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.
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