Most people start building their careers in their mid-twenties, right after graduation. Others whose families own companies might climb the corporate ladder a bit faster than the rest. But to become chief executive officer (CEO) of a company while others are just starting to find their feet is a feat very few can claim.
Inanc Balci belongs to the new and growing breed of young CEOs out to change the game for the way some of the old establishments do their business. Balci is the co-founder and CEO of what is considered as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing online retail company, Lazada Philippines.
With a boyish grin, the young chief executive says its more hard work, determination, and finding the right opportunity that brought him to where he is now. Balci narrates it was in early 2012, when he was working in London as an investment banker, that he met people from Rocket Internet — a German internet company headquartered in Berlin that builds online startups. He says they came to him with the idea of “setting up a generalist e-commerce company in Southeast Asia – in five countries to start with, (comprising) Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and I was asked which country I would like to work in. I said, I’ll take Philippines.”
It was not a country he has been to, he admits, but he knows the country has a lot of things going for it, including people who are predominantly English-speaking, a booming economy and a huge population.
Balci came to the Philippines in March 2012 and formally co-founded Lazada Philippines, starting as a retail e-commerce company. One-and-a-half years later, they changed their business model to a marketplace platform, with a retail component. In the last quarter of 2014, they introduced what he calls the next generation of e-commerce: cross-border trade.
Today, Lazada Philippines has more than 1,000 online merchants and a pool of more than 300 employees. It has also managed to revolutionize the meaning of online shopping, with the largest assortment of products ranging from mobile and laptops to consumer electronics, health and beauty, home appliances, fashion and accessories.
He says that given the business platform’s cross-border trade feature, their customers are now able to buy from merchants all over the world using Philippine currency and receive deliveries directly from overseas. Balci stresses, “this is the future of e-commerce, because this opens the door to the best price, the best assortment and Lazada facilitates the best service.”
When asked how Lazada deals with the various challenges posed by online retail in the country, Balci says it was one of the first things they dealt with. “When we first came to the Philippines, we knew that there was very little e-commerce, and people didn’t trust online transactions. On top of that, [there was]very little credit card penetration. So what we did was to introduce nationwide cash-on-delivery, and we were the first company to do so.” At the same time, he adds, they put up their own logistics company called Lazada Express, and most importantly, offered the service free for their customers, for transactions above P1,000.
In March 2015, Lazada Philippines celebrated its third-year anniversary amid healthy growth margins. The soft-spoken CEO says he is happy with the way things are shaping up for the company, and even more excited about the prospects of its future growth. His target, he says, is for the company to be one of the largest retail platforms in the country. Hopefully he adds, within three to five years the company will realize its goal of becoming one of the sizable retail players in the Philippines.
When asked why he chose to become an entrepreneur despite having succeeded as an investment banker in London, Balci says he has always wanted to become one. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur like my parents, who started a pharmaceutical company in Turkey, where I originally come from, and even my grandfather was an entrepreneur.” For him, it doesn’t matter where his business takes him as long as the opportunity is there, emphasizing that growth right now is in Southeast Asia.
“First, China was the place to be, then it became Brazil, India, now its Southeast Asia. Whatever you want to do in the whole world – for instance, if you want to bake bread – you need to do it here, and in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is among the most exciting.”
Balci says he works very hard, but manages to find time to engage in other activities he enjoys doing outside of work. His concept of work-life balance is not exclusive. “Work is continuous, especially if you’re a senior manager, you never stop thinking about work, it becomes a part of your life. As long as you enjoy your work, it means you also enjoy your life.”
Having said that, however, on days that he has more free time, he does go out with friends, and has recently taken up wake boarding. He practiced Muay Thai for two years. In the end, he considers “work as my biggest hobby.” Its all good he says, because as many professional sports athletes like to say, “the best job in the world is the one where you get paid, while doing something you love doing.”