Tech

Jeff Wilke, Amazon's consumer boss and a top lieutenant to Bezos, will step down in 2021

Key Points
  • Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon's worldwide consumer business, will retire early next year, Amazon said Friday. 
  • Dave Clark, senior vice president of retail operations, will take over Wilke's role after he retires.
  • Jeff Bezos also added three new members to his S-team, drawing executives from Amazon's delivery, fulfillment and website infrastructure units. 
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Amazon executive Jeffrey Wilke to depart in 2021

Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon's worldwide consumer business and widely considered to be a potential successor to Jeff Bezos, will retire next year, Amazon announced in a regulatory filing Friday.

Dave Clark, senior vice president of retail operations, will succeed Wilke after he retires, Amazon said. 

In a memo to employees, titled "Hanging up the flannel," CEO Bezos called Wilke "an incredible teacher to all of us" and said Clark is well-suited to assume Wilke's role.

"Since Jeff joined the company, I have been lucky enough to have him as my tutor," Bezos said. "Jeff's legacy and impact will live on long after he departs. He is simply one of those people without whom Amazon would be completely unrecognizable."

Wilke, 53, has been with Amazon for over two decades, joining the company in 1999 to lead global operations. Since then, he's risen through the ranks and now oversees the company's core e-commerce and physical retail business. Wilke is one of the closest executives to report to Bezos and was widely considered to be a potential successor for Bezos should he ever step down. 

Clark also has a storied history at Amazon, joining the company in 1999 as an operations manager. In 2013, Clark was tapped to become Amazon's global logistics chief, overseeing the company's growing network of warehouses, along with last-mile delivery operations spanning trucks, vans and airplanes. Clark's attention to detail and tough management style has earned him the nickname "The Sniper," due to his tendency to spot and fire workers slacking on the job in the name of ensuring fast delivery. 

Wilke will leave his high-profile post at Amazon following one of its most challenging periods. Amazon, like many retailers, found itself grappling with a logistical nightmare at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, as its warehouses became quickly overwhelmed with online orders at higher levels than it typically sees during the holiday shopping rush. Clark helped Amazon navigate through the dual crises of delivery delays and rising tensions with warehouse workers who called for greater safety protections. 

Both Wilke and Clark are members of Bezos' S-Team, a tight-knight group of over a dozen senior executives from almost all areas of Amazon's business, such as retail, cloud computing, advertising and operations. The S-team rarely sees its members depart and if they do, their roles aren't always replaced. Last year, another member of the S-Team, Jeff Blackburn, Amazon's SVP of business and corporate development, announced he was taking a one-year sabbatical starting in 2020.

Bezos on Friday made three new additions to the S-team, including Amazon's vice president of global customer fulfillment, Alicia Boler Davis, John Felton, vice president of global delivery services, and Dave Treadwell, vice president of Amazon's eCommerce Foundation, which oversees the core systems, services and infrastructure powering amazon.com.

Boler Davis is the first Black woman to serve on Bezos' S-team. Bezos has gradually diversified his circle of top executives, adding two women to the S-team last year, including Colleen Aubrey, vice president of performance advertising and Christine Beauchamp, vice president of Amazon fashion. Before that, Beth Galetti, vice president of human resources, was the only woman who held a position on Bezos' senior leadership team. 

Amazon declined to comment further on Wilke's plan to retire. 

Read Bezos' full letter to Amazon employees below:

From: Jeff Bezos

To: Amazon Worldwide employees

Subject: RE: Hanging up the flannel

Date: August 21, 2020

After more than two decades, Jeff Wilke is planning to retire from Amazon early next year. I've attached below the heartfelt note he just sent to his organization sharing that news.

Since Jeff joined the company, I have been lucky enough to have him as my tutor. I've learned so much from him, and I'm not the only one. He's been an incredible teacher to all of us. That form of leadership is so leveraged. When you see us taking care of customers, you can thank Jeff for it. And there's this important point: in tough moments and good ones, he's been just plain fun to work with. Never underestimate the importance of that. It makes a difference. 

Jeff's legacy and impact will live on long after he departs. He is simply one of those people without whom Amazon would be completely unrecognizable. Thank you, Jeff, for your contributions and your friendship. 

Jeff has also set us up to succeed in his absence. I can't think of someone more suited to step into Jeff's role than Dave Clark. Those of you who have worked with Dave know his incredible passion for serving customers and supporting our employees – I am excited for him to lead our teams and continue innovating for customers.

I'd also like to congratulate our new S-team members Alicia Boler Davis, John Felton, and Dave Treadwell. I look forward to inventing with you.

Jeff

Here's the memo Wilke sent to employees:                                                                      

From: Jeff Wilke

To: Worldwide Consumer Employees

Subject: Hanging up the flannel

Date: August 21, 2020

Heading into my 22nd holiday season at Amazon, I'm once more looking at the flannel shirts that fill my closet rack.  This holiday with Amazon will be different in many ways.  And it will be my last.

In December 1999, I left work most evenings – along with most of my colleagues from the half of a floor of Key Tower that housed the entire corporate operations team – to head to the Seattle Distribution Center to pack boxes and gift wrap presents.  We also traveled to our buildings in Nevada, Kentucky, and Kansas.  I always packed flannel shirts for these trips to colder parts of the country.  Our main purpose was to ensure we shipped all customer orders in time for the holiday.  But we benefitted in other ways from these visits.  We got to see how the physical operations connected to our digital store, and I got to personally inspect our safety culture.  We made new friends (and a few of these friendships led to marriages).  And, perhaps most importantly, we gained enormous respect for the dedication and customer focus of our fellow employees who worked away from headquarters.

