Francesco Buzzi is a self-professed e-commerce geek ever since he made his first eBay purchase on his Windows 95 computer at 11 years old — little surprise then that he would go on to lead one of the most successful e-commerce platforms in South East Asia. Today, he is in Singapore, pursuing an MBA at INSEAD.
Buzzi, however, is Italian and cut his teeth at Politecnico di Milano, where he armed himself with a bachelor’s and master’s. He would go on to work for EY and then Rocket Internet before becoming Zalora’s Regional Central Planning Manager.
As the Chief Commercial Officer’s right-hand man for all buying strategy decisions, he was responsible for pricing optimization and markdowns across all countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. He also coordinated the buying team during the most important onsite campaigns (i.e. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, 12.12).
Today, he’s an MBA at INSEAD student in Singapore, the first in his family to pursue such a degree. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs with my father running a small business that’s more than 70 years old which he inherited from my grandfather,” he shares. “I had to explain to him what an MBA is and what the value of this expensive 10-month experience is.”
We spoke to this Italian MBA at INSEAD student to learn more about his career, his programme and his future plans:
What made you pursue your MBA at INSEAD in Singapore after your extensive work career?
Besides its academic value, an MBA at INSEAD is an investment to expand your personal network and self-reflect on what you’ve done in the first chapters of your career. A 10-month programme is quite a unique opportunity to take a break in your 30 plus years of career and understand from your peers for other possible options.
Some of the people you meet at INSEAD will shape the business world of tomorrow and they represent an invaluable asset for your future. The INSEAD alumni community is the most diverse network of individuals with a strong presence in Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, North Africa and increasingly in the US.
Some of the connections I’m building this year will definitely have an impact on my professional life. I’m the first of the family to pursue an MBA which is not a very popular degree in Italy where the business ecosystem is made of small companies.
I was already considering pursuing an MBA after Zalora, but I decided to postpone and challenge myself with other work experiences first. Coming with an extensive experience helped me to maximize in-class learnings.
If you allow me, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all my past employers, including my father. At EY, I had the opportunity to work with the upper management of large banks in Italy at the age of 24. Zalora and my managers gave me a lot of responsibility despite my young age and taught me how to act like an entrepreneur.
However, it was when I led the digital renovation of my family business that I learnt how to make things happen with a very tight budget. Then, as a Director of the Operations at ProntoPro – the largest two-sided marketplace to hire professionals in Italy – I was trusted by the founders to manage a large team for the first time. I realised how hard the job of a people manager is and how much continuous self-improvement is required to be considered a leader.
Last year, the decision of applying to INSEAD finally came after discussing with two alumni in my personal network. They were extremely helpful at clarifying all the short and long-term benefits that I would have earned by joining a prestigious program like the MBA at INSEAD.
Where does your interest in e-commerce come from? What do you envision for this industry in the coming years with the fast pace of digitisation?
The interest came a long time ago. I was an early adopter of Amazon and eBay in Italy. I placed my first eBay order when I was in 2000 when I had a Windows 95 computer with a lousy dial-up modem.
In those years, e-commerce in Italy was all about getting the weirdest toys shipped from the US. Generally, those items were difficult to find or very expensive to buy offline. I also tried to sell items online (mainly “copied” video games).
What I see about the e-commerce industry is that there is great consolidation in almost every market with local champions in Southeast Asia that are taking over international brands. The winner in each market will be the platform capable of creating the largest ecosystem with apps like GoTo in Indonesia.
Retail brands will need a multiplatform e-commerce strategy with dedicated internal competencies for an online ecosystem. The pandemic has boosted the e-commerce penetration everywhere in the world especially in countries with a low baseline.
The trend of group buying and social e-commerce from China will also bring downward pressure to wholesale and retail prices that are driven by volume discounts. New “disguised” private equity boutiques are rising in every market to buy out the most successful online brands that have a presence on the largest platforms.
Thrasio in the US was the first. Branded and factory14 in Europe, and UnaBrand in Southeast Asia are a couple out of the many more examples. In the private equity and venture capital industry, there are a lot of dry powder available but not enough investment opportunities.
This new business model is an interesting elevation. The new online “Unilever” conglomerates are expected to rise in the upcoming years.
As an MBA at INSEAD student, what has been your most memorable class so far?
I would say the best class is the one I haven’t attended yet. So far, the professor that impressed me the most was the one teaching macroeconomics. His two-month programme gives everyone the tools to understand what’s going on in the world.
Second place goes to the professor teaching “Uncertainty, Data and Judgement.” During the whole course, he used probability theories to frame many different real-world problems. The class was very engaging despite the theory being dry.
Third place is the “Master Strategy Day,” an occasion where INSEAD students need to get involved in a 24-hour consulting project to support an organisation to solve a challenging business problem.
What are the practical learning elements in your MBA at INSEAD programme?
Most learning here is very practical and built over some real business cases. Putting yourself in the shoes of a business leader that has to make a difficult decision is an example of the things we have to do. Trying to frame the problem and debate with the class on possible solutions.
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What skills have you gained thus far?
At Politecnico di Milano, I was trained to solve complex quantitative problems across many fields including manufacturing operations, corporate finance and information technology. At INSEAD, you don’t go as in-depth but you connect the dots and understand how different pieces of an organisation can be optimised for more value.
Furthermore, you learn about practical organisational issues and global business challenges from your peers. Each MBA student can then reinforce this knowledge on selected topics. For instance, I reinforced my understanding of financial and managerial accounting.
What do you plan to do with this degree after graduating?
My goal after my MBA at INSEAD is to take on a leadership role in a tech company. Ideally, a category defining business.
In my previous work experiences, I joined companies that were trying to disrupt existing industries by importing new business models into target geographies where such models were not exploited yet. In the future, I would like to join a company that is redefining a new industry from scratch.
Within five years after graduation, I would like to become a founder and build my own consumer internet business.
What’s one thing you miss from home and how do you substitute it?
Of course, the most irreplaceable thing is the love of family and friends.
Besides, I am Italian and therefore food is the thing that I miss the most. Not a specific dish but in general the ingredients you can find in Italy. However, in Singapore there are some Italian restaurants that make me feel at home, but if you want to know which ones we need another interview.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Leading my own internet company and supporting the Italian ecosystem of tech companies by investing in the new and most promising startups.