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?”
Even from childhood, one that ran from Texas to suburban Miami, people could tell there was something a little different about Jeffrey P. Bezos.
His mother said that one day she found her toddler son trying to take apart his crib with a screwdriver.
He was a garage tinkerer, inventing, among other things, a solar cooker using tinfoil and an umbrella.
He was a Trekkie, too, and when acting out the show with his friends, he preferred the roles of Mister Spock, Captain Kirk and, oddly, a computer.
“I used a large portion of my elementary school free-time hours not only watching ‘Star Trek’ — the original, of course — but also playing ‘Star Trek,’ ” he has recalled. “The computer was fun to play, because people would ask you questions, and they’d say, ‘Computer?’ And you’d say, ‘Working.’ ”
After one summer toiling at McDonald’s during high school, he and his girlfriend at the time decided to start a summer camp for science-inclined children, charging $150 per two-week session. By then his family — his parents and two step-siblings — were living in a pleasant suburban-Miami neighborhood. They called the camp the Dream Institute. The children read selections from books such as “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Dune” and “Watership Down.” They studied black holes. They wrote simple programs on an Apple computer that made their names scroll down the screen.
Camp was “inspiring for a lifetime,” said James Schockett, 41, who attended when he was 9. “Imagine spending virtually all day with, well, Jeff Bezos — an incredibly brilliant, incredibly knowledgeable person, and talking about anything.”
Schockett, now an assistant treasurer at a company in North Carolina, has a line about it on his résumé: “Introduced to computers by Jeff Bezos.”
Bezos, in those days, was also determined to be the best in high school academics.
“He wasn’t a nerd — he moved easily from some group to some group — but he was very focused on being number one in our class,” said Joshua Weinstein, a close friend from high school.
There were a few other people in the running, “but Jeff was certainly the most competitive,” Weinstein said.
In an interview with the Miami Herald after he was named class valedictorian, he said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit.
“The whole idea is to preserve the earth,” he told the newspaper in 1982.
The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park.
Weinstein, who has worked as a reporter for the Miami New Times and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, seemed as surprised as anyone by Bezos’s announced purchase of The Post.
But he echoed others who know Bezos when he explained it this way: “If Jeff finds something cool or interesting, he wants to do it.”
At Princeton, the high achiever seemed to continue his geeky triumphs. He was president of a club called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. He was elected to two honor societies, Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi. He graduated summa cum laude.
His yearbook entry quoted Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic “Fahrenheit 451”: “The Universe says No to us. We in answer fire a broadside of flesh at it and cry Yes!”
But in college, the young Bezos must have come to a disheartening realization: He no longer could consider himself the smartest kid in the class, at least in his chosen field. He had gone to Princeton for physics, but when the classes turned to quantum mechanics, he noticed he was being outdone.
“One of the great things Princeton taught me is that I’m not smart enough to be a physicist,” he later recalled, clearly in awe of his betters. “There were three or four people in the class whose brains were so clearly wired differently to process these highly abstract concepts.”
He graduated instead with a BS in electrical engineering and computer science.
Former classmate Andy Fleischmann, now a Democrat in the Connecticut House of Representatives, described Bezos as “vivacious and friendly” and an “extremely intellectually curious person.”
“There’s a common image that has been around for 30 or 40 years of the student who is interested in computers who is some kind of a nerd who just wants to talk about programming and code,” said Fleischmann, who frequently sat beside Bezos at their dining club. “Jeff never fit that stereotype in any way as far as I could see. He was curious about a lot of things.”
Fleischmann talked to Bezos at their 25th reunion, and two conversations stayed with him. One was about a trendy restaurant where Bezos and his wife had dined the night before. It turned into a lengthy discussion of molecular gastronomy, which takes a scientific approach to cooking.
“He knew all about it,” he said. “He remains this really engaging, outgoing and curious guy.”
The other conversation involved Bezos’s intense curiosity about his classmates’ lives, even if theirs were not as glamorous.
“I told him I was in the Connecticut General Assembly,” Fleischmann said. “He was like, ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ I started laughing and said, ‘Well, I guess it depends on your perspective.’ He let out a big guffaw and told me how great it was that I was in public service.”
His first years after Princeton marked a somewhat restless time. Bezos worked for a start-up and then a financial firm in New York. He got married, too. He had a good job. He could have become comfortable.
But the emerging possibilities of the Internet and its rapid growth tantalized the entrepreneurial garage inventor. He wanted in on the revolution.
The origins of the empire he began in Bellevue, Wash., are part of the company’s well-known lore.
What’s less known are the differences in the visions that Bezos and some of the earliest employees had for the company. They encapsulate, in a way, the ambition that distinguishes Bezos.
Some of the early Amazonians have said they thought they were creating the virtual equivalent of a quirky independent bookstore — not crushing existing bookstores.
“To this day, whenever I walk into a bookstore I like, I hang my head in secret shame,” said one of the earliest employees, who for personal reasons asked that his name not be used.
