In a move that has come as a surprise to many in the tech industry, Jeff Bezos has announced he is stepping down as Amazon CEO after 27 years.

Amazon announced Bezos’s departure during its fourth-quarter financial results, saying that the CEO will transition to the role of executive chair in the third quarter of 2021, with Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Andy Jassy taking over as Amazon CEO.

In a letter to Amazon staff, Bezos explained that he will “stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives” while having the time to focus on other projects such as “the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions”. He emphasised that “this isn’t about retiring”.

Bezos said that Jassy “will be an outstanding leader” and that in his new executive chair role, he intends to “focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives”.

The letter gives some indication as to what can be expected for Bezos’s career moving forward, both in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. But the tech world will undoubtedly be watching closely to see what the outgoing Amazon CEO does next.

Philanthropy

From his statement, many have speculated whether Bezos could follow the path taken by Bill Gates who, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is perhaps now associated as much with philanthropy as he is with Microsoft.

Bezos’s Day 1 Fund focuses on building a network of full-scholarship preschools in underserved communities and helping families experiencing homelessness.

The Bezos Earth Fund is an initiative to award grants to organisations fighting climate change, with a share of $10bn available to recipients. In November 2020, nine organisations received the first of the Bezos Earth Fund grants.

As the second richest person on Earth, any philanthropic efforts will undoubtedly face scrutiny, particularly in the context of Amazon facing long-standing criticism over the treatment of its workers. But Bezos may devote more time – and money – to his own non-profit organisations and others after stepping down as CEO.

Andrew Missingham, co-founder of B+A said:

“Bezos has already announced that he intends to spend more time on his Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin and other interests. And this is all good news. These are great, lofty, needed projects, that, if they succeed, could benefit the world for many coming generations. But, compared to what he has available, the investment in these projects is mere pocket change.

“With a bit of ambition allied to his now-free hours, Bezos has the opportunity to really achieve something if he devotes significantly more of his wealth to these causes, especially if he uses (in his words) ‘curiosity as his compass’. After all, 2020 was as bumper a year for Amazon as it was bumpy for the rest of us.”

A “catalyst for the tech industry”

Bezos also indicated his intention to follow the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Branson and focus at least some of his attention on space exploration. Previously describing it as his “most important work”, Bezos launched self-funded aerospace and spaceflight company Blue Origin in 2000 with the mission of “building a road to space”.

In 2018 Bezos publicly stated that he intends to put $1bn into Blue Origin per year from sales of his equity in Amazon, a clear sign that he is investing serious money in the company. So far keeping a lower profile than the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin may assume a more prominent role in the world of private space missions in the years to come, with the company saying it is “getting really close” to manned space flights.

The Washington Post, which Bezos bought for $250m in 2013, was also listed among his post-Amazon CEO endeavours. While he hasn’t had editorial input, Bezos’s ownership has seen the once declining media company turn into a profitable business with a greater digital presence. Whether Bezos’s role at the publication could change in the future remains to be seen.

Dirk Hoerig, CEO and co-founder of Commercetools, believes that Bezos’s decision to step down as CEO could foster innovation in other fields:

“Nobody will be able to replace Jeff or fit into the deep footprints that he has left behind (as there was also nobody who could properly replace Steve Jobs when he passed away). That said I believe that Andy Jassy will do a phenomenal job continuing the growth of Amazon.com and its AWS cloud business that he ran until now. How Jeff will be able to focus on other companies and areas of interest will create additional potential and drive innovation in other fields of technology. I believe that this could be seen as another catalyst for the tech industry in the upcoming years.”

Whichever route he takes, Bezos will remain Amazon’s largest individual shareholder, owning over 10% of the company, so any future ventures will certainly not be short on capital.

On Tuesday Amazon reported record sales in its Q4 results and revenue of $125.6bn.

As a well-known figure in Silicon Valley and beyond, and his 2019 divorce from MacKenzie Scott receiving considerable media attention, it is likely that Bezos will remain in the public eye once his time as Amazon CEO has come to an end. Some have even speculated that he might one day enter politics.

The future of Amazon

When it comes to the future of Amazon, the company looks likely to continue benefiting from the boom in ecommerce triggered by the pandemic for the foreseeable future. Nicholas McQuire, SVP enterprise research at CCS Insight, believes it has been left in capable hands with Jassy:

“This is an astute approach to succession planning. Bezos created the blueprint for internet businesses: rapid innovation, huge scale and relentless focus on the customer and few people on the planet have the DNA of managing high growth / high innovation businesses at scale than Andy Jassy. “

“He also fully understands the wealth of assets across Amazon’s flywheel of operations as well and the move should afford Jeff Bezos more time to focus on big, new bets for the company. The key question will be how Jassy manages some of the inevitable bumps in the road Amazon will face with issues like anti-trust, workers’ rights and employee activism on this rise. “

“He has proven to be very outspoken on broader political issues in the past and he will face an increasingly scrutinous media as the firm continues on its trajectory.  Along with his successor at AWS (which will be another key move to watch), above all, Jassy will need to maintain trust in the Amazon brand in light of these issues.”


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