Amazon's Bezos starts sharing the spotlight with top lieutenants as he focuses on other projects

Key Points
  • As Jeff Bezos spends more time on space company Blue Origin and other projects, he's elevating senior Amazon executives into more public roles.
  • Jeff Wilke, CEO of the retail business, and Dave Limp, Amazon's devices chief, were both interviewed by CNBC this week.
  • The change comes as Amazon’s expansion reaches unprecedented levels.
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, center left, speaks with Amazon employees after he made a surprise appearance during a Amazon Veterans Day celebration, honoring the Warriors@Amazon, a group of employees who have served in the military and their spouses, in an event outside a hanger at the Long Beach Airport in Long Beach on Monday, November 12, 2018.
Leonard Ortiz /Orange County Register via Getty Images | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon's worldwide consumer business, has spent nearly two decades at the company and was promoted to his current job more than three years ago. But until this week, consumers and investors had never seen him on TV.

Wilke's 20 minute interview with CNBC on Thursday was his first broadcast appearance since being promoted to run Amazon's biggest unit in 2016. More importantly, the on-the-record chat fit into Amazon's recent effort to elevate the public profiles of CEO Jeff Bezos' top lieutenants.

Since starting Amazon 25 years ago as an online bookseller, Bezos has been the larger-than-life face of the company in its march to a $900 billion market cap. He's not alone among tech founders in creating a cult of personality. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Salesforce's Marc Benioff and Netflix's Reed Hastings are all synonymous with the companies they started, and the same was true for many years of Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs.

Amazon is unique in how few of its product leaders have established real name recognition outside of the company's walls. Apple's public figures include lead software engineer Craig Federighi and operating chief Jeff Williams. Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg often speaks for the company, while Google's CFO Ruth Porat and cloud boss Thomas Kurian are prominent names on Wall Street.

At Amazon, Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, has become a bigger presence in recent years, but most senior executives have stayed below the radar, rarely speaking in public and only sparingly being quoted in press releases.

For Bezos' sake, that has to change. Investors need to see and hear from the leaders of the massive and costly businesses they're putting their money behind, and Bezos has an ever-growing portfolio of ambitious projects outside of Amazon to occupy his time and energy.

"We're seeing a concerted effort to show that Amazon is much more than just Bezos," said Tom Forte, an analyst at D.A. Davidson, in an interview. Forte said he was "shocked" to see the Wilke interview, which took place at Amazon's re:Mars conference on artificial intelligence.

Dave Limp, Amazon's devices chief, also spoke to CNBC at the event. He and Wilke both stuck to the party line, emphasizing the importance of the customer experience in everything Amazon pursues.

"I think you're going to get a lot of evidence this week that our business model is producing great things for customers and for the world," Wilke said.

Watch CNBC's full interview with Amazon worldwide consumer chief Jeff Wilke

Here's where else we're seeing top executives pop up:

At a Vanity Fair event last year, Jeff Blackburn, who oversees Amazon's video and advertising businesses, did a rare on-stage interview. Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary who now leads Amazon's press and government relations, held his first comprehensive press briefing with The Washington Post last month, after mostly staying quiet over the past four years. Carney's other public appearances came in November, when Amazon made its HQ2 announcement. Dave Clark, who runs its retail operations, has been promoting new delivery services.

All of them are part of Bezos's elite S-team, the 18 people who the CEO consults regularly in making key business decisions.

Strategic move

Forte said it's important that a number of these leaders become familiar names.

"I have to assume it's a strategic move, positioning the company for life after Bezos," said Forte, who recommends buying Amazon shares.

While he expects Bezos, 55, to remain at the helm for another decade, Forte highlighted in a recent report "significant succession risk" because of the tremendous influence of Bezos' personality within the company. He also noted Amazon is better prepared for the eventual change because of its deep bench of executives and Bezos' relatively young age. By way of comparison, Forte cited Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Sam Walton of Walmart, who were 63 and 70, respectively, when they stepped down.

An Amazon representative didn't respond to a request for comment.

The changing approach at Amazon comes as its expansion reaches unprecedented levels. Beyond online shopping, the company is engaged in everything from physical retail and shipping to drone delivery, voice technology and movie production. It's the second most valuable publicly-traded company in the world, behind only Microsoft.

"One would expect over time, as Amazon builds up its business, certain senior people will be public ambassadors for the company," said Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer who has a "buy" recommendation on the stock.

Dave Limp, Senior Vice President of Amazon Devices, introduces the 'smart plug' during an event at the Amazon Spheres, on September 20, 2018 in Seattle Washington.
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Building confidence

Bezos, meanwhile, is spending more of his time outside of Amazon. He invests roughly $1 billion every year on his spaceship company Blue Origin, and has been more engaged with the venture of late. He also owns The Washington Post, which he bought for $250 million in 2013, and remains an active start-up investor, having backed Uber, Airbnb, Nextdoor and dozens of others.

"Bezos wants investors to remain confident that Amazon can do well without all his attention," said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan.

But there's only one Bezos. He's the world's richest person, with a net worth of about $110 billion, and it's hard to imagine a time when he's not the driving force behind the company's vision.

As if anyone had questions about who's still the boss, Bezos gave one particularly concise answer this week to remind them. While on stage at re:Mars, "an event hosted by Jeff Bezos," as the website says, he was asked if anyone ever tells him, "no."

"No! Certainly not twice," Bezos said. He followed by saying that it actually happens frequently. "I seek it out," he said.

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