A few years later – with the help of an operational excellence focus built on Lean, statistical process control, a clear understanding of our bottlenecks, and purpose-built software – we didn't need to send corporate employees out to fulfillment centers (FCs) to add much-needed bandwidth supporting our associates.  Everyone cheered our improving operational capability, but I noticed something was lost.  Holiday conversations in our frugal, but comfortable, Seattle offices increasingly turned to holiday parties and eggnog, and away from the stories of FC heroics.  I didn't hear the same sharing of respect for the work being done in our FCs, and I was committed to reconnecting corporate employees to operations.

We created Customer Connections so that every new employee spent time in an FC or Customer Service.  I doubled down on representing our Operations team in the corporate environment, including starting every meeting with a safety tip.  And I started to wear my flannel shirts every day of Q4.  The flannel gave me a chance to talk about our operations and remind everyone of how dedicated and customer-focused our colleagues in the field were, too.

COVID-19 has pulled me back to my roots in operations as I work with the teams building antigen testing capacity, which we'll deploy first to our front-line employees.  I'm so proud of the dedication our people have shown as they pick, pack, ship, and deliver to hundreds of millions of customers around the world who depend on us.  These employees deserve every ounce of our attention to ensure their safety, which is why we've spent so much time and money to keep them healthy and safe.  This testing work is very much in the spirit of flannel, and is the latest example of our commitment to the people in our fulfillment centers.

I'm planning to retire in Q1 of next year.  I don't have a new job, and am as happy with and proud of Amazon as ever.  I treasure the deep relationships we forged as we grew this company.  From Jeff Bezos and my S-team colleagues to the hundreds and hundreds of leaders throughout Amazon who apply our Leadership Principles every single day.  We worked hard.  And we had a blast.  So why leave?  It's just time.  Time for Dave Clark to step in and lead the organization as CEO Worldwide Consumer.  Time for Russ Grandinetti and Doug Herrington to expand their already considerable influence on our company's culture and performance.  Time for me to take time to explore personal interests that have taken a back seat for over two decades.

As part of this transition, we are also adding John Felton, Alicia Boler Davis, and Dave Treadwell to S-team. This caps years of effort to develop incredibly capable leaders across our Consumer business.

John started as a senior financial analyst in Retail.  He rose through the finance ranks to ultimately serve as the head of finance for Dave Clark's WW Operations team.  In 2018, Dave asked John to jump from Finance to Operations.  He did so enthusiastically, first leading Global Customer Fulfillment, and now Global Delivery Services, which includes our hugely successful AMZL expansion.

While she was at General Motors, Alicia and I were introduced by a mutual friend and agreed to have lunch.  We hit it off right away.  I was so impressed with her leadership experience, technical acumen, and especially her dedication to the workers on the shop floor.  She wasn't wearing flannel, but I was sure we shared the same instincts.  She's off to a great start running Global Customer Fulfillment.

I met Dave Treadwell during our freshman year of college.  He was already way better at writing code than I was.  After spending nearly 30 years rising through the senior ranks at Microsoft, I asked him if he might consider joining Amazon. He was intrigued, and I jumped at the chance to hire him.  "Tread" has led our eCommerce Foundation tech teams since he joined Amazon, driving huge architectural change through Rolling Stone and our transition to native AWS, along with a significant improvement in our infrastructure costs.  Dave has an unusual mix of deep technical acumen and empathetic leadership, and he'll be a great add to the S-team.

I didn't hire Dave Clark.  Our MBA recruiting team brought him on board months before I joined.  But soon after my arrival at Amazon, I knew he was special.  He possessed a unique mix of raw intellect, systems thinking, sharp wit, and tons of leadership courage.  I tested him.  I "asked" him to go to Tokyo to start up our first Japanese FC (which he did after getting his first passport).  I "asked" him to go to Campbellsville, KY, to take a Senior Manager role.  I hoped that one day Dave might be my successor leading Operations, but I knew he would need significant plant leadership experience to complete his mental models.  After helping to dramatically improve the operations in Campbellsville, I asked him to take the General Manager role at our Delaware FC.  The operations there were relatively simple, so the leadership challenge was more about leading people than optimizing process.  Dave excelled again.  From there, Dave returned to Seattle to stay, assuming various roles in Operations that included designing our next generation FCs.  Seven years ago, he took over leadership of WW Operations and joined the S-team.  Dave thinks and leads boldly.  He's the Big Thinking energy behind the scale of Amazon Robotics, our Prime Air fleet, and AMZL deliveries.  In the last two years, we moved Prime, Marketing, and the Stores organizations to Dave, giving him a chance to broaden his leadership beyond operations.  Dave is now ready to lead WW Consumer, and I'll be proud to turn it over to him early next year.

We have an important holiday season ahead as customers will be depending on us more than ever.  We have so much to do in the coming months, so I'm not leaving yet.  After this holiday season, we'll have time for Chime high fives and socially distant thank-yous and goodbyes, and I'll cherish each of them.

Thank you for caring about our customers and about each other.  Amazon is a very special company, and it is my honor and privilege to help lead it for just a little while longer.

JAW

VIDEO20:0520:05
Watch CNBC's full interview with Amazon worldwide consumer chief Jeff Wilke