Hello, My Name Is Jeff: Mr. Amazon Steps Out

Posted January 12, 2018 11:44 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2018 11:48 p.m. EST

SEATTLE — Jeff Bezos rubbed elbows last weekend with Halle Berry, Chris Hemsworth and other Hollywood celebrities at an after-party for the Golden Globes. In December, he walked the red carpet, along with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, at a screening of “The Post” in Washington.

On Friday, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, made public their $33 million donation to a nonprofit that provides college scholarships to “Dreamers,” young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. In October, he received an award for a donation to a marriage equality campaign.

Jennifer Cast, an Amazon executive who solicited the donation from him, said at the event that they could have donated anonymously to the campaign. “But just as critical as the money was Jeff’s offer to let us publicly acknowledge their gifts,” she said.

“By allowing us to take their donation public,” she added, “the world quickly knew that Jeff Bezos supported marriage equality.”

The appearances and actions are a new look for Bezos.

As he was shaping Amazon into one of the world’s most valuable companies, Bezos developed a reputation as a brilliant but mysterious and coldblooded corporate titan. He preferred to hunker down in Amazon’s hometown, Seattle, at least partly because he thought it was better for Amazon’s growing business, largely avoiding public causes and the black-tie circuit.

But while Bezos — who at 53 is the world’s richest person, with a net worth of more than $100 billion — can afford virtually any luxury, obscurity is no longer among them.

Amazon, now a behemoth valued at more than $600 billion, has become one of the faces of “big tech,” along with Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Facebook. These companies are facing a backlash. Amazon is under the microscope for what critics say is its corrosive effect on jobs and competition, and Bezos has become a bête noire for President Donald Trump, who repeatedly singles out him and Amazon for scorn on Twitter.

“People are starting to get scared of Amazon,” said Steve Case, a co-founder of America Online, who recently started an investment fund focused on startups in underserved areas, with Bezos among its contributors. “If Jeff continues to hang out in Seattle, he’s going to get a lot more incoming. Even for just defense reasons, he has to now play offense.”

Bezos’ portfolio of other ventures has thrust him further into the spotlight. Four years ago, he bought The Washington Post for $250 million, jump-starting a renaissance of the paper. In 2016, Bezos bought a $23 million home in Washington, one of the city’s most expensive, which is undergoing extensive renovations to make it a suitable party spot for the city’s political class. Nearby neighbors include former President Barack Obama and his family, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Bezos’ space startup, Blue Origin, is also making its efforts more public, giving him another stage. The company is trying to rescue Earth by helping to move pollution-belching heavy industries off the planet.

“He’s getting thanked at the Golden Globes and targeted by presidential tweet tantrums — not even Steve Jobs had that kind of pop-culture currency,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, who organized a museum exhibition in Seattle endowed by Bezos.

In a statement, Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, said, “Jeff loves what he is doing, at Amazon, Blue Origin and The Washington Post, and he enjoys sharing his enthusiasm in public as he works with the teams to build and invent.”

But interviews with more than 30 people who know Bezos, most of whom declined to be identified to protect their relationships with him, revealed his awareness of the growing opposition to Amazon and his growing comfort with being in the public eye.

Bezos, they said, accepts the probability of greater government scrutiny of Amazon. The chief executive has advised Amazon executives to conduct themselves so that they can pass any legal or regulatory test.

Investor Warren E. Buffett, who has known Bezos since the 1990s, said the cautionary tale of Microsoft, which faced a landmark antitrust case by the government that decade, must loom in Bezos’ mind. Microsoft, by far the most dominant technology company at the time, lost its footing after the case, opening an unexpected opportunity for competitors.

“You’re going to get a lot of scrutiny if you’re disrupting other people’s livelihoods,” Buffett said.

Some of the people who know Bezos said his new public face was for business expediency. Others believe it is a result of personal growth.

But they all said it was clear that Bezos and Amazon were trying to go beyond his tech persona to show the world his other sides.

— Hiding in Plain Sight Bezos has always been happy to play the role of Amazon’s chief pitchman, especially when he perceives some benefit to Amazon customers from doing so, people who have worked with him said. He submits to interviews and speaks at events when, for instance, a new company product like the Kindle electronic reader or Echo speaker needs to be explained to the world.

