Jeff Bezos Built Amazon 27 Years Ago. He Now Steps Down As CEO At Critical Time

Jul 5, 2021
Originally published on July 5, 2021 8:16 pm

Jeff Bezos stepped down as Amazon's CEO on Monday, exactly 27 years since he started the e-commerce giant in a garage in West Bellevue, Wash.

Bezos is handing day-to-day duties to his longtime deputy Andy Jassy but will continue to hold considerable sway as the company's executive chairman.

Under Bezos, Amazon transformed itself from an online bookseller startup into the world's largest online retailer. Bezos led the company safely through the dot-com bubble bursting in the early 2000s then launched a period of ruthless expansion, pushing its influence far beyond Internet commerce.

Amazon now commands sizable businesses in grocery stores, cloud computing, smart devices, filmmaking and even fashion brands.

Bezos, the richest man on the planet, told employees earlier this year that handing the reins to Jassy would allow him to focus on other projects, like philanthropic pursuits addressing climate change and his space exploration company Blue Origin (Bezos himself is planning to fly to the edge of space on a rocket built by the company in two weeks).

Bezos will remain Amazon's largest shareholder.

"Jeff is really not going anywhere," Brian Olsavsky, Amazon's Chief Financial Officer, told reporters in February. "It's more of a restructuring of who's doing what."

Jassy, who joined Amazon in 1997, had been the chief executive of Amazon Web Services, a cloud computing juggernaut that is Amazon's most profitable division and helps power large swaths of the Internet, including Netflix, Facebook and Twitter.

The transition arrives at a pivotal time for Amazon. The pandemic's shift to remote work was a major boon for the company, soaring profits as Americans confined at home shopped more online and demanded additional cloud computing resources.

Andy Jassy, formerly the top executive of Amazon Web Services, is the new CEO of Amazon.
Isaac Brekken / AP

Those new fortunes, however, come during a moment of growing pressure.

Amazon's competitive practices are the subject of probes from Congress, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and regulators in Europe, as government officials accuse the company of abusing its market dominance.

Amazon drivers and other workers have alleged mistreatment and complained about breakneck working conditions in Amazon factories.

Brad Stone, a senior editor at Bloomberg News who has written two books about Amazon, said Bezos has an unusual gift for problem-solving and focusing on many disparate issues at once, but empathy has never been his strength.

Jassy has long seen Bezos as a mentor, but colleagues have said he is more mild-mannered, soft-spoken and less prone to angry outbursts, compared to Bezos.

As Jassy takes over as CEO, one key challenge will be tamping down the rougher side of Amazon's empire infusing the company what Stone calls a more humble image.

"Jassy takes over at a critical time," Stone told NPR. "He's inheriting not just the tremendous success but all the baggage that comes with it."

Stone added that having Jassy at the helm may be aimed at changing perceptions of Amazon, a company that has become an inescapable part of daily life but one the author says elicits mixed feelings.

"I think Jassy has to kind of make Amazon a more empathetic company, a friendlier company," Stone said. "He has to find Amazon's heart."

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Jeff Bezos stepped down today as CEO of Amazon. Bezos will stay on as executive chairman of the company, but his longtime deputy, Andy Jassy, will handle day-to-day responsibilities at Amazon. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us now to explain the significance of this transition. And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters. Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey. What's up, Ailsa?

CHANG: Hey. So remind us; why is Jeff Bezos stepping away now as CEO?

ALLYN: Bezos founded Amazon 27 years ago in a garage in Bellevue, Wash. And this was a time, remember, when e-commerce was in its infancy. And frankly, many people back then were even afraid to buy things online with credit cards. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, and Amazon is now the largest online retailer, right? And Bezos, as we know, is the richest man on the planet. But, yeah, Bezos says he now wants to take a back seat.

So he's still going to have pretty sizable power at the company as executive chairman. But now he's going to focus on side projects like climate change philanthropy and his rocket company, Blue Origin. Speaking of, in two weeks, Bezos and his brother Mark will be blasting off to the edge of space...

CHANG: Right.

ALLYN: ...In one of the very rockets. Yeah. I talked to Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone about this Bezos transition. He's written two books on Amazon.

BRAD STONE: And so look. I mean, this is someone who is obviously out to pursue his passions, have adventures and enjoy the extravagant wealth without compunction that he has accumulated. So I do think he'll be drifting further and further away from Amazon.

CHANG: Literally into space. Well, what do we know about Bezos' replacement, Andy Jassy? Tell us more about him.

ALLYN: Yeah. Jassy has long been Bezos' protege. He joined the company in 1997. And until today, Jesse was the top executive of Amazon Web Services. It's the company's very, very profitable cloud computing arm. But he's very different than Bezos. I mean, Bezos is described as being hotheaded. He has angry outbursts in meetings. Jassy is more calm. He's mild-mannered. He's soft-spoken. He's been described, Ailsa, as just much more approachable and easygoing than Bezos.

And you know what? He's really unknown in Silicon Valley, unlike Bezos, who, as we know, is the constant target of criticism and controversy. And, you know, when the pandemic brought record profits for Amazon, scrutiny of the company intensified. Regulators here in the U.S. and in Europe are investigating Amazon's business practices. We have heard many stories about workers who say they've been mistreated at Amazon. Author Stone told me, you know, moving Jassy to CEO is perhaps aimed at improving Amazon's image in the world right now when so many are questioning the company's growth-at-all-costs strategy.

STONE: We're wondering what the cost is not just to those workers but to society. So I think, yeah, Jassy has to kind of make Amazon a more empathetic company, a friendlier company. He has to find Amazon's heart.

CHANG: Finding Amazon's heart. Well, I don't know how much lawmakers right now care about how empathetic Amazon is. Many of them think the company's anti-competitive. They're pushing through legislation to address that. Tell us; how is that going?

ALLYN: Yeah, right. So there is a package of bipartisan bills moving through Congress that's aimed at Big Tech's power. And if passed, they really would remake how Amazon operates. I mean, one of the proposals would force Amazon to spin off its private label from its online marketplace. You know, Ailsa, critics have long said that Amazon gives its own products a leg up. Lawmakers are just really, really homing in on whether Amazon's business practices are anti-competitive. And we'll see what happens with this group of bills. But it's really just one group of proposals...

CHANG: Right.

ALLYN: ...That are aimed at, you know, Amazon's troubles. There's a lot more regulatory and legal challenges ahead, and now it will be up to Jassy to call the shots on how Amazon will respond.

CHANG: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.