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Bezos takes back the wheel at Amazon

After years of working almost exclusively on long-term projects and pushing day-to-day management to his deputies, Bezos, 56, has turned back to the here-and-now problems facing Amazon, as the giant retailer grapples with a surge of demand, labour unrest and supply chain challenges brought on by the coronavirus

By Karen Weise
Published: Apr 23, 2020

Bezos takes back the wheel at AmazonJeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, in Seattle, Aug. 25, 2017. Bezos has returned to day-to-day management of the company during the coronavirus crisis.(Kyle Johnson/The New York Times)

SEATTLE — At the end of February, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, were in France discussing climate change with President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace and celebrating atop the Eiffel Tower with designer Diane von Furstenberg. Days later, paparazzi spotted the couple grabbing dinner at Carbone in New York.

By late March, he had decamped to his ranch in West Texas, focusing on Amazon as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States.

After years of working almost exclusively on long-term projects and pushing day-to-day management to his deputies, Bezos, 56, has turned back to the here-and-now problems facing Amazon, the company said, as the giant retailer grapples with a surge of demand, labor unrest and supply chain challenges brought on by the coronavirus.

He is joining daily calls to help make decisions about inventory and testing, as well as how and when — down to the minute — Amazon responds to public criticism. He has talked to government officials. And in April, for the first time in years, he made a publicized visit to one of Amazon’s warehouses.

“For now, my own time and thinking continues to be focused on COVID-19 and how Amazon can help while we’re in the middle of it,” Bezos wrote to shareholders last week.

Bezos’ daily oversight hasn’t led to perfectly smooth sailing. Amazon has struggled to respond quickly to the growing number of coronavirus cases in its workforce, and it has been slammed with orders from consumers.

But Amazon is one of the few companies that have benefited financially from the crisis. Because of all the customer demand, shares of the company have hit record highs. That has made Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, $25 billion richer since early March.

Bezos’ change reflects how completely different managing is during a crisis, said Bill George, a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic who teaches leadership at Harvard Business School.

“That you analyze, plan, delegate, hold people accountable — all those good techniques kind of go out the window,” George said. “The leader, no matter how large the company, does need to take charge.”

Before the pandemic, Bezos increasingly spent his time away from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. He traveled the world and devoted a day each week to Blue Origin, his space exploration company.

The coronavirus crisis changed that luxury. At first, he publicly went dark. No trips were documented on his Instagram account, and on March 4, when Amazon told its headquarters employees to work from home, the email came from a generic office safety email account, signed by “Amazon Human Resources.”

The company’s board meeting, scheduled in Seattle the next week, was held online, and Bezos began talking regularly with his executives, focused on responding to COVID-19. Eventually, he held the calls daily, including on weekends.

Bezos has been “incredibly focused on this and is participating in, and driving, our leadership meetings” for the response, Jay Carney, the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said in a March 31 interview.

As the coronavirus gripped the country, cases appeared among workers in Amazon’s warehouses. By mid-March, Amazon’s vaunted logistics operations were breaking; customers wanted more products just as fewer warehouse workers showed up for their shifts, afraid to risk getting the virus or left to care for children whose schools had closed.

Bezos and the other executives soon approved plans to stop accepting low-priority items into warehouses and to delay customer shipments of other items that Amazon considered low demand, according to three people briefed on the changes.

Bezos helped decide which features to remove from the Amazon website to reduce customer demand, such as burying its popular page promoting daily deals, one of the people said. He also approved delaying Prime Day, the company’s summer shopping extravaganza.

Still, workers and lawmakers increasingly called for more precautions at the warehouses. On March 21, Bezos sent a rare letter to all of Amazon’s employees, which the company immediately posted on its blog. He said the company had ordered millions of face masks for workers, though few of those orders had been filled.

“My list of worries right now — like yours I’m sure — is long,” he wrote.

Waiting weeks to address his employees was a mistake, particularly when Seattle had an early outbreak of the virus, George said.

“You need to be out there early, every day, and talking to your people,” he said. “If the people are risking themselves, you need to be there with them.”

Amazon said the senior executive who oversees operations had communicated with employees earlier.

Meeting notes from Bezos’ call with executives on April 1, which were obtained by The New York Times, showed that they had discussed working with medical organizations to focus on expanding testing capacity for its workers and others “to help immunize from criticism that we’re selfish in using the tests for employees.”

The company would later announce plans to start building its own small lab. “We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant time frame, but we think it’s worth trying,” Bezos told shareholders.

He has joined the daily calls from the new testing team, which has procured tests and is close to rolling out a pilot program to test employees, according to a person familiar with the effort.

Notes from the daily meeting, which were first obtained and published by Vice, also showed that the warehouse crisis, and organizing by workers to raise safety concerns, continued to be a risk to the company.

While the notes do not mention Bezos by name, they reported “general agreement” among the executives about how Amazon should handle an employee who the company said had been fired for breaking quarantine rules when he protested its safety measures. The notes said the company should make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” adding that he was “not smart, or articulate.” Amazon’s general counsel, who wrote the meeting notes, later apologized.

The publication of the notes prompted criticism from New York officials and several U.S. senators.

On April 8, when the virus had spread to more than 50 Amazon facilities, Bezos made a surprise visit to a Whole Foods store and an Amazon warehouse, both near Dallas, which the company filmed. Afterward, he asked other executives why masks, which the company had finally obtained, weren’t being required, according to a person involved in the response.

A few days later, Amazon told its warehouse workers that they had to wear masks.

©2019 New York Times News Service