Jeff Wilke, the chief executive of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business who joined the company just before the dot-com bubble burst and helped build it into the dominant player in modern commerce, will retire in early 2021.
Dave Clark, an equally long-tenured executive and leader of Amazon’s worldwide operations, will take over for Wilke, the company said. Both men have played central roles in Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Clark giving a high-profile interview defending its response on “60 Minutes” last spring.
The Seattle company also added three new members to its senior leadership team, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced in an internal email Friday.
Alicia Boler Davis joined the company in April 2019 as vice president of global customer fulfillment after nearly 25 years rising through the ranks of General Motors. She is the first Black person in the group of top executives, which has been less diverse than the company as a whole. The two other additions are John Felton, with Amazon for 16 years and currently vice president of global delivery services, and David Treadwell, who left Microsoft after more than 27 years to join Amazon in 2016 as vice president responsible for the technology foundations of the company’s e-commerce services.
The hand-off from Wilke to Clark, likely to be smooth given the long tenure and close working relationship of the executives involved, comes as Amazon has converted the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic into one of its most profitable periods ever.
Bezos, in the employee email, called Wilke “my tutor.”
Wilke, 53, began his career at Amazon in September 1999 and in 2016 was named one of two CEOs under Bezos. The other is Andy Jassy, who heads the Amazon Web Services cloud-computing business.
Wilke, who shares a first name, alma mater (Princeton), long history and friendship with the Amazon founder, would not have been a surprising choice to succeed Bezos, 56. But the world’s richest man, who has seen his wealth grow tremendously with Amazon’s rising stock this year, has shown no sign of stepping away — though he does devote significant time to his space venture, Kent-based Blue Origin, which is the vehicle for his grandest ambition to enable human colonization of space. A New York Times profile in April suggested Bezos has recently been more hands-on at Amazon, managing the pandemic response, than he has been in previous years.
“Jeff’s legacy and impact will live on long after he departs,” Bezos said. “He is simply one of those people without whom Amazon would be completely unrecognizable.”
(Wilke had a hand in recruiting Boler Davis and Treadwell to Amazon.)
Wilke, in an email announcing his retirement, said his work on the company’s response to the pandemic — including with teams “building antigen testing capacity, which we’ll deploy first to our front-line employees” — has “pulled me back to my roots in operations.”
In Amazon’s early days, headquarters employees were expected to help out in the company’s warehouses during the busy holiday period. Wilke wore flannel shirts to keep out the cold for his warehouse stints, and later made a tradition of wearing them throughout the fourth quarter as a reminder to headquarters employees of their colleagues working in the field. After a few years, the corporate help was no longer needed — which Wilke viewed as a loss, he said.
“I didn’t hear the same sharing of respect for the work being done in our [fulfillment centers], and I was committed to reconnecting corporate employees to operations,” he said. The flannel shirts were one way of attempting to do so.
The company’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic provoked vocal criticism from front-line employees — echoed by some in the company’s corporate and technical ranks — who complained of inadequate safety equipment and procedures as Amazon plowed forward as much of the economy shuttered. But by late spring, the company had committed billions of dollars to pay for scores of safety improvements, a temporary boost in worker pay and its own coronavirus testing program. Complaints have largely quieted.
“These employees deserve every ounce of our attention to ensure their safety, which is why we’ve spent so much time and money to keep them healthy and safe,” Wilke said.
The company also posted record sales and profits in the second quarter.
Explaining his decision to retire after what will be his 22nd holiday peak season, Wilke said, “I don’t have a new job, and am as happy with and proud of Amazon as ever. … It’s just time.”
Wilke said he had long viewed Clark as a successor, and that he is ready to lead the broader consumer organization, much of which is already part of his remit and was built during his tenure and under his direction.
Clark, 47, joined Amazon in May 1999, a few months before Wilke and immediately after finishing a master’s of business administration in logistics and transportation from the University of Tennessee. (He studied music education as an undergraduate at Auburn University, but only taught one year of junior high school.)
Amazon was an extension of his family business. His parents owned and operated a small Florida warehouse, and Clark began driving a forklift at age 12. He went on to work at Publix Supermarket in high school and another retailer, Service Merchandise, where inventory was brought to customers on a conveyor belt, experiences that inform his leadership style, Amazon said.
Clark rose through the Amazon ranks, opening the company’s first fulfillment center in Japan and taking on management roles at fulfillment centers in Kentucky and Delaware before returning to Seattle. Wilke said Clark excelled as a leader of people. But he also has a reputation as a tough, details-oriented manager, in keeping with Amazon’s hard-driving culture.
Clark was nicknamed “the Sniper” for his early career habit of identifying employees who could be fired for slacking off, Bloomberg reported in a profile of him last year. He has a deep familiarity with Amazon and the data with which it is imbued. “He knows every nook and cranny of the company,” Neil Ackerman, a former Amazon executive who left in 2015, told Bloomberg.
He played a key role in designing the company’s modern, robotics-equipped fulfillment centers; air cargo operations; and logistics and delivery capacity – all in an effort to improve Amazon’s performance during its busiest periods and reduce its dependence on third-party delivery services.
Amazon announced in 2019 that Clark’s worldwide operations group would move to Bellevue in stages through 2023. The company has since said it expects to grow to some 15,000 employees in the city.
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