For Jeff Bezos, a new frontier
This story was reported by Peter Whoriskey, Brady Dennis, Kimberly Kindy, Holly Yeager, Cecilia Kang and Alice Crites. It was written by Whoriskey. Dennis reported from Seattle.
One summer day as a kid riding in the back seat of his grandparents’ car, the young Jeff Bezos, a natural at math, made a morbid calculation.
How much was his grandmother’s life expectancy diminished by her cigarette smoking?
As he had heard it, every puff took two minutes or so off your life.
Multiply that by the number of puffs per cigarette.
Multiply that by the number of cigarettes per day.
Divide the minutes to get hours, and then days, and then years.
He tapped her on the shoulder.
“At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off of your life!”
He expected appreciation for his arithmetic. But his grandmother burst into tears, and, in his own telling, an excruciating silence followed.
His grandfather pulled the car off the highway. “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever,” he said.
The inquisitive child has since become the creator of Amazon.com, a virtual retail empire built of that same determination and cleverness. He is now a billionaire. Others had thought of selling things online; Bezos perfected the business with attention to low prices, Web site design, a technologically advanced warehouse operation and devoted customer service.
In one sense, because of his success, he is a well-known figure. His face has peered out from the cover of national magazines. He has sat for interviews on “Charlie Rose” at least four times. The Harvard Business Review has listed him as the best living chief executive.
But on Monday, the announcement that he was acquiring The Washington Post for $250 million invited another level of scrutiny, one that goes well beyond what attends being a business titan.
A newspaper represents not just a business but a “public trust,” Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham has said more than once. In other words, the values that matter in owning a newspaper go beyond profit and loss. Bezos’s politics and sense of fairness may come to bear as the newspaper, in a perilous state of flux, takes on a new shape.
In a brief letter to employees, Bezos seemed to agree: The “values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.”
But exactly why he is acquiring The Post — and what he plans to do with it once he owns it — remains mostly a mystery.
Bezos declined to be interviewed for this article. Amazon declined to offer anyone for interviews.
For now, as a result, the best anyone can do to divine his motives is to look at his past.
What emerges from dozens of interviews with friends and colleagues from every stage of his life, combined with his own previous comments, is a portrait of a curious mind attracted to grand schemes. He is a tenacious businessman, too, tough on employees who don’t measure up, ruthless with competitors and willing to take risks.
He dropped a good job at a New York financial firm to start Amazon in a suburban-Seattle garage. A space junkie who as a teenager told the local paper that he envisioned humanity evacuating Earth, Bezos has started his own spaceflight company. He has invested in a clock, built into a West Texas mountain, that is supposed to last 10,000 years.
“One thing that makes him different is he does have his mind in the future,” said Danny Hillis, a California inventor and futurist, and a Bezos friend. “Jeff has some vision about how he’d like the world to be different, how he’d like the world to be better.”
But the daring, drive and single-mindedness that have defined these ventures have also spawned rounds of criticism.
While the company has attracted legions of grateful customers, some publishers view him as a bully who has unfairly used Amazon’s scale to deprive them of profits. Competing retailers say he has used tax advantages to decimate their businesses.
Within Amazon, moreover, some former employees who have worked closely with him say his intensity could at times escalate into tirades that humiliated colleagues. Workers at some of his warehouses have complained of relentless demands for efficiency. In one, temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. When that was reported by the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., the company shrank from directly answering questions but soon after installed air conditioning.
Even some of his fans paint a complex picture.
“Bezos could be a royal a------,” said Ellen Ratajak, a software engineer and one of the company’s early employees.
She was referring primarily to the way he could chew out subordinates at a meeting and what she called his sometimes “irrational stubbornness.”
“But I do see a heart in Jeff,” said Ratajak, who retired in 2002. “The principles that he has run the business by shows that. Jeff didn’t want to just please customers or build loyalty. He wanted to delight customers.”
Even so, she is not surprised that at times Bezos has had occasion to recall the admonition of his grandfather.
Three years ago, delivering the commencement address at Princeton, his alma mater, Bezos said the memory of his grandmother crying that day was still “vivid.” He closed with these questions for the graduates:
“Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling? When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless? Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder? Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?”