Jeff Bezos announces Blue Moon, a lunar lander for the moon, during a Blue Origin event in Washington, DC, May 9, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Ann Hiatt recalls that Jeff Bezos didn’t sit down for long.
As executive assistant to the Amazon CEO from 2002 to 2005, Hiatt was tasked with keeping an eye on Bezos’ whereabouts. At the time, the fast-growing internet retailer had moved into an Art Deco building that was once a US Navy hospital. It would be years before Amazon moved into a series of shiny glass buildings in downtown Seattle, with a campus that spans several city blocks and includes three glass spheres filled with plants from around the world.
Bezos refused to take the elevator to Amazon’s office on the 14th floor in the historic building commonly referred to as the old PacMed Center, recalls Hiatt. Instead, he often ran up and down the stairs without breaking a sweat.
“He’s like a puppy. He did laps and was never tired,” Hiatt said in an interview. “This is Jeff. He couldn’t be held back.”
This image of Bezos captures the relentless drive and energy that would fuel Amazon’s meteoric rise from internet bookseller to the world’s largest online retailer and cloud computing company.
Now, after almost three decades, the 57-year-old founder is preparing to direct his energy towards other goals. Starting Monday – 27 years to the day after the founding of Amazon – Bezos will become CEO of Amazon and hand over the CEO title to his former protégé, Cloud Computing boss Andy Jassy.
Bezos is leaving the CEO role at a time of great success for the company when Amazon topped $ 100 billion in quarterly revenue for the first time in February.
While Bezos doesn’t get very far, he still leaves many of the headaches of day-to-day business to Jassy, some of which are more intense than before. Amazon is under investigation by antitrust authorities in the US and abroad. It is facing pressure from lawmakers to say it should focus on being a better corporate citizen. Within the company, employees routinely raise complaints about working conditions and have been on the front lines with unions to look into organizing opportunities.
Opening of the “largest bookstore on earth”
Bezos was vice president of Wall Street hedge fund DE Shaw when he came up with the idea of starting an online bookstore. He quit in 1994 and moved across the country to Seattle, where he bought a suburban home and started the company that turned his garage into Amazon. The company was almost called “Cadabra”, but it sounded too much like “Carcass,” so Bezos turned to Amazon instead.
The site went live on July 16, 1995. The homepage welcomed users with the reputation of being “the largest bookstore on earth”, stocking a million titles and offering “consistently low prices”. Within the first month of its launch, Amazon had sold books in every state in the US and 45 countries around the world.
“I remember flying to Seattle to see the company at their First Avenue offices across from a free needles clinic in a pretty shabby part of Seattle,” said John Doerr, an early Amazon investor and Chairman of the risk firm Kleiner Perkins, told CNBC. Tech Check “on Friday.” We built these tables out of desk doors we bought at Home Depot. We went online with a very fast website and were able to get all the books in the world in less time at better prices than anyone else in the world. “
After a successful IPO in 1997 that made Bezos a millionaire, CEO Amazon successfully navigated the dot-com bubble. In the mid-2000s, Bezos began expanding Amazon’s focus beyond online retail to include cloud computing, video entertainment, and devices. He has taken on wide-ranging projects outside of Amazon, such as founding the rocket company Blue Origin, which he funded through the sale of billions of Amazon stocks.
Bezos often looked at Amazon’s business long term, which meant putting growth before profit, much to Wall Street’s horror. In a notable exchange, former Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak Bezos squeezed Amazon’s budget for its burgeoning Kindle e-reader project, which launched in 2007, according to a former Amazon vice president. Bezos joked back, “Well how much money do we have in the bank?”
Bezos is the richest man in the world, which makes him the target of politicians and advocates who want to reduce income inequality and see him as an example of uncontrolled corporate power. He is now a regular guest at the Oscars and has steadily expanded his presence in the country’s capital, among other things by taking over the Washington Post. He was brought into the spotlight when he became the direct target of former President Donald Trump.
In interviews, former Amazon employees suggested that Jassy’s softer personality, coupled with the fact that he’s not well known outside of Silicon Valley circles, could end up working for Amazon’s advantage if it stares at its critics.
“Andy will represent Amazon when Congress or other stakeholders call in and ask or ask tough questions,” said John Rossman, Amazon executive in the early 2000s and author of The Amazon Way. “Perhaps in a way it helps him not to be the founder, to be even more effective in these dialogues.”
The next iteration of Amazon
The transition from Bezos to Jassy will not change much. Imbued with Amazon’s corporate culture, Jassy has helped develop the key leadership principles that guide employees.
Jassy also served as Bezos’ “shadow” in the early 2000s. For Bezos, shadows act as “brain doubles” and provide another pair of eyes and ears in meetings, Hiatt said. Officially known as a technical assistant, you are copied into every email and flight plan, helping to summarize each day’s events in preparation for the next.
Andy Jassy, Chief Executive Officer of Web Services at Amazon.com Inc., listens during the Amazon Web Services Summit in San Francisco on April 19, 2017.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Shadows usually play prestigious roles within the company. For Jassy, that was the boom in Amazon’s burgeoning cloud computing business.
Jassy helped advise Bezos’ next shadow, Colin Bryar, on how to handle the task. As Bezos ‘shadow, he interacted with Jassy in meetings with Bezos’ S-Team, a group of top corporate executives who met for four-hour breakfast meetings every Tuesday.
Bryar and other former colleagues said the AWS CEO has the same drive as Bezos but is known for taking a slightly different approach to his leadership style.
Bezos can be opinionated, forceful and at times aggressive, said people who have worked closely with the CEO. Jassy often has a gentler charisma, but can be just as intense by remembering specific details from presentations and pointing out inconsistencies with a laser-like focus.
Jassy also has Bezos’ penchant for getting employees to think bigger. Bezos was sometimes fixated on a specific project and, to the surprise of some employees, regularly followed the teams to make sure they were on the right track.
“For example, people would say my team of 23 met with me like every other week for two months,” said David Anderson, a former manager at Amazon’s AWS and device units. “Every now and then, it was like that huge hammer would come in and get this problem out of the way because Jeff interfered.”
Jassy is “more like Bezos than any other” executive at Amazon, said Anderson, thanks to his intelligent intelligence and deep knowledge of Amazon’s business from top to bottom.
He recalled an AWS Operations meeting that was attended by senior executives where Jassy delved into very specific and technical matters.
“It just blew my mind because this is the guy who runs AWS and is very familiar with very low details,” said Anderson. “It struck me that he is running the organization for a very good reason. He not only thinks big, he knows the details.”