But for nearly two decades, he was adamant that the company should largely stay out of the political limelight and not make a stir in local communities. It also had a bare-bones lobbying operation.

Even as he was named Time magazine’s person of the year in 1999, he tried to avoid politics. He was even reluctant to do photo opportunities with politicians, standard fare for executives, one longtime former employee said.

There were business benefits to staying out of the glare.

A hedge fund executive in New York who caught the internet bug early, Bezos piled into a vehicle with his wife in 1994 with the intention of finding a place to start a business selling books on the internet. He founded Amazon later that year in Seattle, in part because of the growing pool of technical talent Microsoft had brought to the area.

But putting his startup in Washington also meant Amazon would not have to collect sales tax in the country’s most populous states, like California, Texas and New York. Retailers typically have an obligation to collect sales tax in states where they have a physical presence.

For a time, for the same reason, the company would not publicly discuss where most of its warehouses were. And Amazon employees in Seattle who planned to travel out of state for work had to submit itineraries for review to avoid triggering unwanted sales tax liabilities.

Those efforts would, in turn, give his fledgling company a further price advantage against established physical retailers like Barnes & Noble. It also meant that, despite its growing legions of customers, Amazon remained almost invisible in politics. By the end of 2012, the company had swelled to more than 88,000 employees and over $61 billion in annual sales, creating huge businesses like its Prime membership service and Amazon Web Services along the way. Yet that year the company was criticized by leaders in Seattle and the news media for being disengaged from civic life compared with stalwarts like Boeing and Starbucks.

“I’m not aware of what Amazon does in the community,” Sally Jewell, chief executive of the retailer REI at the time, said in The Seattle Times in 2012. “It’s not a name that comes up often in the nonprofit organizations I’m involved with.”

With investors, Bezos gave just enough of a peek at Amazon’s business to win their confidence while saying as little as possible to keep competitors guessing. To this day, Amazon will not disclose exactly how many Kindles, Echoes and other devices it has sold, and for years it refused to reveal financial details about Amazon Web Services, its highly profitable cloud computing business.

Despite the paucity of details, investors have sent its stock up more than 1,100 percent over the last decade, dazzled by its growth.

— A Growing Spotlight

A turning point came for Bezos around 2011 when Amazon faced a public showdown with state governments.

At the time, legislators began hounding internet retailers like Amazon to collect sales tax. In California, Amazon initially campaigned to overturn a new law imposing an internet sales tax. But Bezos backed off after it became clear that Amazon’s image could be tarnished, a former employee involved in the matter said.

Instead, Amazon began to make peace. In 2011, it signed an agreement with California to collect sales tax in the state, reaching numerous similar agreements around the same time.

As part of those state deals, Amazon began building warehouses across the country, which allowed Amazon to deliver orders more quickly and let local politicians trumpet the arrival of thousands of jobs. Suddenly, a company that once refused to confirm how many employees it had at its Seattle headquarters could not stop talking about how many jobs it was creating. It now has 542,000 employees.

As Bezos and the company talked about creating jobs, though, he and Amazon faced a counternarrative from critics that the company was really a job-killing bully. Waves of store closings by bricks-and-mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble and Macy’s increased the volume. “Amazon Must Be Stopped,” read a 2014 New Republic article about the company’s growing market power.

That year, a nasty fight over e-book prices with Hachette, the book publisher, solidified Amazon’s reputation for using brass-knuckle tactics. At one point, Amazon slowed delivery times for the publisher’s titles and took other steps to make them less attractive to order.

After the matter was resolved, Bezos told an interviewer that Amazon was simply negotiating hard on behalf of its customers.

“It’s very difficult for incumbents who have a sweet thing to accept change,” he said, referring to book publishers. Another blow to the company’s public standing landed in 2015 when The New York Times published a lengthy examination of Amazon’s corporate work culture, which was depicted as an unforgiving environment.

“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” Bezos said in an email to the company’s employees after the article came out.

According to two people who work closely with Bezos, the chief executive became more focused on corporate reputation issues after The Times article and the Hachette uproar.

