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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jeff Bezos: A Brief Anthology

In the years since Amazon.com sold its first book online in 1995, Jeff
Bezos has often faced doubts about his strategy and the company’s prospects â€" even as it became a giant force in retailing and Mr. Bezos built a personal fortune. As a companion to a major profile this weekend by David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney, here is a sampler of previous articles tracing what he has accomplished and how he has been perceived.


Some of the coverage is downright skeptical, like a 1999 article from The New York Times Magazine, in which the reporter Peter de Jonge notes that “no matter what new foray or feature Bezos is trumpeting, he always keeps our filmy gaze locked on the future.” But with online retailers spending 10 times as much per sale on marketing as physical retailers, he says, “Until Bezos and other Internet retailers can find a way to attract and keep customers without such an enormous outlay, they are all going to have a hard time making any money.”


Three years later, Mr. Bezos was a 38-year-old billionaire who’d floated high with the Internet bubble and fell hard as it burst. His company was steadily regaining ground, according to the reporter Leslie Kaufman, but had a central vulnerability. “Look, they’ve shown us that the book business can be a very nice, profitable business online,” said Mark J. Rowen, a senior Internet analyst at Prudential Securities, but “if Amazon is going to justify its market capitalization, it is going to have to show that other categories are viable on the Internet. So far, they have not shown that sales of other merchandise can grow rapidly and be profitable.”


A decade into its operations, Amazon had already upended the bookselling industry. But as it diversified into a retailer of all manner of products, the reporter Gary Rivlin wrote, some worried that the company was spreading itself too thin. And there were concerns, he said, about “a chronic Amazon sticking point: profitability.” The editor of an industry newsletter even questioned Mr. Bezos’s suitability as chief executive. “The question that needs to be asked,” he said, “is how many years of declining stock performance will a board tolerate before they finally say, ‘Listen, we need to make a change.’”


As the stock market bounced back after the depths of the financial crisis, Amazon shares began their own steep climb. But as the columnist James B. Stewart noted in 2011, Amazon’s short-term results periodically seemed to disappoint investors who did not share Mr. Bezos’s professed focus on the long term. “Nearly 15 years after Amazon’s public offering, it’s safe to say that Mr. Bezos and his colleagues have realized their goal of creating a company to tell their grandchildren about,” he wrote. “But one of these days Amazon has to deliver on its promise of higher margins and profits, however long term that may turn out to be.”


This month came Mr. Bezos’s unexpected move to purchase The Washington Post. Noting that there would be no quick fixes or short-term answers to The Post’s challenges,  the reporters Jenna Wortham and Amy O’Leary said of the Amazon chief: “While terms like disrupter and innovator are often used to describe Mr. Bezos in his years at Amazon, he has also proved to be a long-term thinker, someone willing to buck Wall Street demands for big profits in order to invest in his company’s growth.”