How Will Amazon Change With Jeff Bezos Handing Over the CEO Reins?

Jeff Bezos, after 27 years building Amazon into a global retailing superpower — and personally amassing an ungodly amount of money — later this year will relinquish the CEO spot.

In a surprise announcement, Amazon on Tuesday said Bezos will step down as chief exec in the third quarter of 2021 to become executive chairman. His handpicked successor is Andy Jassy (above right), the CEO of Amazon Web Services, who is relatively unknown to the ecommerce-shopping masses but is widely lauded on Wall Street.

So what will Amazon look like with Jassy installed in the CEO office? The short answer: It probably won’t be very different than it’s been under Bezos.

What’s important to realize is that Bezos isn’t leaving the company: He’s kicking himself upstairs, adopting the title of “executive chair,” and he’ll still be intimately involved in key strategic decisions at Amazon (which company insiders refer to as “one-way-door” decisions, i.e., major moves like buying Whole Foods or launching Prime Video).

Bezos has referred to Amazon as an “invention machine.” But beyond successful products like Prime, Kindle and AWS, that extends to his innovation in creating scalable and replicable management processes across an enormous company, says Bill Carr, Amazon’s former head of digital music and video who left the company in 2014.

“It’s not just a masterstroke of one person’s genius. In fact, part of the genius of Jeff is that he was focused on building a company that would endure for decades,” says Carr. He’s penned a new book due out Feb. 9, “Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon,” which promises to detail the inner workings of the ecommerce giant’s culture.

About Bezos’ new role and his choice of Jassy as the next CEO, “there’s nothing surprising about that,” says Carr. “In many ways, this is an extension of how Jeff has been operating since 2004,” the year Amazon launched its first foray into digital media.

Wall Street fully expects Jassy to carry out the same execution plan. “Mr. Bezos has built Amazon along the lines of the flywheel effect that is often discussed, and we expect Andy Jassy as CEO to mean a continuation of Amazon’s key themes of delighting the consumer and executing as scale builds/compounds (in all of its businesses),” UBS Securities analyst Eric Sheridan wrote in a research note to clients.

Amazon announced Bezos’ baton handoff to Jassy as it posted Q4 2020 earnings that crushed expectations: The ecommerce colossus posted record revenue of $125.6 billion (5% higher than consensus estimates) and operating income of $6.87 billion — 50% above analyst expectations. Amazon again benefitted from sustained pandemic-related demand as well as a strong holiday-shopping season. In addition, its Q1 2021 revenue guidance implied over 40% growth at the high end of the range, as the effects of COVID-19 continue to fill Amazon’s coffers.

In other words: Amazon ain’t broke, so Jassy would be wise to not try to fix it.

Analysts expect the new CEO to continue training focus on the same areas, including AWS and Amazon Studios — which just picked up 10 Golden Globes nominations and is viewed as an important driver for Prime membership sales. CFO Brian Amazon, on the Q4 earnings call, also boasted that Amazon has “a lot of bench strength” among senior executive ranks, which would include Mike Hopkins, former chairman of Sony Pictures Television and Hulu CEO, whom Bezos recruited last year as SVP of Prime Video and Amazon Studios.

The Bezos departure news “was both a big surprise, but also a fitting ending to his incredible run as CEO, as he exits running the day-to-day operations of Amazon in record-setting fashion,” according to Cowen senior research analyst John Blackledge.

Amazon was careful to give investors at least a five-month heads-up about Bezos’ giving up the chief exec spot. But CEO transitions can cause investors to get nervous, and in this case Bezos’ role change “could act as an overhang” on Amazon’s stock price, Pivotal Research Group analyst Michael Levine noted. Shares of Amazon were up less than 1% in midday trading Wednesday, even after the blowout quarter, in line with the broader financial markets.

Jassy, a longtime Amazonian who has been with the company since 1997, launched the AWS cloud-computing division 18 years ago. It has now become Amazon’s most profitable segment. For the full year 2020, AWS pulled in net sales of $45.3 billion, up 30% on an already massive revenue base. It also delivered an operating margin of 30%, compared with operating margin of 5.9% for the company overall.

AWS “is arguably the most profitable, important technology company in the world,” Olsavsky claimed on the call. “Those of us who know Andy are excited to see him take on this greater responsibility,” Olsavsky added. “He is a visionary leader, a great operator, and he understands what makes Amazon such a special, innovative company… So Andy has a chance to put his imprint on Amazon.”

Bezos, in an email to Amazon employees, explained that he was stepping away as CEO so he could spend more time on pet projects — like the Bezos Earth Fund, space-aeronautics company Blue Origin and the Washington Post, which the multibillionaire bought in 2013.

That said, some observers wonder how much decision-making control Bezos will cede in practice.

“It is not clear to us that Mr. Bezos will actually withdraw from day-to-day oversight of the business, as we expect him to continue to be integrally involved in company strategy,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said in a note. All told, he added, “we don’t expect much to change at the company, and expect the transition to Andy Jassy’s leadership to be seamless and largely inconsequential.”

Indeed, Olsavsky emphasized that Bezos isn’t leaving the building. Amazon’s founder “has created a culture of invention and innovation that drives us every day,” the CFO said, “and we remain bound by our common focus and obsession on the customer.”

“Jeff is not leaving,” said Olsavsky. “He is getting a new job.”

Jassy will take over Amazon not only as it has boomed to all-time high revenue and profits — but also as it faces new antitrust investigations and political scrutiny in the U.S. and Europe over its immense power, as are other Big Tech companies. Those challenges aren’t new, but they may present new risks to Amazon’s juggernaut.

More broadly, as CEO, Jassy wouldn’t be able to change Amazon’s corporate culture even if he wanted to — and he’s as dyed in the wool as Amazonians come, with a relentless obsession on customers. Amazon is “an incredibly intense place,” admits Carr, the former digital music and video exec who departed after 15 years because “candidly, I was ready for a break.”

The Amazon Way will outlast both Bezos and Jassy, he predicts: “Andy represents the Amazon culture as well as anyone, and that culture has been hardened and reinforced with mechanisms and processes that will endure for decades.”

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