Ruthless, calculating, confrontational, and sardonic—such is the portrait of Amazon CEO and newly crowned Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos that emerges in an excerpt from Brad Stone's new book on the billionaire mogul, published today on Bloomberg Businessweek.
Cobbled together from interviews with "hundreds" of Bezos's acquaintances (but not the man himself), it's not an altogether flattering profile. (Magazine pieces about obscenely rich tech moguls rarely are, it lately seems.) But it does give us a rare close-up of the visionary, who "rarely speaks at conferences and gives interviews only to publicize new products," despite maintaining a public work email address. And the clincher, concerning Bezos's long-lost father, is stunning.
What we've learned, mostly, is this: Bezos, a "hyperrational" and emotionless boss, is not a terribly pleasant person to work for:
Some Amazon employees advance the theory that Bezos, like Jobs, Gates, and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, lacks empathy. As a result, he treats workers as expendable resources without taking into account their contributions. That in turn allows him to coldly allocate capital and manpower and make hyperrational business decisions, where another executive might let emotion and personal relationships figure into the equation.
Oh, and this: he once flew into a fit of range concerning Amazon's lubricant marketing:
It had come to Bezos’s attention that customers who had browsed the lubricants section of Amazon’s sexual wellness category were receiving personalized e-mails pitching a variety of gels and other intimacy facilitators. [ . . . ] Wilke and his colleagues argued that lubricants were available in supermarkets and drugstores and were not that embarrassing. They also pointed out that Amazon generated a significant volume of sales with such e-mails. Bezos didn’t care; no amount of revenue was worth jeopardizing customer trust. “Who in this room needs to get up and shut down the channel?” he snapped.
In stark contrast to Bezos's conniving emotionlessness, though, is Stone's poignant tale of tracking down the CEO's biological father, Ted Jorgensen, who left when Bezos was a toddler and hasn't been in touch with him since. Many decades removed from that short-lived teen marriage, Jorgensen today runs a bike shop in Arizona.
Remarkably, he had absolutely no clue who his son was:
Jorgensen said he didn’t know who Jeff Bezos was and was baffled by my suggestion that he was the father of this famous CEO. [ . . . ]
“Your son is one of the most successful men on the planet,” I told him. I showed him some Internet photographs on my smartphone, and for the first time in 45 years, Jorgensen saw his biological son. His eyes filled with sorrow and disbelief.
In fitting cliffhanger fashion, the excerpt closes with Jorgensen's emotional decision to reestablish contact with his long-lost son. It's not entirely clear if that's happened yet. But however it plays out, that scene will be a hell of a plus for whoever ends up directing the inevitable biopic about Bezos.
Take the apparent parallels between the two men. Jorgensen, we learn from his stepson, shares Bezos's laugh and similarly conceals emotion. But this humbling experience changed things: "Saturday was the most emotion I’ve ever seen out of him, as far as sadness and regret. It was overwhelming."
Whether this father-son reunion will similarly soften the merciless Amazon CEO remains to be seen. But as he looks back on a remarkable two-decade rise to corporate heights, he could probably stand to lighten up a bit and treat his employees like people—not "expendable resources."