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New Amway CEO shares digital vision

Milind Pant outlines goals for the direct-selling company in an age of fierce e-commerce competition.

August 2, 2019
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Having lived the life of a “global nomad” for 25 years, Milind Pant said he didn’t know much about Amway when he accepted his current role as CEO of the direct-selling company — but he was drawn to the “pioneering spirit and large heart” evident in the legacies of founders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel.

Pant spoke about how he plans to build on that legacy at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce’s most recent Business Insights breakfast on July 30 at the chamber offices, 250 Monroe Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids.

Born and raised in the foothills of India’s Himalayas, Pant learned English as a child at his father’s urging by listening to the BBC Radio and reading American newspapers before the family had a television.

He said his parents taught him to do the right thing, study hard and be whatever he wanted to be — values he likens to Amway’s founding principles of “freedom, family, hope and reward” to which Pant was so drawn when he began talks with the company a year ago.

Pant assumed leadership and management of Ada-based Amway on Jan. 2, the first non-family top executive of the 60-year-old company.

Prior to Pant’s appointment, Amway was co-led for many years by Steve Van Andel and Doug DeVos in what Amway referred to as “the office of the chief executive.”

Van Andel and DeVos, sons of the co-founders, are now co-chairs of the company’s board of directors, and Pant reports to the board.

As the Business Journal previously reported, Pant joined Amway from Yum! Brands, where he most recently served as president of Pizza Hut International, leading the international division through growth across Asia, India and Europe while overseeing more than 9,000 Pizza Hut locations outside the U.S. and the advancement of e-commerce and digital strategies.

Before joining Yum! Brands, Pant spent 14 years with Unilever in a variety of executive roles, including VP of foods for Africa, the Middle East and Turkey.

He and his family — his wife of 22 years, Amrita, and his two sons who are now in college and high school — lived all over the world before coming to Grand Rapids, including Durban, South Africa; Delhi; Bangkok; Shanghai; and Dallas.

Pant’s background in the food industry did not prepare him for what he said was a surprising discovery when he started at Amway — that the company is “one of the world’s biggest owners of organic farms,” with estates in Brazil, Mexico and Washington state that use “the latest technology,” including autonomous vehicles, to help produce and harvest plants that are used in Amway’s Nutrilite supplements.

As the company’s new leader, Pant has inherited the task of traveling around the world, especially in the largest market for Amway — China — not only to tell the company’s story to newcomers in a fun and engaging way, but to inspire the existing 1 million Amway business owners (ABOs), the term by which its product sellers are known in markets outside the U.S. Domestically, they are known as independent business owners (IBOs).

Amway was “one of the world’s first offline platforms,” according to Pant. It had a simple pitch to people who wanted to earn money on the side.

“It said, ‘Hey, if you have the time, you have the energy and you want to work hard, come work for us and connect customers with these products,’” he said, noting this was a form of “gigging” before the term “gig economy” had been coined.

But now that low-skill side hustles are available everywhere, from Uber and Lyft to DoorDash, GrubHub, Shipt, Airbnb and more, Pant said Amway needs to work harder to compete for talent.

“We need to be relevant and competitive in the fast-changing world,” he said.

In the past six months, Pant went to the countries where Amway has its biggest base of ABOs to hear from “the young at heart, business owners and entrepreneurs.” He also conducted a tour of top global tech companies, such as Google, Tencent and Alibaba, and visited an array of nutrition, beauty and tech startups in Silicon Valley and across the U.S.

“We went there to understand ‘What do we do? How do we change our way going forward?’” Pant said.

At Amway’s 60th anniversary celebration, attended by 5,000 of the most successful ABOs from 100 countries, Pant said he joined DeVos and Van Andel on stage to share the company’s vision and strategy for the next 10 years.

“Amway has always been a person-to-person idea,” Pant said. “How do we take that idea and help Amway businesses succeed in a world where people-to-people relationships are as much online as in person — actually, even more online? Who we call a friend is different from who we called a friend 35 years ago.”

Pant said part of the new strategy is straightforward: getting ABOs and IBOs to discover and harness whatever their passion is to build a community online around their products as “micro social influencers.”

Because he subscribes to the idea of a “growth mindset” that requires leaders to eschew the status quo, Pant took it upon himself to transform his Instagram account from “one-and-a-half followers” before he was appointed CEO to 25,600 as of press time. He uses the account as a platform to showcase Amway’s activities and investments around the world, but he also pours energy into it because he knows he is the face of the effort to bring Amway’s brands into the digital age.

Recognizing social media today can be just as powerful or more powerful than the work of an advertising agency, Pant said Amway is paying close attention to it — including the fact that TikTok and WeChat have surpassed Facebook as the first- and second-most downloaded social apps in the world. Amway recently formed a partnership with WeChat in which ABOs can use the platform to do business.

Pant shared a handful of success stories from ABOs in China, Japan and Taiwan who have built spheres of influence and become top sellers in their markets, mainly using Instagram. He said he hopes the company’s efforts to modernize will multiply the number of success stories around the world.

But Pant believes Amway has work to do internally, changing its capabilities and business model to support the current digital realities.

“We’ll have to build a platform, we’ll have to have the tools, we’ll have to have the training, we’ll have to have the data, the analytics, we’ll have to have products that are not just high quality but also what we now call ‘Instagenic,’ which means that they’re Instagram-worthy, photogenic products that can easily be shared online,” he said.

“We have to have shopping experiences that are easy to order, easy to pay, easy to track and so on.”

Pant said he is following the example set by Amway’s co-founders as he leads the company into the next decade.

“Amway was founded by two friends who weren’t afraid to fail, who were uncomfortable with the status quo, who were continuous learners and spotted the best in everyone,” he said. “That is the growth mindset. It’s very consistent with Rich and Jay.”

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