US.
‘We have seen people buying more unbranded products and also changing the size of their purchases. They either buy in bulk to save money or buy items in smaller sizes than before.’
But one customer the company can apparently count on is the boss himself, who says he and his family “buy everything on Amazon,” including several Kindle e-books to feed their reading habits.
Boumphrey, 48, grew up in Wirral, near Liverpool, and has a family legacy in retail. His father worked as a regional manager for American food giant General Foods, now part of Kraft Heinz. Meanwhile, his mother initially stayed at home before retraining as an adult literacy teacher when he was a teenager.
In his professional life, Boumphrey spent more than seven years as a manager at US consultancy Bain & Company before almost five years at DIY retailer Homebase. He joined Amazon in 2011. Since then, the retail and tech giant’s presence in Britain has soared, with a workforce exceeding 2,500 employees.
Its rise to the top of the UK arm of the business almost mirrors Amazon UK’s dramatic expansion over the last decade, as well as how the retail landscape has changed dramatically.
He joined as head of the music and DVD business, which have since been absorbed by streaming services such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon’s own Prime arm. The father-of-three then rose steadily through the ranks, running Amazon’s European fashion division for just over two years before taking over as UK boss in 2020.
The new perspective that your current role has given you on the business environment has raised an area of concern. Surprisingly, it is not about the tax regime, an area where Amazon is frequently criticized for not paying its fair share despite the company’s claims of being a top 15 taxpayer to Revenue and Customs.
“I have so much on my plate that I haven’t had time to really think about the UK tax regime,” says Boumphrey, although he stresses that it is “really important that big companies contribute” to the nation’s coffers.
Instead, he expresses concern about the state of UK competition regulations and says there is an “opportunity” for Britain to stand out post-Brexit from its continental counterparts.
It says companies should have the ability to appeal the substance of decisions made by the watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), rather than the proposed regime, which allows companies to challenge only the process by which a conclusion is reached.
‘The CMA has significant power over companies and cannot challenge the substance of a decision… I think what we would be looking for is a merit-based approach to appeal.
‘The UK has an opportunity to differentiate itself from the EU. And I think what’s really important is that there are proper checks and balances.’
He adds: “This is an untested regime and I think it makes sense for businesses and the Government that the appeals process is fit for purpose.” Boumphrey remains tight-lipped about Amazon’s UK plans beyond the imminent opening of the two new fulfillment centres, although that could be because some of them may depend on the decisions of his US bosses.
“Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball,” he says, but reiterates that Amazon will likely continue to focus on the very corporate-sounding area of ”innovation.” Key to this is the rapidly developing area of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly through computer programs such as ChatGPT.
‘Over the last six to 12 months we’ve seen generative AI really make leaps and bounds. And I think that’s going to reimagine every part of the shopping experience,” he says.
Amazon is already working to implement AI, and the technology is currently used in the US to help summarize thousands of customer product reviews. Will you ever find yourself coveting the top spot at Amazon and becoming the next Jeff Bezos?
Boumphrey laughs and says he is “absolutely delighted” to be taking on his current role.
‘It is a great privilege to manage Amazon UK. It’s a big business we run and I feel a responsibility to the 75,000 employees we have in Britain.’
He also does not seem interested in moving to the United States, where he previously worked for almost three years as Amazon’s head of consumables programs at its Seattle headquarters.
‘I had the opportunity to work there and I loved it. But for personal reasons, I’m very happy to be back in the UK.”
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