In 2004, Jeff Bezos and his technical adviser Colin Bryar drove together to the city of Tacoma, an hour south of Seattle in Washington State.
At that time Amazon was a multi-billion dollar company. However, they were headed to Amazon’s customer services centre – where they were to spend two days as customer service agents.
“Jeff was actually taking the calls himself”, Bryar says. He recalls that a complaint on one product, in particular, kept coming in. “Jeff’s eyes went wide,” he says.
Bezos was frustrated. There was clearly something wrong with the product, but it hadn’t been escalated. Later that day he sent out an email asking for more efficient ways of flagging faulty products.
Amazon refers to its warehouses as “fulfilment centres”
Bezos steps down from Amazon on Monday – exactly 27 years after he founded it.
In that time he has developed a series of unusual leadership principles – which some argue are the backbone of his success. Others believe they speak to everything that is wrong with Big Tech.
Talk to anyone who’s ever worked at Amazon, and you don’t have to wait long before you hear the phrase “customer obsession”.
For Bezos, profit was a long-term aspiration. For a company to be successful it had to have happy customers – at almost any cost.
Nadia Shouraboura started working for Amazon in 2004. She went on to be invited into the elite “S-team” of Amazon managers – the senior managerial board. But when she first started, she thought she was going to be immediately fired.
“I made the biggest mistake of my life during our Christmas peak,” she says.
Shouraboura had ordered key products onto warehouse shelves that were too high. It would take time and money to get the right products off the shelves.
“I came up with a clever way for us to lose as little money as possible, and sort of fix the problem. But when I talked to Jeff about it he looked at me and said, ‘you’re thinking about this all wrong.
“You’re thinking how to optimise money here. Fix the problem for customers, and then come back to me in a few weeks and tell me the cost.”
Bezos has many critics. Last month, a bombshell article from ProPublica claimed to have seen Bezos’ tax returns – and alleged Mr Bezos paid no tax in 2007 and 2011. It was a stunning claim about the world’s richest man.
Other negative stories about Amazon, its ruthlessness, its claims of monopolistic behaviour, haven’t helped Bezos’ reputation.
However, many people who work closely with him don’t recognise the characterisation that he is uncaring or selfish.
For them, he is a business visionary – a man with a singular focus who has created a legendary work philosophy and a company worth almost $1.8trn (£1.3tn).
The two-pizza rule
Bezos likes small teams. He has the rule to keep meetings productive: make sure you can feed the whole group with two pizzas.
He hates PowerPoint presentations, preferring instead written memos for executives to discuss.
To avoid dominant personalities having too much sway, he’ll sometimes go round each person at a meeting, asking how they feel about a question.
And people who know him say he likes those who push back. “We would argue, and we would scream at each other,” says Shouraboura.
“Everything is very open, and on the table, and the conversations get heated and very passionate. But it’s about the subject, never against the person,” she says.
Amazon has a set of 14 “leadership principles”. One of those speaks of having “the backbone to disagree”.
And it seems Bezos genuinely wants to foster that culture at a higher level. Leaders should “not compromise for the sake of social cohesion”, the principle says.
There are questions, however, about whether that philosophy is always interpreted correctly down the chain at Amazon.
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In 2015, the New York Times published an article with claims of a “bruising” work culture from former employees.
Bezos is a fan of engineering, inventions, machines. He’s obsessed with metrics – not a bad trait in the world of logistics. But critics say that obsession has human costs, particularly in Amazon’s numerous warehouses.
During the failed attempt by Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, to form a union, I spoke to many workers who said they felt like a “cog in a machine”. Others would describe the feeling of being “constantly monitored”.
Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark will be on board the New Shepard vehicle’s first crewed flight on 20 July
Always fascinated by space travel, later this month he aims to fly into space on the first crewed flight made by his company Blue Origin.
A petition to not allow him back to Earth has gathered nearly 150,000 signatures.
But like him or loathe him, Bezos has proved an extremely bright and able leader – someone who has changed the way companies around the world operate.