By late 2015, a few months after Trump announced his campaign for president, he started his Twitter broadsides against Bezos, which often coincided with critical coverage of the candidate in The Washington Post.

“The @washingtonpost loses money (a deduction) and gives owner @JeffBezos power to screw public on low taxation of @Amazon!” he tweeted in December that year. “Big tax shelter.”

Bezos responded by offering to launch the future president of the United States into space on a Blue Origin rocket.

A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The attention in Washington edged up in June when Amazon announced it was buying Whole Foods Markets. Though Amazon remains a niche player in the grocery business, the deal drove home the power of the company and led some lawmakers to question its power.

“The purchase of Whole Foods was a moment when people looked up and recognized this company as a force in the economy,” said Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for local businesses, which has published a critical report on Amazon’s impact on jobs and communities.

—Going to the Other Washington People who have known Bezos for a long time say they see a concerted effort by him and Amazon to show more of his personality.

He became an active user of Twitter in late 2015, posting a photo of himself wearing his lucky cowboy boots and a video clip of him standing atop a wind turbine in Texas. At an event with his brother in Los Angeles in November, as part of a long lineup of presentations by an array of business, wellness and entertainment leaders, he said his ideal job would be bartender, partly because he enjoys talking to people.

“I pride myself on my craft cocktails,” he said.

If there’s an image that captures Bezos at the moment, it’s a picture of him with his biceps bulging out of a polo shirt at a business conference in Idaho from July. “Swole Jeff Bezos” instantly became an internet meme, with one tweet juxtaposing shots of a doughy Bezos from the late 1990s (caption: “I sell books”) and the brawny 2017 version (“I sell whatever I want”).

The details people are willing to talk about include scraps about his daily routine. On most days, he leaves his lakefront estate in the affluent town of Medina, Washington, for a sparkling new 37-story office tower in Seattle, where he runs Amazon.

On Wednesdays, he heads south to an industrial office park in the suburb of Kent, where rockets are assembled for Blue Origin.

Every other week, he huddles on conference calls with The Post’s leadership, and twice a year they visit him at his home. He communicates with the newspaper’s top brass with an email list called the Pancakes Group. The Amazon chief once made members of the group flapjacks from a favorite recipe in “Joy of Cooking” on their first visit to his house.

“It wasn’t like we went to some billionaire’s house and the help outnumbered the guests,” said Shailesh Prakash, the newspaper’s chief information officer. “He was trying to get the dog off the couch.”

Bezos’ more public-facing work was abetted by a management change nearly two years ago at Amazon, when he put Jeff Wilke in charge of its consumer business and Andy Jassy in charge of cloud computing. That freed him up to devote more time to The Post and Blue Origin, though he remains deeply engaged at Amazon, dedicating most of his time to initiatives that are two to four years away from hitting the market.

Bezos has also pushed using publicity to the company’s advantage. In September, he masterminded the company’s splashy search for a place to locate a second headquarters. In the hoopla, Amazon highlighted the jobs it planned to create with the move — up to 50,000 total — and spurred a horde of towns, from Dallas to Boston, to apply.

In the future, that means Bezos will most likely be a more familiar presence in Washington. Bezos now visits Washington about 10 times a year, dropping in at The Post for forums, discussions with engineers and meals with journalists. In the capital’s stately Kalorama neighborhood, just off Massachusetts Avenue’s row of embassies, renovations are proceeding on his home — two combined properties that used to be the city’s Textile Museum.

Bezos plans to host salon-style dinners at the house, drawing inspiration from the celebrated dinner parties thrown by Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Post, for the city’s movers and shakers from both parties. Bezos is known for asking his dinner guests to stick to a single conversation topic at a time to keep people from splintering off into private side discussions.

“It’s a very big house,” said Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post. “I hope he has a party for us in the house.”

Sally Quinn, a longtime Post writer and an arbiter of the city’s social mores, said she had no firsthand knowledge of Bezos’ plans for his home. But she praised the idea of attempting to bring together guests from across the political spectrum.

“There’s really no one who is doing that kind of thing in Washington right now,” said Quinn, who bumped into Bezos recently at the screening of “The Post.” “It would be like a throwback to the old days.”

“I think Jeff,” she said, “is the only person who could do that.”