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Top Amazon exec who was large shareholder is leaving after two-year hiatus, adding to exodus

Key Points
  • Diego Piacentini, one of the most senior executives at Amazon who had previously led its international business, has left the company.
  • He went on a two-year leave in 2016 to work with the Italian government, but has decided not to return to Amazon after his project came to an end in October, according to a person familiar with the matter.
  • His departure is particularly notable given that he’s the second person to leave this year out of Amazon's "S-Team," a tight-knit group of senior leaders that see very little turnover.
Diego Piacentini speaks at a news conference in Paris August 29 , 2000.
Reuters | Charles Platiau

Diego Piacentini, one of the most senior executives at Amazon who had previously led its international business, has left the company after a two-year hiatus, adding to a string of executive departures over the past year.

Piacentini, who went on a two-year leave in 2016 to work with the Italian government, has decided not to return to the company after his project came to an end in October, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The Italy-born executive was considered one of CEO Jeff Bezos' top lieutenants during his 16-year tenure at Amazon, reporting directly to him and becoming part of his tight-knit group of senior leaders called the "S-Team." He joined Amazon from Apple, and reportedly drew the scorn of then-CEO Steve Jobs for joining a "boring retailer."

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Piacentini was also one of the largest employee shareholders at Amazon. Before he left in 2016, he owned the third largest number of Amazon shares among all employees, after only Bezos and the retail group's CEO, Jeff Wilke, according to the company's 2017 proxy statement. The 79,146 shares he owned at the time would translate to roughly $122 million based on Monday's closing price.

Piacentini previously hinted that he could come back to Amazon once his pro bono work with the Italian government was complete. In an interview with the Financial Times in September 2017, he said he planned to return to the e-commerce company, although he noted that "many things can change." During a Bloomberg interview this year, he declined to say whether he's returning to Amazon.

It's unclear what his future plans are now. He didn't respond to a request for comment. Amazon declined to comment for this story.

Piacentini joins a growing list of executives who have left Amazon this year, even as the company enjoys unprecedented success and a near-record stock price. At least 15 high-profile executives have announced their departures this year, an unusually high number for a company known for retaining its most senior executives for many years.

Piacentini's departure is particularly notable given that he's the second S-Team member to leave Amazon this year, after Sebastian Gunningham, marketplace senior vice president, left in March. Bezos' S-Team, which reportedly contains fewer than 20 execs, is famous for seeing very little turnover historically, a part of Amazon's culture that the CEO once highlighted during an internal staff meeting.

"I'm very happy that we don't have a lot of turnover on the S-team," Bezos said, according to a recording of a 2017 all-hands meeting that CNBC has heard. "I don't intend to change that — I like you guys a lot. I would expect any transition there to happen very incrementally over a long period of time."

Cashing in

Amazon's massive success has made it a popular poaching ground for executive talent. Many of the departed executives had more than a decade of experience building key parts of Amazon's business, and have joined hot start-ups or young public companies that would benefit from the adult guidance these experienced leaders could provide. In return, these people get fresh opportunities and a relief from the more bureaucratic culture of a big company.

For example, Gunningham, who spent more than 10 years at Amazon, took the vice chairman role at WeWork. Greg Greeley, another highly regarded executive responsible for building the Prime membership program, left to join Airbnb in March. Tim Stone, former vice president of finance, is now Snap's chief finance officer. Other companies that recruited Amazon's executives this year include SoFi, Tesla and Robinhood.

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Gene Munster, managing partner at Loup Ventures, said the departures are more a symptom of success than a sign of turmoil at Amazon. Many of them are likely motivated by Amazon's soaring stock price, which nearly quadrupled over the past five years, he said, because it gives these people incentive to sell their stock — which in most cases are worth millions of dollars — and the flexibility to pursue new opportunities.

"These executives are cashing in on their past success and often parlaying them into start-up careers," Munster said.

While it's true that many of the executives have become incredibly rich and have left on their own volition, not all departures seem to have been voluntary, according to James Thomson, a former Amazon manager and partner at BuyBox Experts, who works closely with the company. Amazon often reviews its organizational structure and pushes out executives when necessary, he said, and it's possible the company saw layers of overlapping VP positions that needed to be streamlined after its workforce grew to over 610,000 this year.

Either way, the void left by these executives shouldn't be a concern for Amazon, Thomson added, because of its deep bench of talented executives who can fill in those positions immediately.

"These people are expensive to pay, and quite frankly it doesn't make any sense to have too many of them if you don't need them all," Thomson said. "But Amazon will be fine because there's so much talent."

Here's a list of the most notable high-profile executives that left Amazon in 2018 and what they're doing now:

  • Diego Piacentini; SVP of international business ----> Unknown
  • Sebastian Gunningham; SVP of marketplace ----> Vice Chairman at WeWork
  • Greg Greeley; VP of Prime ----> President of Homes at Airbnb
  • Dave Stephenson; CFO of worldwide consumer business ----> Chief Financial Officer at Airbnb
  • Jim Freeman; VP of Alexa Communications ----> SVP of Engineering at Zalando
  • Tim Stone; VP of Finance ----> Chief Financial Officer at Snap
  • Assaf Ronen; VP of Voice and Nui Shopping ----> Head of Product at SoFi
  • Craig Berman; VP of Global Communications ----> Unknown
  • Peter Faricy; VP of marketplace ----> CEO of Global Direct-to-Consumer at Discovery
  • Mark Mitchke; VP of marketplace business ----> CEO at Delta Dental
  • Allen Parker; VP of finance (Amazon Device & Appstore) ----> CFO at Zillow
  • Derek Andersen; VP of finance (Amazon digital video biz) ----> VP of finance at Snap
  • Jeff Yurcisin; VP of softlines private brands ----> CEO at Zulily
  • Sanjay Shah; VP of North American Fulfillment Centers ----> SVP of energy operations at Tesla
  • Darcy Penick; CEO of Shopbop/East Dane (Amazon subsidiary) ----> President at Bergdorf Goodman
  • Jason Warnick; VP of global finance ----> CFO at Robinhood
  • Jeremi Gorman; Head of global advertising sales ----> Chief Business Officer at Snap
  • Ashwin Ram; Senior Manager, Alexa AI ----> Technical Director of AI at Google Cloud

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Snap.