Amazon.com can be a confrontational, challenging place to work mainly because of its CEO.
“He has ice water running through his veins. He’s ruthless. He identifies competitors and he can crush them,” says Brad Stone, senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.”
Amazon, the Seattle-based company with about 97,000 employees, has one of the highest turnover rates of all the Fortune 500 companies.
Average employee tenure is about one year at the company known for its CEO with a maniacal laugh.
“Frequently you get the sense that he’s not laughing with you. He’s punishing you for not keeping up with him,” says Stone. “It’s one of those idiosyncratic qualities that makes the story almost cinematic and makes him almost scary to work for.”
An example of what it’s like to have Bezos as a boss comes in the form of a punctuation mark that feels more like a dagger to those receiving it.
“If you get a question mark email from the CEO at Amazon, the first thing you do is cancel your plans that night,” Stone says. “It’s basically his way of distributing his impact throughout the organization.”
Bezos has an email address that’s available to the public, so when customers write to complain about something, the CEO forwards the email to the appropriate employee with no other comment other than the question mark.
“That’s a very efficient use of his time – a single character – except to the employee you’ve got a ticking bomb in the mail and you drop everything you’re doing and you solve the problem because you have to report back in the next few hours,” says Stone.
That could easily be an example of how concerned Bezos is about customer service. That doesn’t make him ruthless. A falling out he had with Amazon’s co-founder, on the other hand, might show a callous side of Bezos.
Most of us haven’t heard about him. We hear the story about how Bezos had the idea for Amazon and raced across the country to start it out of a garage in Bellevue.
Shel Kaphan was the one with the technical expertise to launch Amazon.com.
“He figured out how to make the online bookstore work back in ’94 and ’95 from a garage in Bellevue, and then as these things always do, it seems these entrepreneurs went their different ways,” says Stone. “Bezos wanted to expand and build the everything store, and Shel probably had a vision more along the lines of books and distributing knowledge to all corners of the world.”
Kaphan has become a footnote in Amazon’s history, even though Bezos once described him as “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com.”
As Amazon grew, Kaphan became expendable in Bezos’ eyes, according to Stone’s account.
The split was not amicable because “everyone is so tied up into all the emotion that went into it.”
Kaphan described Bezos’ decision to remove him from active participation at Amazon “a betrayal of a sacred trust,” and he called it “one of the biggest disappointments of my entire life.”
There was a time when Bezos almost got his payback. In 2001 and 2002, Wall Street stopped believing, investors sold, and the share price went down. Amazon’s executive team and some members of the board were ready to toss him out.
“They look back and say ‘I didn’t think he could do it. I thought we were done for,'” says Stone. “Bezos never blinked. He believed in the vision and he stuck it out and proved a lot of people wrong.”
Bezos also butted heads with his own executive team. They didn’t want the company to get into hardware when he wanted to produce the first Kindle. He told them they were wrong, and as it turns out they were.
The Amazon CEO is relentless when he believes he’s right about something, or when he wants something – like the companies they’ve acquired.
The book recounts the hardball tactics Bezos used to acquire Zappos and Diapers.com.
In both cases, Bezos opened with low-ball acquisition offers. When rebuffed, instead of negotiating he launched price wars, selling shoes and diapers at far below wholesale cost.
Once it was clear Bezos would rather lose millions destroying rivals than spend them on higher acquisition prices, both firms decided to sell and “join the Amazon family.”
What motivates Bezos?
“I think he would say it’s building a lasting company,” says Stone. “His critics would say it’s being the last guy standing and the smartest guy in the room. I’d say it’s both.”
Amazon employees – I’m curious what you think about working for Bezos. What’s it like there?
By LINDA THOMAS
Author Brad Stone will be talking about his book this week at the Zillow headquarters on Oct. 21 and the Microsoft campus on Oct. 22. He’ll also appear at Town Hall Seattle on the 22nd.