What Jeff Bezos intends to do with the Washington Post, which he bought this year for $250 million, remains a mystery. So does the man. Post employees say his behavior so far has been congenial, if disengaged. A new book and a little snooping in Seattle provide a few clues to Bezos as a magnate and a manager.
Known for disrupting industries—books, web services, the very notion of retail—Bezos also completely altered his hometown when he moved Amazon and its 15,000 employees in Seattle from the city’s storied south end to 14 buildings in the undeveloped South Lake Union area (below). Now Amazon’s former neighborhood languishes while South Lake Union enjoys high rents and unprecedented nightlife. A proposed three-skyscraper addition to the Amazon campus will accelerate that transformation.
Locating Bezos’s political center is a messy enterprise. In 2010, according to campaign records obtained by Washingtonian, he spent $100,000 to defeat a proposed millionaires’ tax in Washington state—after donating $10,000 for a gas-tax increase eight years earlier. Both measures failed. In 2012, he backed a state-senate run by business-friendly Democrat Guy Palumbo, who garnered only 14 percent of the primary vote. That same year, Bezos surprised and charmed Seattleites by tossing $2.5 million at a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage. That measure won.
Although Bezos has a secluded $28-million home on Lake Washington, he and his wife are often spotted driving around in a Honda mininvan. And compared with the local sponsors in its league—Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks—Amazon’s charitable contributions are minuscule, particularly when it comes to the arts. Bezos did give $10 million for a new tech wing at the Museum of History & Industry, now named in his honor, but his philosophy on charity seems best summed up by what he told PBS’s Charlie Rose: “For-profit models improve the world more than philanthropy.”
Bezos’s famous laugh has been variously described as a “honk,” a “bray,” and a “chortle.” But journalist Brad Stone, in his new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, says subordinates also cite a bulging blood vessel in the boss’s forehead as an early-warning system for tantrums that feature such queries as “Why are you ruining my life?” and “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
When a customer e-mails a complaint to Bezos at firstname.lastname@example.org—it works, try it—the boss forwards the message to company brass and adds a single keystroke at the top: a question mark. According to Stone, all of Amazonia is expected to drop everything and try to remedy the situation. “When he engages with a problem—in this case, the question of how to remake a renowned media franchise for the new age—he is full of observations about potential solutions and defects,” Stone says, adding: “Beware.”
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.