The online retail giant’s boss is on a mission to make employee inclusivity a ‘moral obligation’ and to help his company adapt to a difficult post-pandemic marketplace
hen corporate executives start discussing their efforts to influence company culture, a healthy amount of scepticism is advisable. But Murray Lambell, the UK boss of US online retail giant eBay, can draw on personal experience of the importance of how a business cares for staff. For many years he hid his sexuality from colleagues in a culture that was “more stifled and stuffy internally”.
“It was probably my own baggage,” he says. “I was not comfortable to be out at work … A lot of the leadership was white, middle-aged, from a very specific demographic and academic background, which didn’t all resonate with me. I didn’t feel comfortable to be a complete person at work and then that limits you.”
So what emboldened him? Until now, Lambell has been speaking briskly, beneath vivid images from graphic designer Alba Blázquez in the bright surroundings of eBay’s UK headquarters in west London. He takes a deep breath, visibly emotional. “I was married and my partner died. I had to come into work for the first time and tell my boss: ‘Oh, by the way I’m gay and my partner is actually in hospital right now.’
“I was thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be dealing with this issue right now, when I’m trying to deal with an existential crisis.’ I was having to deal with too many things in one go. I realised there was probably nothing to be fearful of.”
Lambell says his bosses at the time, in 2014, were “horrified” that he hadn’t felt comfortable discussing his sexuality earlier and the experience has emboldened him to treat employee inclusivity as a “moral obligation”. (The board is now more diverse and he’s taking a Yale University course on the subject.)
Family He has a partner, Robin.
Education BA in French and history at Exeter University and master of business administration at London Business School.
Pay Undisclosed. “More than I ever expected to earn, less than you might think.”
Last holiday Elie in Fife, Scotland.
Best advice he’s been given “Deliver, deliver, deliver,” from the former eBay chief customer officer Wendy Jones.
Phrase he overuses “History doesn’t predict the outcome.”
How he relaxes Other than running – “To show my 25-year-old
nephew who is fastest” – he is trying to learn new languages. “Currently doing well at Spanish and OK at Farsi!”
Not that eBay’s recent culture has been beyond reproach. Last week two former executives in the US were jailed for their part in a harassment campaign against a couple who published a newsletter critical of the company.
Five other employees, who have also all since left, pleaded guilty for their roles in the bizarre scheme, which included sending live cockroaches, a funeral wreath and books about surviving the loss of a spouse to the couple’s home. “That’s not something I recognise about our business and what we represent,” Lambell says, speaking before the sentencing, but adds that there is “still work to do”.
We meet as eBay faces two tumultuous global headwinds: the brutal sell-off of US tech stocks and the impact of a protracted cost of living crisis on discretionary spending. Both require the Californian company to draw on the resilience that enabled it to create the first big online marketplace and sustain it for 27 years while its web 1.0 peers crumbled.
Not that its UK home in a cobbled square beside the Thames in well-to-do Richmond recalls Silicon Valley. A lonely-looking table-football unit is the only nod to tech work culture, and each meeting room has a pointedly British name and theme (we sit in Bond, a silhouette of 007 etched into the glass).
The stock sell-off has proved painful for eBay. The pandemic shift to online buying pushed shares to all-time highs above $80 last October but they have since fallen by 46% as restrictions have eased, valuing it at just over $20bn.
In August it reported that gross merchandise volume – the value of all the goods it sold – fell for the fifth consecutive quarter, down 18% at $18.6bn. Active buyers were down 12%, to a still respectable 138 million.
Lambell is unshaken: “This is a long-term play. So the pandemic [drove a different] category mix – we’ve now got economic pressures. Supply chains are going to have to adapt to move. Consumers will want to buy things on a trusted, reliable platform and we provide that.”
We’ve had two years of utter disruption – people are still going to splurge at Christmas but I think they’re being a lot more planned about it
He admits some categories such as home and garden products “are going through a total hangover” after a pandemic boom. Meanwhile, discounted and refurbished goods are selling well.
So should we expect squeezed Britons to seek a secondhand Christmas? “We’ve had two years of utter disruption – people are still going to splurge but I think they’re being a lot more planned about it. They will prepare and split their spend over months.”
Lambell’s job is also to encourage and promote sellers of products that “hit the zeitgeist”, such as heavily searched solar panels and air fryers during the energy crisis.
That hunt for the next trend led eBay to acquire Manchester-based non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace KnownOrigin in the summer. Lambell says the deal brings “our web 1.0 with this web 3.0 world together”. He envisages eBay’s army of collectors photographing their sought-after treasures – such as artworks – and selling NFTs of them. “Clearly the market has a long way to evolve – it’s very early days.”
Part of Lambell’s strategy is to convince high-end fashion brands to list ex-display and imperfect stock instead of ditching or, previously, burning unwanted items to avoid devaluing the product. “For years, eBay was seen as the pariah of those brands. They hated the fact that their stuff was being resold … and you saw [that] type of awful behaviour,” he says, adding that conversations are now at “varied levels of maturity” with brands looking to sell off their inventories in carefully curated parts of his site.
The company’s high-end business has also grown through its authentication service, launched last year for watches, handbags and trainers,which has seen it physically handle products in warehouses for the first time. Growing consumer concerns about waste should drive sellers and buyers to eBay, he adds.
Lambell’s own recent eBay search history points to his early career – a former Swissair drinks trolley he spotted on a recent trip to Switzerland sent him down an online rabbit hole, reliving his postgraduate years with British Airways. He left his corporate role at the airline after witnessing strike action that caused passenger fury in Heathrow’s Terminal 4. “It was almost a riot,” he recalls.
The Canterbury native’s worldview has also been shaped by his parents’ struggles in the latter days of running their transportation business. “It was very emotional watching what they went through – these big partners were basically putting so much pressure on them in terms of cost that they couldn’t deliver the service they were proud to deliver.”
Does he keep that in mind when dealing with thousands of small firms? “Yeah, [although] I’d never say that with the businesses directly. I think they would say: ‘That sounds like spin.’”
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