retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Dave Clark, who started with Amazon in 1999 as Ops Manager in the Pathways Operations Leadership Development Program, on Friday announced that he would be leaving the company on July 1, having most recently become the company's CEO Worldwide Consumer, in charge of the company's logistics and operations network.

In a prepared statement,  Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said, "We’re trying to be thoughtful in our plans for Dave’s succession and any changes we make.  I expect to be ready with an update for you over the next few weeks."

The Puget Sound Business Journal writes that "Clark took the retail helm in January 2021, after longtime executive Jeff Wilke left the company. Clark had come up at Amazon in warehouse management before eventually landing director and executive roles in operations and fulfillment, climbing to senior vice president of worldwide operations in 2013. For years he was on founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos' senior executive leadership team, and is now on Jassy's."

The Business Journal goes on:  "Clark's division has faced multiple challenges recently as the surge in e-commerce demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic cools off and unionization efforts gain ground in warehouses … His first days on the job as retail CEO were right in the middle of Amazon's pandemic boom. Clark guided the division through a rapid expansion in warehouse space, which the company is now trying to slowly shed, and helped build up its workforce of front-line employees. The latter has brought the most scrutiny on him recently.

"Over the pandemic, the company has faced a surge of employee activism, especially among its warehouse ranks. Last year, Clark and other operations executives battled headlines about delivery drivers and warehouse workers having to deal with strict quotas and work pace demands. There have been high-profile unionization efforts in states like Alabama and New York, the latter of which succeeded, spearheaded by a fired employee."

Business Insider provides the following insights:

"The move is a clear signal that Amazon CEO Andy Jassy was unhappy with the performance and direction of the retail business under Clark. In a companywide email on Friday, Jassy wrote that Amazon has 'more work in front of us to get to where we ultimately want to be in our Consumer business.'

"Amazon is grappling with a slowdown in e-commerce spending following torrid online sales during the pandemic. The company opened warehouses at a record pace, and hired thousands of new workers to handle surging orders from consumers stuck at home. Now, the company has admitted that it has overcapacity and is even sub-leasing and shutting some fulfillment centers. Amazon's online retail sales fell 3% last quarter, the first year-over-year decline since at least 2015.

"When Amazon revealed these problems fully in April, the company's stock plunged. That added to other problems, such as surging costs from inflation and employees demanding better pay. The company has also been rocked by unionization campaigns at three warehouses, and congressional and regulatory scrutiny of its e-commerce business."

The New York Times writes:

"The top of Amazon’s ranks has gone through the biggest changes in its history over the past two years. Mr. Clark was promoted to run the consumer business when Jeff Wilke, a longtime executive, retired. Then Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, stepped down as chief executive last year and named Mr. Jassy his replacement.

"Under Mr. Bezos, Mr. Clark had significant autonomy to build Amazon’s operations. Mr. Jassy, who had built and run Amazon’s cloud computing operations before stepping into the chief executive role, has been digging into parts of the company that had not previously been under his direct control. He has vowed to systematically address employee concerns.

"Last fall, Mr. Clark moved from Seattle, where Amazon has its headquarters, to Dallas, where the company does not have a major corporate presence, which some people in the organization saw as a sign that his time with the company could be coming to an end."

From the Puget Sound Business Journal:

Clark has had a tense working relationship with Jassy, who is known as a micro-manager, according to two Amazon insiders … The company's most recent financial report positioned Amazon's warehouse overexpansion as a mistake, another insider said, 'and the implication of whose mistake that was seems clear.' All three insiders asked not to be identified discussing sensitive topics."

The story says that "a former Amazon VP highlighted another possible source of friction between the two executives. 'Clark was brilliant, but he was soul-less, like a machine, ruthless in a certain sense, and didn't have the human connection part,' this person said. 'Jassy has a different approach, kind of trying to shape a kinder, gentler Amazon that can be successful with the scrutiny they're under'."

KC's View:

It is a fact of life that in public companies, if things are not working someone has to take the fall - even if that person isn't directly responsible for the problems.  And in this case, Clark didn't have that kind of deniability.  Plus, Jassy inevitably would want to put structure Amazon's leadership in his own way, which meant a game of musical chairs in which someone would be left standing (and in this case, holding the bag).

Bottom line:  It was time.  This decision makes sense.

That said, 23 years is a long time, and Clark perhaps signaled an interest in moving on when last year he sold his out outside Seattle and said he was moving to Dallas, a place where Amazon has so significant corporate presence.  In his email to staff, Clark said that "for some time, I have discussed my intent to transition out of Amazon with my family and others close to me, but I wanted to ensure the teams were setup [sic] for success. I feel confident that time is now.”

The next questions to be answered are who will replace Clark … is it possible that the job will be broken up into pieces … and will Jassy exercise greater control/oversight over the business divisions that Clark was running?