By Christine Tumpson

Hey, you! Yes, you, who just ordered tableware for Thanksgiving dinner, as well as the actual turkey and all of the fixings from Amazon.com, and are having it delivered right on time to your also-ordered-from-Amazon.com-wreath-covered front door. Do you know that you are one of the most important people on earth to Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO of Worldwide Consumer? The Green Tree native turned global leader is humble in his own promotion, choosing instead to study and master the art of operating one of the largest and most impactful businesses in history.  

His story began atop the hill above the City of Pittsburgh, the eldest of three children, all now successful in their own specialties. A love of family seems to be the center of Wilke’s focus. His drive for success is not self-aggrandizement, but rather recognizing the value of a well-lived life. In watching how Amazon obsesses over its customers, you might get the impression Wilke wants the same for all of them.

What does that mean for you? Constant analysis of data and consumer feedback to ensure that Amazon has what its customers need in many facets of their lives, from retail to technology to delivery. The merging of shopping-mall retail with personal computer and phones is not without its own share of issues, such as credit card data breaches (though Amazon hasn’t suffered such a breach, and guards vigilantly against them). But with the rising trend of direct-from-phone pay systems, there will soon be a more direct stream of goods and services to you, the top-priority consumer. That means a healthier lifestyle with more options for living it while on the move.

By organizing Amazon leaders and their self-chosen teams in these single-thread businesses, Wilke is able to manage them as “separable entities,” a key term in Amazon-speak. A Princeton University-trained chemical engineer with an MBA from M.I.T., Wilke says a single-threaded leader manages one team, with a collection of hand-picked talent, and doesn’t need to worry about what other groups within Amazon are doing. The approach empowers the leaders of each separable business to move quickly and to take ideas and products to consumers with greater ease.

This approach even allows Amazon to build multiple businesses in a single industry, and to let consumers choose the winners. So even as Amazon makes a major brick-and-mortar acquisition like Whole Foods, it can still offer groceries via Amazon.com, AmazonFresh, Prime Now, and other Amazon brands. The acquisition may shake up the grocery industry, but that’s not the aim for Amazon. It’s business-as-usual innovation, focused on great consumer experiences. Single threads, no tangles.

In a Q-and-A with WHIRL, Wilke notes how his hometown shaped his thinking about leadership and the good that well-run companies can do. His connection to blue-collar Pittsburgh is part of the reason he wears flannel shirts to work for three months every year, a nod, as The Wall Street Journal recently noted in a profile of Wilke, to the more than 250,000 warehouse workers who will fill orders during Amazon’s busy holiday season.

That kind of rootedness, from someone who has accomplished as much as Wilke, isn’t something common in today’s society. But it might be the secret to at least one leader’s success. 


Q&A with Jeff Wilke

What traits do you attribute to growing up in Pittsburgh?

There’s something about growing up in a blue-collar town that changes the way you think about work and jobs and, in particular, the people who work in manufacturing plants. I grew up at a time when Pittsburgh was going through a transition — sometimes a difficult one — from a reliance on industrial factories to newer technologies. 

That gave me an appreciation for industry and the people who work in plants. When I got to Amazon 18 years ago, it turned out we were building fulfillment centers all over the country and around the world. When I walked into our first fulfillment center, I felt like I was walking into an assembly plant, similar to ones where I’d spent time early in my career. These days, I spend a lot of time in our Seattle offices, but I love to go visit folks in our fulfillment centers and spend time there. In the fourth quarter, starting October 1, I wear flannel shirts to Amazon’s corporate offices every day as a reminder to myself and the folks around me of the great work the people in our warehouses do on behalf of our customers.

Amazon is changing American society by establishing and connecting communities. Is there an overall message behind this?

I’ve always believed that for-profit enterprises play a critical role in our society, and very well run ones can be a positive force. For Amazon, that includes things like helping people prepare for accelerating technological change and for new kinds of jobs.

Pittsburgh, with its history of innovation, and with its great universities, taught me the value of being able to learn, adapt, and grow. You can see it now in the number of technology and medical companies with offices and labs in Pittsburgh. I believe we are entering an era in which lifelong education will be critical. It’s no longer enough to get a diploma from high school or college and rely on those skills for life. I think everyone is going to have to keep learning throughout their lives, and to take on new skills. At Amazon, we have a program in our fulfillment centers called Career Choice that pays for 95 percent of tuition for classes in a person’s chosen field, even if those new careers aren’t focused on Amazon’s needs. It’s a chance for people to come to work for our fulfillment centers for four or five years and then move on to a job that’s even higher paying and requires higher skills.

Profitability and business models evolve. What has been your biggest contribution to the current iteration of Amazon?

I had the great fortune of being able to bring advanced manufacturing techniques into an industry, retail, that largely hadn’t used them before. There’s a process we implemented early in my time at Amazon called Fast Track. Simply put, it’s a streamlining of our fulfillment center operations that reduces the time spent between when you pick up an item in a warehouse, combine it with other items into a box, and move it to a truck. It sounds simple, but creating Fast Track involved inventing hundreds of other incremental improvements, including lots of new software. Teams all across our company contributed. You might not have heard of Fast Track, but Amazon Prime, at its core, is a subscription to the super-fast delivery service enabled by Fast Track.

 Any words of wisdom for those who look up to you for business advice?

I think the biggest problem public companies have is that they’re too focused on the short term. As a result, they have the wrong incentives in place. The leaders of those companies are too focused on the quarter, too focused on the current year, too focused on cash bonuses. And they make short-term decisions as a result. Amazon has created a culture and an incentive system that rewards people who are building over five- to seven-year time frames. For a lot of companies, that would be incredibly hard to do because of short-term pressure. To the extent that you can, resist short-term pressure to do what you know will be the wrong thing for the long run. That’s not always an easy thing. You have to have courage. Being willing to be misunderstood — often for long periods of time — is incredibly important.

Everyone is talking about the location for Amazon’s second headquarters, HQ2. Pittsburgh is the new spot, right? 

I grew up in Pittsburgh, but I’ve lived all over the country, and there are many other great cities. Our deadline for proposals was October 19, and we will give serious consideration to every HQ2 proposal we receive from across North America.

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