Person of the Year (Tie): Jeff Bezos
The hard-driving, detail-oriented, customer-centric visionary at the helm of Amazon is almost always nominated for a spot on our annual Most Influential list, but this year he busted his way to the top. And if you had to point to a moment when this became his year, it would have to be August 5, when the news broke that he’d bought The Washington Post. The paper of record for our nation’s capital with an international reach is now owned by a Seattle tech nerd. It forced self-important powerbrokers on the East Coast to sort out their geography (more than one reporter located Amazon in Silicon Valley), and others to register the idea of influence emanating from so far outside the establishment. But, along with the shock and skepticism, there was a notable sigh of relief that someone with deep pockets and a disruptive mindset might finally solve the puzzle of making old-style journalism pay in the new media world.
Closer to home, Bezos, 49, is moving molecules in what has been coined “the Amazon effect.” This year, the company broke ground on its new headquarters in the Denny Triangle—featuring high-rise towers and a trio of glass spheres, with trees inside—which will eventually house 12,000 additional employees in the city’s urban core. Already, badge-wearing Amazon workers dominate South Lake Union, all of which is helping to spur a 29-year spike in residential building permits and driving rents anywhere in the SLU vicinity through the roof. “Nobody else in the downtown area has ever had this kind of impact,” Matt Griffin, managing partner at the real estate marketing and development company, Pine Street Group, told The New York Times earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the company continues its steady takeover of culture, launching a fine art store and producing five original television series this year alone, and lucrative data storage, via Amazon Web Services, which is on-track to outperform the core retail business. With the federal government as a major customer, Amazon made a big splash this summer with the controversial (especially to IBM, which lost out) $600 million contract with the CIA. Yes, the Central Intelligence Agency.
Bezos has even loosened his purse strings for local causes lately. After (and we aren’t saying because of) a Seattle Times story publicly flogged the company for skimping on local investment and philanthropy, the money started to flow, at least from Bezos the individual, including a $10 million donation to the Museum of History & Industry to support an eponymous Center for Innovation there, which opened this year. And in 2012, after a former employee emailed Bezos to support Washington’s same-sex marriage initiative to the tune of $100,000–$200,000, he wrote back: “This is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million. Jeff & MacKenzie.” It was the largest single donation to a gay marriage initiative, doubling the campaign’s budget, and certainly key to the eventual passage of the law.
It’s true that the Bezos effect, especially in these parts, can’t be confined to 2013. He famously trains his eye on much longer timelines, ignoring short-term losses in the millions of dollars and helping to fund a 10,000-year clock. It’s a sure thing his impact will continue for many years to ripple across our city and, if his efforts to develop a space rocket pan out, far into space. Lisa Wogan