As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos noted in his letter to employees on Tuesday, his chosen successor Andy Jassy has worked at the company almost as long as he has. When Jassy joined in 1997, three years after its founding, Amazon was a fledgling online bookseller with fewer than 300 employees and $32 million in sales.
The Harvard Business School grad would help come up with the idea for its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, and then spend 14 years turning it into the company’s biggest moneymaker, with a client roster that includes Netflix, Zoom and ESPN. The division did $45 billion in sales in 2020, up 30% from the previous year. It is far more profitable than the larger retail business, bringing in nearly 60% of Amazon’s operating income.
For his efforts, Jassy is nicely compensated, receiving $349,000 in 2019 and a security detail. But, relatively speaking, he’s received few shares in Amazon. The incoming CEO currently has just 81,500 shares, worth about $275 million. He has another $162 million in estimated cash and investments, from selling shares over the years, which gives him a net worth of nearly $440 million.
Enough for a lifestyle that is plenty comfortable? Yes. But it goes to show how hard it is to build wealth as a hired hand, even at one of the most successful companies on the planet, which boasts a market cap of $1.69 trillion. Jeff Bezos has maintained a tight grip on the company’s ownership since the early days, holding a roughly 42% stake when he took the company public in 1997.
Even after handing a quarter of his stock to his ex-wife MacKenzie in a divorce settlement and selling chunks of stock to chase other interests (i.e. funding his space venture Blue Origin, buying the Washington Post), he still has 53 million shares, or 11% of the company. That makes him the richest man on the planet, with a fortune of $195 billion.
None of Bezos’ other top lieutenants have become rich — at least billionaire rich — off the stock either. Take Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s consumer chief who started over two decades ago and was long considered the second-most important person at the company. He is worth around $400 million, based on roughly 49,000 shares and an estimated $245 million in cash from selling stock. Wilke announced last year that he would be leaving the company in early 2021.
“I don’t have a new job, and am as happy with and proud of Amazon as ever,” Wilke said in an email to employees. “We worked hard. And we had a blast. So why leave? It’s just time…Time for me to take time to explore personal interests that have taken a back seat for over two decades.”
Jeff Blackburn is another top executive with relatively few shares. He joined the company in 1998, after helping take it public the year before. He became part of Bezos’ “S-Team,” an inner circle of advisors, in 2006, and has led a number of businesses, including Prime Video, Amazon Studios, Amazon Music AMZN -0.5% and Amazon Advertising. He is worth $345 million, based on about 67,000 shares and an estimated $118 million in cash from selling stock. Blackburn, likely also looking for a break from the intense workload, took a one-year sabbatical last year.
The only other person known to have cracked into the billionaire club thanks to Amazon’s fast-rising stock is family: Namely, ex-wife MacKenzie. The two married in 1993, a year before Bezos started selling books out of his garage. In a divorce settlement in 2019, she received 19.7 million shares, making her the third-richest woman in the world behind L’Oreal heir Francoise Bettencourt Meyers and Walmart heir Alice Walton.
Of course, not all tech company founders keep so much of the shares to themselves. Facebook has minted numerous billionaires including not just its three founders but also a few hired hands like COO Sheryl Sandberg and former vice president Jeff Rothschild. Eric Schmidt, who was tapped as Google’s first CEO in 2001, is another billionaire who didn’t found the company. But Jassy has plenty of company among tech CEOs who are not quite rich enough for the billionaires club, including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.