Despite Amazon’s triumphs, its rivals are as fierce and its environment as challenging as ever, CEO Jeff Bezos told shareholders at Tuesday’s annual meeting. “There’s no rest. We can’t rest on our laurels.”
Amazon.com, now in its 20th year as a publicly traded company, held its annual shareholders meeting at a time of triumph.
It’s the fourth-largest company by market capitalization, with shares trading near an all-time high — close to the $1,000 mark that just a few years ago seemed wildly optimistic. It’s generated vast amounts of wealth for early investors and many other shareholders. And its momentum doesn’t seem anywhere near stopping, as its various businesses — from retail to cloud computing to Hollywood — multiply.
Yet CEO Jeff Bezos says Amazon’s rivals remain as fierce and the environment as challenging as ever. “It never looks like smooth seas to us,” the Amazon founder, clad in a blue blazer, told shareholders and reporters at the event held in Fremont on Tuesday. “There’s no rest. We can’t rest on our laurels.”
The gathering also underscored the new set of challenges that have come as a result of two decades of breakneck growth.
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Protesters for various causes — from pilots working for the airfreight companies that fly Amazon’s planes to animal-rights advocates — swarmed outside the meeting venue, showing how the world’s largest online retailer has become a lightning rod for a wide array of economic and societal issues.
Inside the room, the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked Bezos to make decisive efforts to increase diversity at the company.
“The board (of directors) is still all white,” Jackson said. “It does not represent America’s talent and America’s opportunity.”
Bezos replied that diversity is “very important” to Amazon, and that the company is working on “quite a few initiatives in this area.” Amazon executives described investments in science and technology education as well as the existence of internal “affinity groups” as progress in that direction.
“We’re investigating a mechanism that would interrupt unconscious bias in every one of our processes,” human-resources chief Beth Galetti said.
Politics — and the perceived animosity between Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, and President Donald Trump — also came up.
A shareholder said that he was concerned that Amazon’s stiff opposition to Trump’s proposed travel ban for nationals of certain Muslim countries, as well as Bezos’ ownership of the Post — a newspaper that has aggressively covered the Trump administration — risked “reputational harm” to Amazon and could turn off a large chunk of current and potential customers.
Bezos responded that Amazon, as a company, does not oppose the president nor other elected officials. Rather, it takes an “issue-by-issue approach.” Amazon stood up against the travel ban because the immigration issue is one that directly affects its employees, Bezos said.
Moreover, Amazon has seen four presidents in its life span as a company. “Under all of them, customers have liked low prices, fast delivery, vast selection,” Bezos said.
Another shareholder asked Bezos to use his entrepreneurial prowess to help “people in America to quit screaming at each other. … I want you to be the arbiter,” the shareholder said.
“Civil discourse is a hallmark of a free society,” Bezos answered.
Expanding its territory
Amazon’s business realm is made up of a collection of seemingly disparate activities — from the rental of computing power and data storage, to the development of new retail markets, such as apparel and fresh groceries.
At the gathering, Bezos spelled out how Amazon expands its territory. For a business to spark Amazon’s interest and commitment, “it has to be difficult, distinctive, innovative in some way,” Bezos said.
The business doesn’t need to be a guaranteed success, but it has to be big — and to provide a significant return on capital. The enormous size of Amazon’s “pillars” — multibillion-dollar businesses such as the Prime membership program, cloud-computing unit Amazon Web Services, and its selling platform for third-party merchants — has set a “high bar” for new ventures, Bezos said.
Protesters representing several activist organizations congregated outside the meeting venue.
Brian Alexander, campaign coordinator for Mercy for Animals, said, “Foie gras is the product of egregious cruelty.” Alexander said Amazon should stop selling foie gras on its site.
Pilots for the airfreight companies contracted by Amazon to fly its Prime Air fleet clamored for better pay and working conditions from their employers. Michael Griffith, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said low pilot morale endangered Amazon’s plans for speedy air transport between its far-flung logistic centers.
“We’re here to help drive Prime Air to be the success Jeff Bezos wants it to be,” he said.
A union seeking to unionize security contractors working at Amazon’s Seattle campus and other activists held a cardboard robot with Bezos’ face on it — a sendup of a widely shared picture in which Bezos, a devotee of automation and spaceflight, piloted a giant robot.
“That image really shows the difference between Bezos and the rest of the leadership, and what’s happening down here on Earth,” said a union organizer who declined to be named. “We’re not robots yet.”