Interviews – Technology – Mark Zaleski

Mark Zaleski, 37, is senior vice-president of area operations for US online grocery company Webvan. The firm, which has a net income of more than $231m, is currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a national delivery infra-structure with the aim of becoming the dominant door-to-door retailer in America. Zaleski lives in the heart of the Silicon Valley with his wife and two young children

You’re on the executive board of one of America’s hottest Internet projects – what was your starting point?
Studying for my masters, I guess. I left the UK in the early 1980s and did a Bachelor’s degree in business, before going on to do a part-time masters. I was a managing director at the time and took classes from 6 to10am Monday to Thursday, then a study group on Fridays that ended past midnight. I would study all day Saturday, take Saturday night off, and then study all of Sunday. I had no life at all to speak of. It nearly killed me.

How did you get the job at Webvan?
The guy that turned me on to Webvan was Christo M Cotsakos, chief executive of E*Trade and a board member of Webvan Group. I worked for him both at Federal Express as well as for the global market research company AC Nielsen. I was hired by Webvan’s chairman (chief executive officer at the time) Louis Borders in December 1998. I was part of the executive management team that launched the company’s operations as well as a successful initial public offering that generated nearly $400m.

What is the key to your success?
My masters has been important. It gets you through the door for an interview. And on a practical level it’s extremely useful because it definitely rounds you out. I also had the relevant experience, which really helps. I’m amazed at the number of young people who join Internet companies today expecting to walk into a top job. Academic qualifications are all very well, but I struggle to get my mind around how a fresh-faced graduate can offer any real value to a company without useful experience. But with employment currently at 97% in the US graduates probably can afford to be choosy, but they still have to accept that, to get to a good position, they are going to have to put in the hours.

Do you intend to stay with the company?
This year is critical for us. We must convince everyone from the public to investors that we mean business. There is a lot of really exciting work to do and I will certainly remain a part of that. Financially, I could walk away now if I wanted to and be a very happy man, but I relish the work and the challenge.

How is the company doing?
Very well indeed. We have hit all our operating targets and now have a market capitalization of $4.5bn, which is unprecedented. Compared to our main rivals we are doing phenomenally well.

What makes Webvan so successful?
We have the physical structure to be able to cope with huge demand and, because of our automated nature, we save a lot of money on staffing compared to traditional retailers.
Our value proposition is also pretty attractive. We bring our customers the finest and freshest produce by courier. This is done within a half-hour window unlike some other companies who make people hang around all day waiting for a delivery.

Would you still advise graduates and MBAs to join an Internet company?
If it is the right company, go for it – but make sure it is the right company. In terms of experience, if nothing else, I think you learn a hell of a lot faster in an Internet venture because of the speed of growth and change in the sector.

What is it like working for an e-business company?
All the normal rules of any business are exactly the same, except for one thing – everything happens faster. That’s what differentiates the industry. Providing you have talented people around you, then you will be fine. And I guarantee you one thing, you will never want to go back! You won’t be able to live without the excitement and the energy levels. People who can’t handle serious amounts of work should not bother applying either as far as I’m concerned, because every successful company will require a lot of work. The desire to achieve results as a team is critical.

What is your advice to graduates?
To succeed as a graduate starting out, I would say work damn hard, choose a good company doing what you enjoy and achieve results. It is the results you will be judged on and also the way in which you achieve them – that needs to be done with integrity and very much as a team player.

How are things changing in the world of e-commerce?
The Internet is simply an enabler. Everything is still real: it is just directed through the web. People seem to forget that. You still need the same basics that have always been needed to succeed: a good idea, a good experienced management team and a good end product. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, things are clearly changing both from an employer and an investor perspective. People are going to stop throwing money automatically at anything related to the Internet and to look at it like a traditional company. Employers and investors are going to start asking, ‘What have you done? What are you going to do? Why should you be successful?’ – just as they would with any other company they were thinking of joining.

There is speculation the Internet market will crash as the result of overvaluation. Do you think this is likely?
It is possible. If anything bursts the bubble, it will be the fact that people have invested in or started companies without having a good structure and a good product. If and when these companies are all found out, the resulting loss of confidence in the market could upset the balance.

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