BE­ZOS UNBOUND

HE’S BUILT THE MOST IN­NO­VA­TIVE AND FEARED JUG­GER­NAUT OF THE 21ST CEN­TURY—AND EV­ERY IN­DUS­TRY IS NOW FAIR GAME. OUR EX­CLU­SIVE IN­TER­VIEW WITH THE WORLD’S RICH­EST MAN.

Forbes - - FRONT PAGE - BY RAN­DALL LANE

AMA­ZON’S JEFF BE­ZOS “THERE ARE BUSI­NESSES WHERE THE MAR­KET IS LIM­ITED. WE DON’T HAVE THAT IS­SUE.”

Un­like Amer­ica’s other tech gi­ants, Ama­zon doesn’t have a tra­di­tional cam­pus. The 45,000 or so em­ploy­ees and ex­ec­u­tives in Seat­tle, out of 575,000 world­wide, fan across nu­mer­ous high-rises down­town and in the South Lake Union neigh­bor­hood. Ama­zon’s “head­quar­ters” de­faults to where Jeff Be­zos, the com­pany’s founder and CEO, hap­pens to be, cur­rently Day 1 Tower. Its name comes from a per­pet­ual Be­zos maxim: that, rel­a­tively, we’re still at “day one” of the in­ter­net—and, by ex­ten­sion, that Ama­zon is just get­ting started.

That’s get­ting harder to say with a straight face, with sales, prof­its and the stock price all soar­ing, the lat­ter up 270% over three years and 103% in the past 12 months. Ama­zon is clos­ing in on Ap­ple to be­come the world’s most valu­able com­pany, and Be­zos, whose per­sonal net worth ap­proaches $160 bil­lion, has in the process be­come the planet’s rich­est per­son, by far.

Nev­er­the­less, Be­zos talks about Ama­zon like it’s a giddy startup that just closed its Se­ries A. “For all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, the mar­ket size is un­con­strained,” says Be­zos, his rolled-up sleeves show­ing off Pop­eye-like fore­arms, the prod­uct of midlife weight train­ing that has pro­duced buzzed-about re­sults for the 54-year-old. His growth ra­tio­nale comes from a “su­per-lucky” con­flu­ence: The re­tail mar­ket, Ama­zon’s orig­i­nal quarry, is “many tril­lions,” as is, he says, the cloud mar­ket that Ama­zon Web Ser­vices (AWS) pi­o­neered. “There are dif­fer­ent busi­nesses where the mar­ket is lim­ited,” adds the man whose com­pany should hit $210 bil­lion in rev­enue this year. “But we just don’t have that is­sue.”

If Jeff Be­zos is al­ready the world’s most feared busi­nessper­son, the prospect of him “un­con­strained” should sober ev­ery cor­po­rate leader. Yes, he’s ruth­less and a mas­ter of the long game, but Be­zos’ great­est strength, borne out over the past few years, has been his abil­ity to shape-shift Ama­zon into ad­ja­cent busi­nesses—some of which were ad­ja­cent only in ret­ro­spect—on a mas­sive scale. It’s quan­tifi­able: Forbes has been rank­ing in­no­va­tive com­pa­nies for eight years, and we re­cently worked with a trio of man­age­ment pro­fes­sors to try to de­ter­mine the coun­try’s most in­no­va­tive busi­ness lead­ers (see p. 84). The four-prong method­ol­ogy—in­cor­po­rat­ing pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion and in­flu­ence, value cre­ation and the pre­mium that in­vestors as­sign to the chief ex­ec­u­tive— places Be­zos squarely at the top.

“What Jeff Be­zos has done and is likely to do is per­haps the most re­mark­able achieve­ment I’ve seen,” War­ren Buf­fett told me last year, af­ter I asked him, open-ended, to name the most im­pres­sive busi­ness mind in his al­most eight decades of mar­ket-watch­ing. “Be­cause he’s taken two very ma­jor in­dus­tries, and si- mul­ta­ne­ously, and sort of un­der the nose of com­peti­tors, he’s be­come in ef­fect the leader and is re­defin­ing them and suc­ceed­ing at re­ally big busi­nesses.”

Though Be­zos and Buf­fett were re­fer­ring to re­tail and the cloud, Be­zos is ac­tu­ally un­con­strained in far more ways. First, thanks to AWS, the com­pany fa­mous for em­pha­siz­ing growth over prof­itabil­ity is fi­nally spitting out bil­lions— and Be­zos has the mar­ket cred­i­bil­ity to rein­vest it in pretty much any way he wants. Sec­ond, the scale that Ama­zon needs for growth prac­ti­cally de­mands ag­gres­sive­ness. And, fi­nally, by dom­i­nat­ing re­tail and dig­i­tal busi­ness ser­vices, both of which touch al­most ev­ery other in­dus­try, he’s now po­si­tioned to move ad­ja­cently into just about any busi­ness where he finds added value. He’s play­ing in the multi­bil­lions in at least four mar­kets—health­care, en­ter­tain­ment, con­sumer elec­tron­ics and ad­ver­tis­ing—that con­sti­tute many of the com­pa­nies not al­ready ter­ri­fied of Ama­zon. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that each of those four ei­ther hits or ap­proaches the “tril­lions” po­ten­tial Be­zos al­luded to.

While his pi­o­neer­ing peers of the first dot-com era em­braced and pop­u­lar­ized the “open ki­mono,” Be­zos has al­ways viewed stealth­i­ness as an as­set, mask­ing new ini­tia­tives in­side larger ex­pen­di­tures and feign­ing dis­in­ter­est in

“whaT be­zos has done is per­haps The MosT re­MarK­able aChieVe­MenT i’Ve seen.”

THE IN­FIN­ITY AND BE­YOND

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