Executive Q&A with Prentis Wilson, VP Amazon Business: ‘Make People’s Lives Better’


Is there any way procurement organizations haven’t heard of Amazon Business by now?

 The Spend Matters team has covered this “Billion Dollar Baby” (the company reached about $1 billion in sales last year) and how its overall value proposition stacks up against the SAPs, Aribas and Oracles of the world, among several other facets of how Amazon Business could change — and already is changing — procurement.

 We recently checked in with Prentis Wilson, vice president of Amazon Business, to hear his thoughts on the biggest challenges he faces, what practitioners should know about the company, how e-procurement needs to change and what he does to de-stress from the job.

Spend Matters: How did you first get into procurement? What drew you to it?

Prentis Wilson: I was actually running a big part of a factory a long time ago, earlier in my career. We kept running out of parts. Our suppliers couldn't keep up with demand that we had in the factory. At one point, I decided that I wanted to go work in supply chain or procurement to go manage suppliers and the supply base because I wanted to find out where the problems were, go fix them and help businesses scale. That's largely how I got into procurement, from purchasing.

SM: Describe what you do as vice president of Amazon Business. What are the ins and outs of that role?

PW: The big thing I do is focus on our customers. I spend a lot of time understanding where the needs of our customers are and figuring out how Amazon can provide solutions to those needs. We look at all the technology that Amazon has and how to bring that to bear on behalf of businesses, but also how to develop a bunch of new, innovative technologies and capabilities to really delight and better serve our customers. I spend a lot of time with vendors, manufacturers and sellers, because we also innovate on their behalf as well. Just really make it better for the whole ecosystem to function more efficiently.

SM: What is your favorite part about working with these vendors, manufacturers and sellers?

PW: It's the ability to solve big problems. We see a huge amount of waste and inefficiency out there. The cool thing is there's a lot of new technology that's available in terms of how the internet, and technology associated with e-commerce, has really improved the way that commerce is done. The exciting thing is being able to innovate on behalf of customers using that new technology and really build a better solution. That's super cool to me.

SM: Can you give us some tangible examples of what it means to be “innovating on behalf of customers?”

PW: We are working hard to understand the challenges our business customers face and we are solving for them. For example, one of the big issues that businesses have is random spot-buy purchases. We have this whole marketplace where now, when you go to buy, you're going to a detail page, so you get to see the product and you know it’s exactly what you are looking for. Secondly, you get to see multiple different companies that are all competing, so you know you're getting a great value for that purchase. All the shipping costs, taxes, if appropriate, are all there and visible to you. That's new. A lot of businesses don't really have access to that today.

Another thing is our invoicing solution. They get an invoice with terms and they can buy from millions of different suppliers all in one spot. Customers tell us they love that they can they can consolidate all their long-tail suppliers that used to be expensive to manage all in the Amazon Business marketplace. They can still buy from them and get one invoice from one company.

Then for delivery, if all that stuff is coming through Amazon's fulfillment centers, it might all show up in the same box or on the same pallet. I mean, wow. I can buy from 50 different companies and have it all delivered at one time and I'll get one invoice from it. On top of that, I now get reports at the end of the month and I can tell who I bought from. If some of those sellers are woman-owned businesses or minority-owned businesses, I can see that, too. I can do all that through Amazon.

SM: Are there any other big challenges facing the procurement function today as far as you see it?

PW: Yes. We had a customer here the other day showing us their own procurement system and they said, "Watch us try to buy batteries." They looked up double-A batteries, and there were something like 50 different offers through their e-procurement solution. Some were $2, some were $20, but they couldn't tell if it was the same item or a different item. That's partly because none of the data is normalized. The lack of being able to really easily compare products from supplier to supplier is a big challenge and one we’ve worked hard to solve for.

Another big challenge is this long-tail, p-card visibility. It's sort of like this big black box. Companies have a hard time keeping up with where they're spending their money. The immediate thing a lot of companies do first with us is they move their p-cards to Amazon Business and start encouraging and driving their employees to purchase there. By doing so, they immediately get visibility into their spend.

The last thing is just saving people time. There was a company that actually walked through our process and then did their own internal benchmarking. They had these PhDs that buy their own stuff for their own lab. At the end, they said that their scientists in these labs who are working on new drugs and medicines, new DNA research, whatever it might be, would save 40 hours a year just being able to buy through an Amazon marketplace versus the old procurement system.

SM: What is the biggest contribution procurement professionals can provide to the larger enterprise?

PW: I think one of the biggest things that procurement people can do is work to make people's lives better. Just realize that people at work are busy. People feel good about their work when they're effective and efficient. Sometimes, we work so hard to put procurement bureaucracy or procurement processes in place because we want to ensure we have full visibility, but this can slow everything down.

Back to the lab example, if I'm a lab technician trying to finish my research, and it takes me 20 minutes to order a new beaker or some new antibodies, that’s time away from the meaningful work I’m doing — why can't I just one-click that and be done? Or why can't I just look at my Amazon Echo on the desk and say, "Alexa, order two beakers." Man, I didn't miss a beat! Imagine the amount of money they're going to save the company just by putting those hours of employee time back into getting real work done. That's way more than the 25 cents they would've saved on “that pen.”

SM: What are your biggest challenges in your current role, personally? What do you run up against in solving these big problems?

PW: We're just over a year old, but there's so much interest and so many customers that are engaging with us. It's a super-broad spectrum, from healthcare to small businesses to large manufacturers. As the customers engage with us, they're really eager to do more and are asking us to do more, so one of the biggest things we do is prioritize so that we can be smart about how we scale Amazon Business.

SM: What are your goals for the next year?

PW: We're starting to focus a lot more on specific verticals. For example, we just hired general managers of our healthcare and education businesses. We'll add some other ones in the not-too-distant future. You'll see us do more with customers and you'll see a lot more in terms of features and capabilities coming out to really solve more and more of their needs. We're really just getting started.

SM: How vital is industry intelligence to you in your role and for your team at Amazon Business?

PW: It's super-important to us. We get a lot of input from our customers, our vendors and our sellers, but we also look for the broad industry-wide knowledge that comes from our knowledge partners to help provide insights into how we should shape our strategies and how we can tie things together. It helps us as we start to figure out what our priorities are going to be and where we see opportunities to really add compelling value.

SM: What are some of the key traits you look for in your current or potential knowledge partners?

PW: We look for people that really understand the current world, and also understand e-commerce — the people that sort of bridge the two. That makes it super helpful because we can ideate a bit around how the two are coming together. I would say the No. 1 most important thing is people that really deeply understand the customer and their needs, and how they operate today and can predict how things will be in the next two to five years.

SM: Are there any challenges in terms of collectively innovating within your organization, making changes or being able to pivot easily?

PW: There are some really good mechanisms that we use to operate by and I'm really, really happy with our leadership team and the progress we've made and how we operate. I feel really good about that.

SM: You're a busy guy, obviously. How do you decompress from the day-to-day?

PW: Hiking, biking and spending time with the kids are my go-tos.

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