December 17, 2018

Mr. Amazon Steps Out

The appearances and actions are a new look for Mr. Bezos.

Mr. Bezos with, from left, the actors Matt Damon, Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth after the Golden Globes last Sunday. Credit Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

As he was shaping Amazon into one of the world’s most valuable companies, Mr. Bezos developed a reputation as a brilliant but mysterious and coldblooded corporate titan. He preferred to hunker down in Amazon’s hometown, Seattle, at least partly because he thought it was better for Amazon’s growing business, largely avoiding public causes and the black-tie circuit.

But while Mr. Bezos — who at 53 is the world’s richest person, with a net worth of more than $100 billion — can afford virtually any luxury, obscurity is no longer among them.

Amazon, now a behemoth valued at more than $600 billion, has become one of the faces of “big tech,” along with Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Facebook. These companies are facing a backlash. Amazon is under the microscope for what critics say is its corrosive effect on jobs and competition, and Mr. Bezos has become a bête noire for President Trump, who repeatedly singles out him and Amazon for scorn on Twitter.

“People are starting to get scared of Amazon,” said Steve Case, a co-founder of America Online, who recently started an investment fund focused on start-ups in underserved areas, with Mr. Bezos among its contributors. “If Jeff continues to hang out in Seattle, he’s going to get a lot more incoming. Even for just defense reasons, he has to now play offense.”

Mr. Bezos’ portfolio of other ventures has thrust him farther into the spotlight. Four years ago, he bought The Washington Post for $250 million, jump-starting a renaissance of the paper. In 2016, Mr. Bezos bought a $23 million home in Washington, one of the city’s most expensive, which is undergoing extensive renovations to make it a suitable party spot for the city’s political class. Nearby neighbors include former President Barack Obama and his family, and Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.


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Mr. Bezos’ space start-up, Blue Origin, is also making its efforts more public, giving him another stage. The company is trying to rescue Earth by helping to move pollution-belching heavy industries off the planet.

Mr. Bezos outside a reusable space vehicle designed by Blue Origin, a start-up that has helped expand his public exposure. Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

“He’s getting thanked at the Golden Globes and targeted by presidential tweet tantrums — not even Steve Jobs had that kind of pop-culture currency,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, who curated a museum exhibit in Seattle endowed by Mr. Bezos.

In a statement, Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, said, “Jeff loves what he is doing, at Amazon, Blue Origin and The Washington Post, and he enjoys sharing his enthusiasm in public as he works with the teams to build and invent.”

But interviews with more than 30 people who know Mr. Bezos, most of whom declined to be identified to protect their relationships with him, revealed his awareness of the growing opposition to Amazon and his growing comfort with being in the public eye.

Mr. Bezos, they said, accepts the probability of greater government scrutiny of Amazon. The chief executive has advised Amazon executives to conduct themselves so that they can pass any legal or regulatory test.

The investor Warren E. Buffett, who has known Mr. Bezos since the 1990s, said the cautionary tale of Microsoft, which faced a landmark antitrust case by the government that decade, must loom in Mr. Bezos’ mind. Microsoft, by far the most dominant technology company at the time, lost its footing after the case, opening an unexpected opportunity for competitors.

“You’re going to get a lot of scrutiny if you’re disrupting other people’s livelihoods,” Mr. Buffett said.

Some of the people who know Mr. Bezos said his new public face was for business expediency. Others believe it is a result of personal growth.


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But they all said it was clear that Mr. Bezos and Amazon were trying to go beyond his tech persona to show the world his other sides.

“He’s getting thanked at the Golden Globes and targeted by presidential tweet tantrums — not even Steve Jobs had that kind of pop-culture currency,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington. Credit Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

Hiding in Plain Sight

Mr. Bezos has always been happy to play the role of Amazon’s chief pitchman, especially when he perceives some benefit to Amazon customers from doing so, people who have worked with him said. He submits to interviews and speaks at events when, for instance, a new company product like the Kindle electronic reader or Echo speaker needs to be explained to the world.

But for nearly two decades, he was adamant that the company should largely stay out of the political limelight and not make a stir in local communities. It also had a bare-bones lobbying operation.

Even as he was named Time magazine’s person of the year in 1999, he tried to avoid politics. He was even reluctant to do photo opportunities with politicians, standard fare for executives, one longtime former employee said.

There were business benefits to staying out of the glare.

A hedge fund executive in New York who caught the internet bug early, Mr. Bezos piled into a vehicle with his wife in 1994 with the intention of finding a place to start a business selling books on the internet. He founded Amazon later that year in Seattle, in part because of the growing pool of technical talent Microsoft had brought to the area.

Mr. Bezos in 1997, three years after he founded Amazon as an online bookseller. Credit Paul Souders/Getty Images

But putting his start-up in Washington also meant Amazon would not have to collect sales tax in the country’s most populous states, like California, Texas and New York. Retailers typically have an obligation to collect sales tax in states where they have a physical presence.

For a time, for the same reason, the company would not publicly discuss where most of its warehouses were. And Amazon employees in Seattle who planned to travel out of state for work had to submit itineraries for review to avoid triggering unwanted sales tax liabilities.

Those efforts would, in turn, give his fledgling company a further price advantage against established physical retailers like Barnes Noble.


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It also meant that, despite its growing legions of customers, Amazon remained almost invisible in politics.

By the end of 2012, the company had swelled to more than 88,000 employees and over $61 billion in annual sales, creating huge businesses like its Prime membership service and Amazon Web Services along the way. Yet that year the company was criticized by leaders in Seattle and the news media for being disengaged from civic life compared with stalwarts like Boeing and Starbucks.

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