In public eye: 'Mr Amazon' Jeff Bezos steps out

Last Updated 21 January 2018, 18:42 IST

Jeff Bezos rubbed elbows recently with Halle Berry, Chris Hemsworth and other Hollywood celebrities at an after-party for the Golden Globes. In December, he walked the red carpet, along with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, at a screening of The Post in Washington.

Last Friday, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, made public their $33 million donation to a nonprofit that provides college scholarships to "Dreamers," young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. In October, he received an award for a donation to a marriage equality campaign.

Jennifer Cast, an Amazon executive who solicited the donation from him, said at the event that they could have donated anonymously to the campaign. "But just as critical as the money was Jeff's offer to let us publicly acknowledge their gifts," she said. "By allowing us to take their donation public," she added, "the world quickly knew that Jeff Bezos supported marriage equality." The appearances and actions are a new look for Bezos.

As he was shaping Amazon into one of the world's most valuable companies, Bezos developed a reputation as a brilliant but mysterious and cold-blooded corporate titan. He preferred to hunker down in Amazon's hometown, Seattle, at least partly because he thought it was better for Amazon's growing business, largely avoiding public causes and the black-tie circuit.

But while Bezos - who at 54 is the world's richest person, with a net worth of more than $100 billion - can afford virtually any luxury, obscurity is no longer among them.

Amazon, now a behemoth valued at more than $600 billion, has become one of the faces of "big tech," along with Apple, Alphabet's Google and Facebook. These companies are facing a backlash. Amazon is under the microscope for what critics say is its corrosive effect on jobs and competition, and Bezos has become a bête noire for US President Donald Trump, who repeatedly singles out him and Amazon for scorn on Twitter.

"People are starting to get scared of Amazon," said Steve Case, a co-founder of America Online, who recently started an investment fund focused on startups in underserved areas, with Bezos among its contributors. "If Jeff continues to hang out in Seattle, he's going to get a lot more incoming. Even for just defence reasons, he has to now play offence."

Bezos' portfolio of other ventures has thrust him further into the spotlight. Four years ago, he bought The Washington Post for $250 million, jump-starting a renaissance of the paper. In 2016, Bezos bought a $23 million home in Washington, one of the city's most expensive, which is undergoing extensive renovations to make it a suitable party spot for the city's political class. Nearby neighbours include former US President Barack Obama and his family, and Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Bezos' space startup, Blue Origin, is also making its efforts more public, giving him another stage. The company is trying to rescue Earth by helping to move pollution-belching heavy industries off the planet.

"He's getting thanked at the Golden Globes and targeted by presidential tweet tantrums - not even Steve Jobs had that kind of pop-culture currency," said Margaret O'Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, who organised a museum exhibition in Seattle endowed by Bezos.

In a statement, Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, said, "Jeff loves what he is doing, at Amazon, Blue Origin and The Washington Post, and he enjoys sharing his enthusiasm in public as he works with the teams to build and invent."

But interviews with more than 30 people who know Bezos, most of whom declined to be identified to protect their relationships with him, revealed his awareness of the growing opposition to Amazon and his growing comfort with being in the public eye.

Bezos, they said, accepts the probability of greater government scrutiny of Amazon. The chief executive has advised Amazon executives to conduct themselves so that they can pass any legal or regulatory test.

Some of the people who know Bezos said his new public face was for business expediency. Others believe it is a result of personal growth. But they all said it was clear that Bezos and Amazon were trying to go beyond his tech persona to show the world his other sides.

A hedge fund executive in New York who caught the internet bug early, Bezos piled into a vehicle with his wife in 1994 with the intention of finding a place to start a business selling books on the internet. He founded Amazon later that year in Seattle, in part because of the growing pool of technical talent Microsoft had brought to the area.

A growing spotlight

A turning point came for Bezos around 2011 when Amazon faced a public showdown with state governments.

At the time, legislators began hounding internet retailers like Amazon to collect sales tax. In California, Amazon initially campaigned to overturn a new law imposing an internet sales tax. But Bezos backed off after it became clear that Amazon's image could be tarnished, a former employee involved in the matter said.

Instead, Amazon began to make peace. In 2011, it signed an agreement with California to collect sales tax in the state, reaching numerous similar agreements around the same time.

As part of those state deals, Amazon began building warehouses across the country, which allowed Amazon to deliver orders more quickly and let local politicians trumpet the arrival of thousands of jobs. Suddenly, a company that once refused to confirm how many employees it had at its Seattle headquarters could not stop talking about how many jobs it was creating. It now has 5,42,000 employees.

As Bezos and the company talked about creating jobs, though, he and Amazon faced a counternarrative from critics that the company was really a job-killing bully. Waves of store closings by bricks-and-mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble and Macy's increased the volume. "Amazon Must Be Stopped," read a 2014 New Republic article about the company's growing market power.

By late 2015, a few months after Trump announced his campaign for president, he started his Twitter broadsides against Bezos, which often coincided with critical coverage of the candidate in The Washington Post.

"The @washingtonpost loses money (a deduction) and gives owner @JeffBezos power to screw public on low taxation of @Amazon!" he tweeted in December that year. "Big tax shelter." Bezos responded by offering to launch the future president of the United States into space on a Blue Origin rocket.

Bezos' more public-facing work was abetted by a management change nearly two years ago at Amazon, when he put Jeff Wilke in charge of its consumer business and Andy Jassy in charge of cloud computing. That freed him up to devote more time to the Post and Blue Origin, though he remains deeply engaged at Amazon. In the future, that means Bezos will most likely be a more familiar presence in Washington.

Sally Quinn, a longtime Post writer and an arbiter of the city's social mores, said she had no firsthand knowledge of Bezos' plans for his home. But she praised the idea of attempting to bring together guests from across the political spectrum. "There's really no one who is doing that kind of thing in Washington right now," said Quinn, who bumped into Bezos recently at the screening of The Post. "It would be like a throwback to the old days." "I think Jeff," she said, "is the only person who could do that."

(Published 21 January 2018, 18:40 IST)

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