Andy Jassy, chief executive officer of Amazon.Com Inc., during the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jassy, a 25-year Amazon veteran, succeeded Jeff Bezos on July 5, 2021. A few days later, the stock hit a record high. Since then, it’s down more than 40%, including a 35% drop in the second quarter, the steepest decline for any period since 2001.
As just the second CEO for Amazon since Bezos started the company in 1994, Jassy is staring into a macroeconomic hurricane entirely out of his control. From the ongoing fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, record inflation and rising interest rates to supply chain constraints and the war in Ukraine, Amazon faces the prospects of rising costs and slower consumer spending all while investors rotate out of the tech stocks that drove the recent bull market.
But it’s not just the economy. There’s also the threat of antitrust regulation as lawmakers get closer to passing landmark legislation that seeks to curb the power of Amazon and other tech giants. And Jassy is grappling with a labor battle that culminated in a Staten Island, New York, warehouse voting in April to form the company’s first U.S. union. Amazon is challenging the union effort in court. Meanwhile, some of the company’s most senior executives have hit the exits.
Last July, when Jassy officially took over as CEO, Amazon’s business was stronger than ever. The company had just notched its first $100 billion quarter, reflecting the pandemic-driven surge in e-commerce activity that pushed Amazon to expand at a breakneck pace.
The story has rapidly devolved. Amazon is now shedding some of the warehouse space it added during the pandemic. And after months of worker shortages, the company is now overstaffed in its fulfillment network, as the cooling of e-commerce means that many recent hires are no longer needed.
With the slowing in its core business, Amazon announced in April that it had booked its weakest quarterly revenue growth since the dot-com bust in 2001, and its first quarterly loss since 2015.
Investors are now considering whether the poor results are a reflection of management struggles or merely a brief setback as the company emerges from a global pandemic and reckons with a sputtering economy.
When asked if Jassy is responsible for warehouse overexpansion and recent weakness in Amazon’s business, Tom Forte, an analyst at D.A. Davidson, said the new CEO still gets the benefit of the doubt.
“Today, I still feel like the answer is no,” said Forte, who recommends buying the stock. “But I am monitoring if there is a sustained multiyear period of weakness in the stock, at what point will investors start looking to Andy and start assigning blame.”
Forte isn’t alone. Following the company’s first-quarter earnings report, several Wall Street analysts said Amazon’s challenges are likely to work themselves out over the coming months.
But with a workforce of more than 1.6 million and an investor base that has come to expect operational excellence, Jassy has plenty to prove regardless of the direction of the economy.
“My core belief is that large companies face the greatest risks internally,” Matt McIlwain, a managing director at Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and a longtime investor in Amazon, said in an email. “The key for Amazon will be to keep embracing their culture of pioneering and to make decisions with speed/agility so that they can continue to grow at their scale.”
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Keeping workers happy
The labor challenges aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.
Since the union victory on Staten Island, Amazon has aggressively fought back against other organizing efforts, and has staunchly maintained its opposition to unions. Following reports of unsafe working conditions in its warehouses, Jassy has said Amazon’s injury rates are “sometimes misunderstood,” but he acknowledged Amazon can do more to improve safety inside its facilities.
“At our scale (we hired over 300,000 people in 2021 alone, many of whom were new to this sort of work and needed training), it takes rigorous analysis, thoughtful problem-solving, and a willingness to invent to get to where you want,” Jassy wrote in his first letter to shareholders in April. “We’ve been dissecting every process path to discern how we can further improve.”
Office workers have their own set of demands and have gained considerable leverage, commanding higher wages, better benefits and greater work-from-home flexibility. Last October, Amazon retreated from its office-centric culture when it allowed individual managers to decide how often their employees would be required to come into the office.
The Amazon headquarters sits virtually empty on March 10, 2020 in downtown Seattle, Washington. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Amazon recommended all employees in its Seattle office to work from home, leaving much of downtown nearly void of people.
John Moore | Getty Images
Earlier this year, in response to the strengthening labor market, Amazon boosted its maximum base salary to $350,000, up from its previous max of $160,000.
That’s not enough to keep some of the company’s longest-tenured employees, who have been departing at a rapid clip. The trend preceded Jassy’s tenure. More than 45 top executives departed Amazon between the start of 2020 and April 2021, according to a tally by Business Insider, an unusually high number for the company.
Under Jassy, the exodus has continued. Last month, 23-year Amazon veteran Dave Clark resigned a little over a year after taking over the role of retail chief from Jeff Wilke, one of Bezos’ top lieutenants, who stepped down in early 2021. Later in June, two prominent Black leaders — operations executive Dave Bozeman and Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president of global customer fulfillment and a member of the company’s leadership team — announced their departures.
Ian Freed, a former vice president at Amazon who oversaw the development of key projects like Alexa and the Kindle, said that as the company gets larger, it could get harder to attract and retain the same kind of talent.
“The fact that it’s growing, it’s a desirable place for innovators to go, whether they’re engineers, marketers or retail experts or whatever, if that goes away, I feel like a lot of things start to fall apart,” Freed said. “I don’t necessarily think that’s going away, but I think it’s always the biggest risk.”
Amazon has said it has high retention rates. The average tenure for vice presidents is about 10 years, and for senior vice presidents it is “much longer,” the company said.
Finding Amazon’s fourth pillar
In the years since, investors have looked for a potential fourth or fifth pillar. They’ll now be asking Jassy what can move the needle at a company with a $1.1 trillion market cap.
Bezos greenlit ambitious projects like the Echo smart speaker and delivery drones, while taking on offbeat, ambitious ventures outside of Amazon, such as investing $42 million to build the “Clock of the Long Now,” which will tell time for the next 10,000 years, and starting space flight company Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, holds the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD at the product’s introduction in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Jassy’s big innovation was AWS. After serving as Bezos’ “shadow” in the early 2000s, Jassy was personally authorized by Bezos to go start the cloud business, which has transformed into a $60 billion juggernaut and emerged as the company’s profit center.
“Andy is a visionary in his own right, but in a different way than Jeff,” said Craig Berman, a former Amazon vice president for global communications, in an interview. “I think it would be horribly unfair to say that Jeff is a better innovator or builder than Andy.”
During Amazon’s all-hands meeting in April, Jassy reminded staffers that he “was here when we were a books only retailer.” From there, the company went into music, video, consumer electronics, cloud computing, devices and streaming entertainment, Jassy said at the meeting, a recording of which was obtained by CNBC.
As he explores new markets, Jassy said the company asks if the opportunity is big enough, if it’s being well served, if Amazon has a “differentiated approach” and if it has competence or “can we acquire competence quickly?”
“If we like the answers to those questions, we will pursue that opportunity, even if it’s really different from what we’ve done in the past,” Jassy said. “And that philosophy has been what you see in the various customer experiences and business segments that we’ve been pursuing.”