Feb 3, 2021 - Technology

Amazon's next act

Illustration of the Amazon logo extending into a new shape

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As big as Amazon looks at any given time, it is always bigger than anyone outside the company can see, and a new CEO won’t change that.

Between the lines: In choosing top lieutenant Andy Jassy as his successor but staying on as executive chairman, Jeff Bezos is guaranteeing that the culture he built, powered by ambitions that exceed the public's imagination, will live on.

The big picture: When people thought Amazon was building earth’s biggest bookstore, it was actually building the everything store.

  • When people thought it was focused on that, it was expanding to web services and then advertising.
  • When people thought it was laser-focused on all things online, Amazon moved into physical retail, buying Whole Foods and launching the cashier-less Amazon Go convenience stores.

Between the lines: In Jassy, who runs Amazon's AWS cloud services unit, Bezos is picking a man who helped give Amazon a key profit engine to fuel its outsized ambitions. Web services boast profit margins that significantly outstrip retail's.

  • Bezos stepping down is a major milestone, but former executives say it doesn't indicate a major change in direction or in Amazon's culture of endless hunger.
  • "I doubt that the audaciousness will slow down at all," Charlie Kindel, a longtime Amazon executive who left the company in 2018, told Axios.

Be smart: Remaining executive chairman means things will still be run to Bezos' liking and he can weigh in as much as he feels he needs to.

  • Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said on an earnings call Tuesday that Bezos will remain involved in many "large, one-way door" issues such as acquisitions and planning new lines of business.

The intrigue: Stepping back from Amazon's day-to-day operations will free Bezos up to focus more of his time on aspirations beyond the company. Those, too, are usually bigger than what is visible to the outside world.

  • Blue Origin, Bezos' space venture, could particularly benefit from more of Bezos' drive and ambition.
  • Like Elon Musk, Bezos talks about the strategic importance of space as an exit plan for the human race if earth becomes uninhabitable. But Blue Origin lacks the drive and culture of ruthless execution that Bezos has imbued throughout Amazon.

Amazon's culture runs deep. Executives tend to either gain some experience and move on to places with more lavish perks or better work-life balance, or they buy into the Amazon approach and stay forever.

  • There are few better examples of the latter category than Jassy, who joined Amazon in 1997.

Yes, but: Many have awakened to Amazon's size and power. Pressure from policymakers, and from within the company's own ranks, won't go away with a change in management.

  • Just Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission fined Amazon $62 million for allegedly stiffing delivery drivers. The FTC is also said to be working with states to investigate the company over antitrust concerns.
  • Activist employees, meanwhile, are increasingly looking to unionize, pressure the company on business and environmental issues, or both.

What's next: Jassy will officially take the reins in the third quarter.

Ashley Gold, Sara Fischer and Kyle Daly contributed to this story.

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