Jeff Bezos: There is much to admire but his social legacy is not secure

·7-min read

Jeff Bezos is likely to go down in history as one of the greatest American business visionaries of all-time - on a par with oil magnate John D Rockefeller, the carmaker Henry Ford and the Scots-born steel-making giant Andrew Carnegie.

In one way, he already ranks alongside them, as he is currently the richest person in the world.

The fortunes amassed by Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie made each of them the world's richest person at various moments in time, while expressed in today's money they easily bear comparison with the Amazon founder's.

Like those three giants, Mr Bezos is self-made. He has accumulated his wealth through his own efforts rather than inheritance.

Like those three, Mr Bezos has been a risk-taker. Just as Ford decided not to follow his father into farming, Rockefeller decided to give up his job as a commission house clerk and Carnegie sank all his savings into steel in an 'all or nothing' gamble, so Bezos gave up a well-paid job at the hedge fund DE Shaw to pursue his dream of setting up on his own.

And, like those three, Mr Bezos is an innovator. That has been true throughout his career - from the moment when, in 1994, he identified a business opportunity in selling books over the internet.

Often, these innovations have been in tweaks to the existing business model, such as the way he allowed Amazon customers to post reviews of the items they had bought on the website. It was not something with which the book publishers or the authors themselves were happy. But Bezos instinctively knew that potential customers would be more likely to buy a book if it had been reviewed favourably by other people like themselves.

That focus on the customer has driven a lot of the innovation.

After extending from books into music and videos, Bezos emailed a thousand of Amazon's customers at random, asking them what else they would like to see the company selling. Their responses made him realise that e-commerce was going to shake up the way everything is sold - not just books and music. Bezos has always insisted that, while some businesses obsess about what their competitors are doing, Amazon should always be obsessed with what its customers want.

It has meant that has Amazon evolved its product offering to suit its customers, time and again, often by tweaking its existing business model.

An example would be how Amazon launched its Prime service in 2005, offering free shipping for a flat fee of $79 per year, guaranteeing it a more predictable earnings stream.

Eventually, those product extensions have taken Amazon into new lines altogether, such as the Kindle, which was launched in 2007 and the opening of Amazon Studios, in 2010.

The launch in 2006 of Amazon Web Services (AWS) was arguably the most important tweak to the business model.

AWS, from where Mr Bezos's successor Andy Jassy has come, is now a cloud computing juggernaut and the single most important contributor of profits to the business. It has also pitched Amazon into direct competition not with other retailers, such as Walmart, but with other tech giants such as Microsoft - whose Azure service is the closest rival to AWS - and Google Cloud.

Next likely to face a competitive onslaught from Amazon, just as retailers, other tech companies and media companies have before them, are established logistics players such as UPS and FedEx. Amazon sees no reason why they should distribute the goods it sells when it can do so itself. Amazon Logistics threatens to become just as big a business in its field as AWS has in its sector.

It is easy to forget, given Amazon's extraordinary growth, that it has not always got everything right. The company launched a smartphone, the Fire Phone, in July 2014 but it failed to break the dominance of Apple and Samsung. It was discontinued a year later.

However, along with the relentless focus on the consumer, Mr Bezos has always sought to inculcate a culture in Amazon of not being afraid to fail and being prepared to take risks. The work done on the Fire led Amazon to work on its own voice recognition technology and, in time, to the creation of the virtual assistant Alexa and the Echo smart speaker device.

Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie are not the only business giants with whom Mr Bezos has much in common.

Brad Stone, author of the book The Everything Store - a biography of both Mr Bezos and Amazon itself - has detected similarities with the Apple founder Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle. The Amazon founder's mother, Jacklyn Gize, was just 16 when she became pregnant with him. Bezos was just 17 months old when his mother divorced his biological father, Ted Jorgensen, while he was just four when he was adopted by her second husband, Miguel Bezos, a Cuban immigrant who had arrived in the US knowing only one word of English - 'hamburger'.

Stone wrote: "It is of course unknowable whether the unusual circumstances of his birth helped to create that fecund entrepreneurial mix of intelligence, ambition, and a relentless need to prove himself.

"Two other technology icons, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, were adopted, and the experience is thought by some to have given each a powerful motivation to succeed."

Despite the ubiquity of Amazon and the way it has extended its tentacles into the lives of billions of customers, surprisingly little is known about the character of Mr Bezos, who gives few interviews these days.

That may because of his bruising battle with the National Enquirer in 2019 over his extra-marital affair and his divorce from Mackenzie, his wife of 25 years, or because of the way he and Amazon came under regular and sustained attack from Donald Trump. He is known to go to bed early and get up early - he has always sought eight hours of sleep each night - and tries to have breakfast with his children when possible.

He is also said to have already stepped back from day-to-day control of Amazon.

The Wall Street Journal noted: "Amazon employees say the billionaire is elusive, with many saying they have never spotted him on the company's sprawling downtown Seattle campus."

Despite his accomplishments, it is fair to say that Amazon is admired and feared, but not loved.

Many detect a dark side to the company, from the way it has ruthlessly crushed some of its competitors to the treatment of its employees, which has garnered Amazon much unwelcome publicity over the years. Mr Jassy is taking the helm at a time when Amazon is facing its biggest fight yet to avoid union recognition in the US and at a time when it faces numerous investigations into its competition practices both from the US government and the European Commission.

Mr Bezos, with his philanthropic work, hopes to frame his legacy somewhat differently. He wants Blue Origin, his space exploration business, to be a key driver in taking human space exploration further than ever.

Yet unlike a number of US billionaires, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and, indeed, his ex-wife Mackenzie, Mr Bezos has yet to sign the 'Giving Pledge', in which they promised to give away their wealth in their lifetime.

The creation of the Bezos Earth Fund was an attempt to see off criticism that he was not being as generous as his peers.

He may yet have to do more and especially if he is to seal comparison with past business titans.

Henry Ford gave away at least a third of his fortune and so did Rockefeller. They in turn were inspired by Carnegie, America's greatest philanthropist of all time, who famously said: "The man who dies…rich dies disgraced."