5. Jeff Bezos

Amazon's retail revolutionary

Benjamin Wachenje
"If you never want to be criticized, for goodness' sake don't do anything new."

Chairman and CEO, Amazon.com
Born: Jan. 12, 1964, Albuquerque, N.M.
Education: Bachelor's in electrical engineering and computer science, Princeton University

Jeff Bezos is the Richard Sears, Isidor Straus, John Wanamaker and Sam Walton of e-commerce. He didn't invent online shopping, but he converted it from the novel to the routine, and defined and scaled the online mass market for consumer goods. He transformed the shopping experience in a way that has changed consumer culture—just as his four retail predecessors had done with the physical stores of their eras.

Bezos has made this impact even though Seattle-based amazon.com barely ranks in the top 50 U.S. companies by annual revenue. Wal-Mart's sales in 2013 were seven times as much as Amazon's $74 billion. Bezos also runs on narrow profit margins. His combination of small inventory, centralized and low-cost warehousing, and knowledge of customers' individual preferences throws off cash but, to Wall Street's consternation, Bezos prefers to reinvest it in new business lines and process innovations. Nevertheless, his 18 percent stake in Amazon gives the former Wall Street computer engineer a fortune that Bloomberg values at $29 billion.

Amazon has become the largest online retailer under its own brand, and is expanding into businesses such as fresh food and art auctions. It also operates acquired Web retailers such as Zappos (shoes) and Audible (audiobooks), and it provides a sales, data management and fulfillment platform for more than 2 million third-party vendors. It sells cloud computing services to small businesses and government, and publishing services and imprints to authors. Since the 2011 launch of the Fire version of its Kindle e-book reader, Amazon has competed with Apple in tablet computers. That rivalry now extends to streaming video via TV set-top boxes from its own service and from those such as Netflix and Hulu.

Bezos started with books because, when brainstorming e-commerce ideas as an employee at hedge fund D.E. Shaw, he realized that two of the country's largest book distributors already had exhaustive electronic lists. His employer wasn't interested in book retailing, so Bezos struck out on his own, driving with his wife across the U.S. to Seattle and tapping out a business plan en route. They launched Amazon.com in the proverbial garage in 1995 and took it public two years later.

Bezos built Amazon by focusing on service in a way few digital entrepreneurs have matched. He strives to narrow the advantages of physical stores: the personal experience and the convenience of an immediate sale. Amazon is a culmination of a continuous pipeline of incremental improvements—such as programmatic product recommendations, one-click ordering and easy shipping tracking—to minimize consumers' perception of the time between placing and receiving an order. Having its own warehouses helps Amazon maintain quality control over products and dispatch (although working conditions in the facilities have prompted lawsuits). Bezos is developing drones for small-package delivery ahead of the prospective loosening of U.S. restrictions on commercial drones in 2015. He says an eighth generation of the devices is on his engineers' drawing boards.

Bezos has sold more than $2.5 billion of his Amazon stock and reinvested some of the proceeds in his closely held space-exploration company, Blue Origin. His fascination with space was kindled by his maternal grandfather, who in the late 1950s worked on space technology and missile defense systems at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 2013, Bezos spent $250 million to buy "The Washington Post" newspaper. He says he will apply the same principle to his new acquisition as have guided him at Amazon: "Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient."

Jeff Bezos: Lifelong highlights

  • Born the son of Ted Jorgensen but took the family name of his mother's second husband, Miguel Bezos, a Cuban immigrant who legally adopted him
  • Married to author MacKenzie Bezos, who won 2006 National Book Award for her novel, "The Testing of Luther Albright"
  • Gained first retail experience in a summer job as a fry cook at a McDonald's in Florida
  • Took first job after Princeton at Fitel, a start-up building a clearing network for cross-border equity transactions piggybacking off GE's online consumer service, GEnie
  • Incorporated company as Cadabra, in July 1994; went online as Amazon.com in 1995
  • Negotiated Amazon's early deals at a Starbucks in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Bellevue, Wash.
  • Turned Amazon's first profit in fourth-quarter 2001
  • Survived a helicopter accident in southwest Texas in 2003
  • Introduced the Kindle e-book reader in 2007; in 2010, Amazon's sales of e-books passed traditional book sales
  • Donated $42 million to the 10,000-year Clock of the Long Now, a project to promote long-term thinking

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