Amazon's Challenge as Jeff Bezos Hands Over the CEO Reins

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Next week, Jeff Bezos will no longer be Amazon’s CEO. He’s not retiring; he’s taking the title “executive chairman” and a protégé, Andy Jassy will step up as CEO.

It’s an Olympic year, so I’ll put the significance of this moment in those terms. This is a bit like when Michael Phelps stopped competing.

When it comes to value creation in business, Bezos stands alone. There has never been another founder/CEO who has taken his company from $0 to $1.7 trillion. Not even close. Microsoft was worth $558 billion when Gates stepped down in January 2000. Apple was less than $1 billion when Steve Jobs was pushed out as chairman in 1985, and under $400B when he handed the CEO reins to Tim Cook in August 2011. Larry Page brought in an outside CEO to Google early, and again later. Mark Zuckerberg is the closest — and Facebook only touched $1 trillion for the first time last month. Bezos’s is a phenomenal run — a 27-year ultramarathon of vision and execution.

At the same time, there’s rarely been a CEO handoff like Bezos tapping Jassy to lead. Jassy conceived and started Amazon Web Services, a $45.4 billion business that provided 59% of Amazon profit in 2020. Bezos clearly trusts him, not just to continue what’s already there, but to innovate.

All of that said, the central challenge of Amazon under Jassy will be very different from the challenges under Bezos. It’s this: Can Amazon become “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work”?

That’s the marker Bezos himself laid down in his 2020 shareholder letter, his last as CEO. He said:

In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. On the details, we at Amazon are always flexible, but on matters of vision we are stubborn and relentless. We have never failed when we set our minds to something, and we’re not going to fail at this either.

Don’t confuse this for a vision for a “softer Amazon.” I expect this workplace effort will be led by data and software, just as Amazon’s other innovations have been. Bezos and Jassy just realize that this is a strategic imperative for the next decade at Amazon, if they’re going to protect what they’ve built, and earn the green light from regulators and customers to grow it from here.

Coming up today on CNBC’s TechCheck, 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT …

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