Another early employee, Nicholas Lovejoy, has questioned the company’s mission to become, as he put it, the “Wal-Mart of the Internet.”
But Bezos had always aimed for a vast retail empire, they said, pursuing that vision relentlessly. Once, when an employee wanted to plan a barbecue to celebrate the company’s first $5,000 day, Bezos’s response was, “We don’t do that,” recalled Tom Schonhoff, who counts himself as Amazon’s fifth full-time employee. “We needed to be bigger and better. We needed to deliver more.”
Bezos seemed particularly focused on hiring people with proven intelligence. He asked Schonhoff and others what their SAT scores were.
“Jeff hired for intellect. He wanted very smart people,” he said, adding that at one point early on, “We had a Rhodes scholar and a winner of the National Spelling Bee. We had a rocket scientist. . . . I knew a customer service rep who had a PhD in some sort of bioengineering. His preference was to hire brilliant people and let them do their thing.”
Even those early Amazonians who had not held vast ambitions for the company said they eventually had to concede that the empire had its social virtues.
“We started getting these e-mails from people thanking us — the woman in the Midwest who was 200 miles from the nearest bookstore, the military people stationed overseas — who could suddenly get any book they wanted,” one recalled. “We all — Bezos included — celebrated this. People being able to get books they want to read is great.”
Those early employees, who would have seen Bezos at work during that critical time, hold widely divergent views of the company’s founder.
Consider, for example, the differences between Shel Kaphan, the company’s first employee, and Paul Davis, the second.
Kaphan, a software engineer, describes himself as a “child of the ’60s” and Bezos a “child of the ’80s.”
“He certainly knows how to drive an organization and take care of himself,” said Kaphan, who left the company after his role was limited. “I saw him just completely destroy people on several occasions.”
Of Bezos’s purchase of The Post, Kaphan said: “It makes me feel quite nauseous. I’d hate to see the newspaper converted into a corporate libertarian mouthpiece.”
Paul Davis, also a software engineer and the company’s second employee, declined to talk for this article but pointed to a comment he had made on a Web site defending Bezos’s interest in the newspaper.
“If anyone really thinks that Bezos himself is motivated by venal greed and a petty desire to increase his own personal wealth . . . I can’t prove you wrong, but I will say that I think that you’re deluded,” Davis wrote. “It could be that nearly two decades of astounding richness have warped his underlying motivations and morals, but I suspect that they are still pretty much what they were in 1994 — phenomenally driven, able to shrug through moral ambiguity, and always fixated on the big goals and the grand schemes.”
The fledgling Amazon would soon prosper, carried aloft in part by the Internet boom as much as its own efficiency. Just a few years after its founding, the company earned millions in revenue, though not yet profits. But then the Internet bubble popped, and companies that had been lifted up by the tech enthusiasm were suddenly in free fall.
In one day, the company lost $3 billion in stock value. Analysts derided the company as “Amazon. toast,” “Amazon.con” and “Amazon.bomb.”
Inside the company, employees were growing worried. Some wanted to head for the exits.
“When we were declared Amazon.toast, I think we had 150 employees and Barnes & Noble had 30,000 employees,” Bezos recalled during one of his “Charlie Rose” appearances. “And someone wrote an article that said Amazon has had a great two-year run but now the big boys have shown up and they’re going to steamroll them.”
Bezos called an employee meeting.
“I said: ‘Look, you should wake up worried, terrified every morning. But don’t be worried about our competitors, because they’re never going to send us any money anyway. Let’s be worried about our customers and stay heads-down focused.’ ”
He projected a similar sang-froid to the outside world.
When a BusinessWeek reporter asked a question about Amazon’s lack of profits and doubts about its business model, Bezos was succinct.
“Can I give you a one-word answer?” Bezos said. “Baloney.”
Indeed, since then Bezos has outdistanced the naysayers, and the company has grown to become a colossus, with more than 90,000 employees and $61 billion in revenue last year, though its profits in recent quarters have been relatively meager.
Its rapid ascent has benefited customers and employees, but like other rapid successes of the Internet era, it has precipitated what economists call “creative destruction” as other businesses have suffered.
Some publishers say the company has bullied them into lower prices. Retailers have complained, too, that the company has largely eluded state sales taxes, giving it an unfair advantage, though that could soon change with proposed legislation.
Amazon has also been the subject of unflattering newspaper coverage that suggested that the quest for efficiency had been pursued at the expense of workers.
In 2011 and 2012, the Morning Call in Pennsylvania and the Seattle Times spent weeks reporting about working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Washington and Kentucky.
Amazon employees told the reporters they had been forced to work at a punishing pace, at times in sweltering conditions. Amazon parked an ambulance outside its Pennsylvania warehouse during a heat wave. Emergency-room visits followed, prompting a doctor to call federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment.” The workers also spoke of a culture in which efficiency was carefully documented and those who failed to hit their marks were quickly fired.
Amazon officials refused to give interviews to the Morning Call. It also did not respond to written questions from the newspaper and denied it access to its warehouses, which it refers to as fulfillment centers.
