Leaving my local café this morning, the owner asked me if I was ‘fired up’ for the day. As it happens, I was feeling unusually riled, having just read an article criticising Jeff Bezos for his extreme wealth.
If you’ve not caught up with the story, yesterday (27 July) Amazon founder Jeff Bezos briefly overtook Bill Gates to become the world’s richest person when his worth hit $91.4bn (£70 billion). According to Forbes, a sharp rise in Amazon shares meant Mr Bezos’s wealth eclipsed that of the Microsoft co-founder for a brief time. But as Amazon shares fell back, Mr Gates regained the top spot.
Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994 after making a cross-country drive from New York to Seattle, and writing up the Amazon business plan while on route. He left his well-paying job on Wall Street after learning “about the rapid growth in Internet use,” which coincided with a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling exempting mail order companies from collecting sales taxes in states where they lack a physical presence.” Blessed with long term vision and an astute mathematical brain, Bezos saw a business opportunity and ran with it.
Bezos now owns about 17% of the shares in Amazon, the Washington Post, Blue Origin a human spaceflight start-up, and has interests in a number of other businesses including Airbnb, Google and Twitter. He recently purchased Whole Foods.
The Amazon Culture
In an article for the New York Times, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, Amazon was severely criticised for its overbearing culture. A lot of the negative perceptions about Amazon as a company and a place to work appear to stem from this particular article. Paradoxically Bezos was also named best performing CEO of the year in 2014 by Harvard Business Review.
There is no doubt that Bezos eschews mediocrity and drives himself and his team to achieve the highest possible standards. But as a former CEO myself, I don’t believe that any company adopting the approach portrayed in the New York Times article could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.
The people Amazon recruits have to be the best of the best as they’re competing with other world-class companies for staff who frankly can work anywhere they want. And with his firm grip on the numbers, I don’t believe that Bezos would tolerate the high churn rate and costs that would inevitably be the price of such a toxic workplace which employs 132,000 people.
Which is not to say that working at Amazon is a ‘walk in the park.’ The fact that Bezos refers to his employees as ‘Amazonians’ tells you all you need to know. Amazonians are after all fearless, aggressive warriors. In fact in his 1997 letter to shareholders, Bezos wrote that when he interviewed potential hires, he warned them, “It’s not easy to work here.”
Criticisms Of Bezos’ Wealth
So let’s now turn to the criticisms of Bezos’ wealth I read this morning that got me so riled up. Apparently if you crunch the numbers:
- Bezos made $1.5 billion in one day, which is more than 22,000 times the average American’s net worth.
- In the past year, he’s earned on average $833 million a week. That’s 970,000 times more than the median American worker.
- Compared to the average American’s salary, a $250,000 Ferrari would cost Bezos the equivalent of 26 cents. A $65 million jet would set him back $67.
- Bezos could afford to scoop up any of the bottom 440 companies on the S&P 500, including Goldman Sachs.
- His wealth is equivalent to the total gross domestic product of Ukraine.
Whilst these numbers undoubtedly tell a serious story about the huge disparity in wealth between those at the top of the economic ladder and the squeezed middle class, I personally don’t see why Bezos should be singled out in this way for creating phenomenal wealth and prosperity. The simple fact, as I explain in The Essential Role of Business is that business is the bedrock of the economy; when business thrives and prospers, good paying jobs are created and the whole economy prospers because we have more disposable income to spend.
The Transition From Visionary
Bezos is the only one of the original web pioneers to make the notoriously hard transition from the visionary of a small start-up to the boss of thousands of employees. This should be applauded. The fact is that we need more successful entrepreneurs, who are able to make that jump. And we should not be pillorying those business geniuses who have been able to make the leap.
For a more detailed exploration of how Jeff Bezos thinks, this article by Fast Company is a fascinating read.
Join The Conversation
Question: What’s your take on this? What tipped you over? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.
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I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, to help my clients to achieve their goals.
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