Focus on the future for success, says Amazon executive

By Hilary Parker
April 23, 2007

Jeff WilkeGreat leaders envision the future and create what they see by making decisions for the long run rather than short-sighted choices, Amazon.com senior vice president Jeff Wilke ’89 told a Princeton audience April 18.

Wilke, who holds a B.S.E. in chemical engineering from Princeton, illustrated the power of this forward-looking approach using examples from Amazon’s wildly successful transformation from online bookstore to Internet retailer of just-about-everything.  His talk, “Tough Choices: Leadership is All About the Long Run,” was the fourth and final event in the “Leadership in a Technological World” lecture series, sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

Focusing on the long run is not a conventional tactic in today’s business environment, Wilke said. And so, the onus was on Amazon’s leadership to convince investors of their strategy’s strength. A 1997 letter to shareholders written by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who earned his B.S.E. in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton in 1986, did just this -- and inspired Wilke to join the company.

“By the third paragraph, the letter literally gave me chills,” Wilke said as he shared highlights from the memo.

“Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies,” Bezos wrote. “Accordingly, we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy…”

Even this openness did not stop the barrage of news articles in the late 1990s that predicted the downfall of the company many pundits dubbed “Amazon.bomb,” which Wilke presented in a multimedia collage that drew laughter from the audience. The focus on the long run led Amazon’s leaders to make choices that were potentially risky short-term, but which have clearly paid off, Wilke said.  These include decisions to include customer reviews of products on Amazon.com, invite other retailers to sell items on the website, and dramatically increase inventory selection.

Just as making decisions for the long run can herald success, a failure to do so can lead to disaster, Wilke said. Such a lack of foresight can be blamed, in part, for the current crisis in the nation’s production and retention of talented scientists and engineers, he said. The decisions made by individual leaders and plant managers to move manufacturing operations to lower-wage countries overseas may have made sense at the time when taken alone, but together they have taken a dramatic toll on America’s competitive edge, according to Wilke.

“The aggregate of these choices is a long run outcome that should make Americans very nervous,” he said, calling for a commitment from current and future leaders in industry, government and academia to support education in mathematics, science and engineering. Wilke echoed sentiments shared by Xerox chairman and CEO Anne Mulcahy at Princeton April 5 (see story).

Mulcahy’s talk was the third in the lecture series, which was supported by the William Pierson Field lectureship fund. The series, which will continue next year, also included addresses by former Lockheed Martin Co. Norman Augustine ’57 *59 (see story) and David Crane ’81, CEO and president of NRG Energy (see story).