“I called them. I e-mailed them,” said Spencer Soper, the Morning Call reporter who reported and wrote a series of stories in the fall of 2011. “Then, before we published our first story, I sent them everything certified mail so I knew they received it. No one would talk to me.”
Soper received a three-sentence response a few weeks prior to publication. The company asserted that working conditions were safe.
Even when Soper seemed to have good news to report — he had learned that Amazon had installed air conditioning and improved air circulation in the warehouses — the company would not provide him with details.
“I had to pull building permits and find building engineers who could help me analyze what I was looking at,” Soper said. “It was a measurable improvement, but we had to ferret that out on our own.”
Several months after the Morning Call series ran, the Seattle Times approached Amazon with similar questions. The company responded with more openness.
A reporter was given tours of two fulfillment centers. An executive answered questions about warehouse operations and air conditioning. Amazon declined to address the specific complaints about its handling of injuries, the newspaper reported.
Richard L. Brandt, who wrote an unauthorized biography called, “One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com,” said Bezos shuns newspaper reporters in favor of a few business and technology reporters at high-end magazines. Bezos grants them interviews at times that best suit him, such as when he is rolling out a new product.
“He selects the journalists he wants to work with rather than them selecting him,” he said. “With the rest of us, he gives very little away.”
With the announced acquisition of The Post, Bezos may be pressed more than ever about his political views.
At the most prosaic level, he does not seem all that interested; he has voted only eight of the 27 times he has been eligible to vote in King County, Wash., since registering there in 1996, according to public records. Washington residents do not have to declare party affiliation as part of voter registration.
On the other hand, Bezos has spent large amounts on some issues. After a former employee asked him to donate $100,000 or so in support of gay marriage in Washington state, he and his wife gave $2.5 million. He put up $100,000 to fight an income tax for high earners. He also gave $100,000 in support of a charter-schools measure in 2004, according to the Seattle Times.
As chief of Amazon, Bezos has also confronted some First Amendment issues, maybe most prominently in its handling of a situation involving WikiLeaks.
In November 2010, WikiLeaks began using Amazon’s Web hosting service to leak thousands of pages of State Department cables. But the company abruptly terminated the contract within 24 hours of receiving a call from a staff member for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
In a statement at the time, Amazon said WikiLeaks was expelled from its site because it violated the terms of its agreement with the company, not because of “a government inquiry.”
“When companies or people go about securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs, and publishing this data without ensuring it won’t injure others . . . it’s a violation of our terms of service, and folks need to go operate elsewhere,” the company said.
In a Twitter feed at the time, WikiLeaks said that if Amazon executives are “so uncomfortable with the First Amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”
Bezos is now 49, and the life of the once-curious child seems remarkably full. His wife, MacKenzie, is a novelist whose books have earned admiring reviews. They have four children.
As one of the world’s wealthiest men, moreover, Bezos can indulge his rampant curiosity in a number of ways.
With Blue Origin, his spaceflight company, Bezos is seeking to advance the human exploration of the solar system — a project he has indicated may interest him more profoundly than selling stuff.
Ratajak, the software engineer, recalled a conversation with Bezos in February 1996. “I asked Jeff during my interview why he was building the company. He said: ‘I am really interested in space exploration, but the truth is it’s some number of years off. I see this [Amazon] as a really interesting thing to do in the meantime.’ ”
He also has invested tens of millions in the “Clock of the Long Now,” a piece of machinery supposed to work for 10,000 years, the vision of Bezos friend Hillis.
Hillis wanted to build a clock that ticks once a year — the “century hand” moves every 100 years, and a cuckoo comes out at the millennium.
According to Hillis, the project is intended to “provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”
“He offered to build my dream,” Hillis said. “That’s a pretty wonderful thing to do for a friend.”
This spring, Bezos’s curiosity led him into the rapidly changing world of journalism. In April, Bezos led a $5 million investment into Business Insider, a financial news Web site led by Henry Blodget, who as a Wall Street analyst once touted Amazon stock. It was about this time that The Washington Post was being quietly shopped around. With the sale, the newspaper will be separated from the rest of The Post Co., including the Kaplan education unit.
The Post “is changing with or without Bezos,” Blodget said in an e-mail Saturday. “The format and delivery of the journalism will likely change — digital is a different medium than print — but the commitment to delighting readers will almost certainly remain.”
Since his deal to purchase The Washington Post was announced, newspaper readers who have found Bezos’s e-mail address have started to pepper him with questions, and Bezos, true to his reputation for customer service, has been responding.
A number of customers have e-mailed him this past week, and “he has responded to every one,” said Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, who recounted one in particular.
A man who had paid several hundred dollars to place a marriage announcement did not like how the paper treated him.
He wrote to Bezos saying, “Thank god you’re getting involved, you understand customer service!”
Weymouth wrote back to the man, but within “two seconds,” so did Bezos.
“Thank you for your input,” Bezos told him. “Keep your ideas coming!”