Jeff Bezos looks to his legacy

Jeff Bezos Amazon

Hello there, this is Spencer Soper in Seattle. When Jeff Bezos wrote his final CEO letter to shareholders last week, it followed nearly a month of bare-knuckle fighting in the press and on social media.

In the run-up to a high-stakes union vote in Alabama, Inc.’s public messaging came uncharacteristically unhinged. In March, the company was reminded that no one truly wins a social media squabble after sparring on Twitter with U.S. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. The embarrassing ordeal ended with Amazon acknowledging that the drivers who make its deliveries do sometimes have to urinate in bottles, and apologizing for arguing that wasn’t the case.

Reports suggested that the company’s newly combative Twitter rhetoric came from Bezos himself, or was at least approved by him. Last week, the company defeated the drive to form a union at an Alabama warehouse, but it hardly emerged unscathed following months of media coverage of its union-busting tactics.

More recently, Amazon has embarked on a kind-of-sort-of apology tour with pledges to do better and in some cases, be the very best. That includes promises to diversify its predominantly white, male leadership; take better care of employees; and be a better steward of the environment.

Bezos’ letter was a capstone to this effort. The billionaire, who will hand the chief executive officer post over to cloud-computing chief Andy Jassy this summer, pledged to make Amazon the “Earth’s safest place to work.” Promising the company would “do a better job” for workers and highlighting efforts to prevent injuries in its warehouses.

But that was far from the only message embedded in Bezos’ outgoing missive. He also reflected on his vast accomplishments since founding the company in a garage more than 25 years ago. And even offered some life lessons, including a passage from a book explaining that dead bodies gradually cool while live bodies work to keep warm—the message being that differentiating yourself from your surroundings is the key to survival, and the moment you give up you begin to die. “I hope all Amazonians take it to heart,” he wrote. He also told everyone to keep differentiating: “The world wants you to be typical—in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.”

The tone was unusual for a shareholder letter, which typically talk up financial milestones. But the political environment has shifted from putting the wealthiest on a pedestal to questioning whether they’re pulling their weight for society and paying their fair share. For Amazon, as well as Bezos himself, many of the most pressing questions aren’t about revenue or Ebitda. Now, the world’s richest man is seeking to outline how he’d like to be remembered in history books. His prevailing argument in the letter is that he’s created more value for society than he’s consumed, in returns for shareholders, opportunity for workers and merchants, in time saved for shoppers and more. Bezos wants you to feel as good about Amazon the company as you do about its lickety-split delivery of phone chargers and paper towels.

One result of this push is that Jassy, who is slated to take over as CEO in the third quarter, will have an even more difficult job—both running one of the fastest-growing companies in American history, and fulfilling Bezos’ pledges to do it in a more humane and sustainable way. Trying to fill Bezos’ shoes would be tough enough without the executive cramming shoe trees in them to stretch them a size or two before passing them over.

Bezos will be on hand as executive chairman to help make the company safer, he wrote. Ultimately, though, the question of whether one of the world’s mightiest companies will use its powers for good is now up to someone else. Spencer Soper

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