How the Amazon founder went from nerd selling books to celebrity rocket man.
In a Groundhog Day surprise, Jeff Bezos has announced that he is stepping aside as the CEO of Amazon. He’ll become executive chair of the Amazon board, and Andy Jassy, the current CEO of Amazon Web Services, will become the new chief executive later this year. Bezos says this transition will give him more time to own a space company (Blue Origin), own a newspaper (the Washington Post), own a philanthropic fund (Day 1 Fund), and generally just own the fact that he’s one of the richest men on the planet. The Amazon founder says he’s “excited about this transition.”
The timing of the announcement might seem odd at first. It was a few hours after Amazon revealed the design of its HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, and after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered Amazon to pay nearly $62 million over taking tips meant for its delivery drivers. But for Bezos, those must be minor headlines. The day that the 57-year-old entrepreneur lets someone else sit in the CEO seat will be the day that Jeff Bezos completes his transformation from nerdy e-commerce wunderkind to muscled media magnate with rockets to fly and galas to attend. This day has been years in the making.
Bezos has been counting, too. As he points out in his farewell email to employees, it’s been 27 years since he started the company with nothing but an ambitious idea to create a store on the internet that sold everything. (Bezos jokes that the question he got most back then was, “What is the internet?”) After failing to convince his bosses at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw to back the idea, Bezos started Amazon in 1994. For nearly two decades, he was a low-key CEO — a family man who said he read the newspaper, had breakfast with his kids, and got eight hours of sleep a night.
Not long after Amazon’s market cap cracked $1 trillion for the first time in 2018, he told an audience at the Economic Club of Washington, DC, that he didn’t just think of himself as the richest man in the world. “I would much rather if they said, like, ‘inventor Jeff Bezos’ or ‘entrepreneur Jeff Bezos’ or ‘father Jeff Bezos.’ Those kinds of things are much more meaningful to me.”
By this point, however, the transition from CEO dad to titan of industry was well underway. The process appears to have visibly begun around 2013, when Bezos started shaving his head. That’s also the year he bought the Washington Post for $250 million. It’s important to highlight the fact that this was a personal purchase by Jeff Bezos; Amazon had “no role in the purchase,” according to the announcement.
Things literally took off in 2015, when Blue Origin launched and landed its first reusable rocket. Bezos had actually founded the small aerospace company back in 2000 after seeing the popular Jake Gyllenhaal movie October Sky, and by 2014, he had spent $500 million of his own money on the enterprise. Bezos later revealed that he was selling about $1 billion a year in Amazon stock to fund Blue Origins, in a sort of private space race with Elon Musk and his aerospace company SpaceX. But he didn’t call it that.
“It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on,” Bezos told the New York Times in 2017. “I still think we can do commercial paying passengers in 2018.” The company has yet to send a human to space.
Bezos hit a different sort of milestone in 2018 when he established the Day 1 Fund after becoming the subject of growing scrutiny over how little money he’d publicly given to charity. Along with his then-wife MacKenzie Scott, the budding philanthropist committed $2 billion to “funding existing nonprofits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, nonprofit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.” Bezos and Scott announced their divorce the following year. Since then, Scott has begun giving away her wealth publicly — first signing the Giving Pledge and then revealing at the end of 2020 that she had given away $4 billion in four months in 2020.
That same year, Bezos committed $10 billion to fight climate change — but, again, only after escalating public pressure from Amazon employees to do something for the environment. And since Bezos currently has a net worth of over $196 billion, it’s safe to say he has more money to give away. And despite years of criticism, Bezos still has not signed the Giving Pledge.
Of course, one doesn’t become one of the richest men in history without creating some controversy. The FTC fine announced Tuesday represents just one of many labor scandals Amazon has faced in recent years. Some Amazon warehouse workers have long decried the company’s labor practices, saying they deal with dismal safety standards, back-breaking labor with little time off, and the use of contract positions that offer no benefits. Under Bezos, Amazon has also gone to great lengths to prevent its workers from organizing. The company has been cracking down on unionization efforts especially hard during the pandemic, most recently in Bessemer, Alabama, where warehouse workers will vote on whether to unionize later this month.
Bezos seems somewhat aware of this aspect of his legacy at Amazon. In announcing his departure as CEO, he praised the company’s “inventiveness” and bragged that, in its commitment to the Climate Pledge and a $15 minimum wage, Amazon “staked out leadership positions and then asked others to come along.” Similar to his late arrival to the philanthropy scene, Bezos only took the Climate Pledge and raised his company’s minimum wage after tremendous pressure from rank-and-file Amazon employees, politicians like Bernie Sanders, and the public.
But while Bezos the businessman was launching all these ventures and making all this money in the past decade, he was also going through some personal changes. Again, the process really started around the time Bezos bought the Washington Post. A few months before the purchase was announced, he had been named honorary chair of the Met Gala in 2012, and as Amazon fired up its entertainment division, Amazon Studios, we started to see Bezos on the red carpet in a tuxedo much more often. Then, in 2017, there was the famous series of photos taken at Sun Valley — the one with Jeff and the muscles and the sunglasses. Suddenly, this nerdy tech guy seemed like he was trying to be extremely cool.
Bezos also bought some new houses during this period. He bought a 27,000-square-foot former museum near the Obamas in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC, in 2015 for $23 million, and then last year, he bought the former home of the late Hollywood studio mogul Jack Warner in Beverly Hills for a record-setting $165 million. Bezos already owned a lot of houses, including a 300,000-acre ranch in Texas, but these new houses put him yards away from huge celebrities. This is appropriate as Bezos became a regular attendee at Oscar parties and became more of a celebrity himself, increasingly attracting the attention of paparazzi and the tabloids. And who could forget the time he got in a public spat with the National Enquirer over some dick pics?
Squinting back through the years, it’s hard to see the dorky guy who started Amazon in the ’90s. It’s almost as though that guy retreated into an office in Seattle sometime around Y2K and emerged a decade later with a chiseled physique, a network of mansions presumably filled with Hollywood stars, and a plan to fly tourists to the moon. And he was still running Amazon!
Now that Jeff Bezos will no longer be Amazon’s CEO, he won’t have to worry as much about the mounting scrutiny over Amazon’s unchecked power or the volley of antitrust cases the company faces in the US and abroad. He also probably won’t have to sweat through any more congressional hearings. That stuff will be Jassy’s job now.
Instead, Bezos will have more time to pursue his October Sky-inspired dreams, to host fundraisers in his former museum of a home, and to work out. And if he really does want to be more involved at the Washington Post on top of all those exciting projects, the paper needs a new editor.