Amazon’s Shareholder Spectacle and the Fight Over Seattle

5/24/12Follow @curtwoodward

Amazon.com’s remarkable growth is remaking the face of downtown Seattle, on a scale far different than any company before it in this city. Today, the e-commerce and cloud-computing pioneer felt some of the growing pains.

Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting devolved into a bizarre standoff with liberal political activists, who hijacked the typically staid gathering to address working conditions in the company’s shipping warehouses, its climate change policies, and its tax bill, among other things.

In the end, several protesters (led by a former union lobbyist) linked arms and shouted slogans, forcing the Seattle police to haul them out of the meeting, back into the arms of a cheering crowd of fellow protesters outside.

From his place at center stage, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos seemed to watch the antics as if an alien species had landed in the room.

He stood onstage, head cocked to the side, as the made-for-news-media spectacle unfolded. Once the noise died down, Bezos made sure he got the last word: “l’d like to thank all of you for coming, and we’ll see you next year.”

He can expect more of these clashes. Seattle is an extremely liberal city, the heart of the fourth most-unionized state in America. Amazon is a huge corporation headed by a famously libertarian founder. And the clash between the two will only be amplified because of Amazon’s nature as a technical and numbers-based business, not a touchy-feely, human company.

While the protesters were stirring emotions and rallying a crowd, Amazon responded with facts and figures. Knowing that activist shareholders had packed the room, Bezos began his presentation with a lengthy slideshow showing off different numbers that he said told the story of the company.

$79: The price of an Amazon Prime membership, which hasn’t changed since it debuted seven years ago even as features and goodies have been added. “I challenge anyone in this room to show me a better bargain in the history of shopping. If you can, I will try to hire you,” Bezos said.

45,000: The number of employees that Amazon has added since September 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession. “It has tripled the size of Amazon’s employment in that period,” he said.

$1.3 billion: The amount of corporate and payroll taxes the company has paid in the last two years.

$52 million: The cost of retrofitting Amazon’s shipping warehouses with air conditioning. Amazon was hit hard by recent reports that some warehouses weren’t equipped with AC, making conditions dangerous for workers in the summer months. “We’re going back in time and retrofitting our prior fulfillment centers. This is completely unusual in the warehousing or distribution business, so we’re really leading the way here,” Bezos said.

And yet, despite the care taken to bat down the protesters’ message, the meeting had a paranoid feel to it.

There was no webcast of the event as in years past, which lets shareholders, analysts, and reporters participate even if they’re not in Seattle. Reporters were not allowed to take video or still photos inside the meeting, presumably to keep the protesters inside from playing to the cameras too much.

Audio recording was also banned, which seemed excessive—why not give the media a chance to get all of the quotes right? Reporters were constantly accompanied by minders, and some of them were using the in-ear speakers and wrist microphones you expect to see on Secret Service agents. Uniformed cops were everywhere, and security was just below airport-and-courthouse grade, with metal detectors and bag inspections at the gate. Shareholders had to present ID and documentation of their stock holdings to get in.

Amazon probably had no choice on some of the security measures, since Seattle was one of the cities that saw some of the same “99 percent” protesters destroy property and clash with police earlier this month. And by the end, you almost felt sorry for the executives and workaday shareholders who had to sit through rants that were increasingly disconnected from the serious tax policy and worker safety questions that Amazon should answer.

But the tension in the room was real. You could almost feel two parts of Seattle pulling against each other, the community activists versus the technocratic capitalists. Eventually, they’ll learn to live together—there isn’t much choice there. But they’re bound to have a few more crazy spats in between.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • tryingtocalmdown

    Perfect juxtaposition of Seattle.  Innovative tech company growing like a weed that hires (presumably) liberal democrats to work there while the far left perma-protesters whining about tax issues and (presumably) using their smart phones to tweet or post on facebook their holier than thou “progressivism”.  as long as the libs who work in these companies keep voting for the same people the perma-protesters do, this kind of irony will continue. 

    or maybe bezos will move the company to nevada.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      That’s exactly what I was thinking: Amazon would be much more comfortable in a place like Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

    • curtwoodward

      Yeah it was super interesting to watch. A microcosm of this city’s future. 
      But I don’t think Bezos would be able to lure the smarty-pants workers he needs to fuel his growth if they were stuck in some suburban desert office park (although I hear Tony Hsieh has big plans for Vegas).
      Amazon is building enough office space to eventually have something in the neighborhood of 25K people in downtown Seattle, all a few blocks from each other. It’s going to be really fun to visit that part of town in 10 years.

  • http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/ Tom Foremski

    Amazon makes so little money on such huge revenues, which is either a brilliant strategy or massive incompetence. I think it’s a strategy because it means Amazon can take on Silicon Valley tech companies in products and services where you won’t get the 40% and higher profit margins. Amazon has learned to survive on margins that would kill  most companies in the US tech and media industry stone dead.

    • curtwoodward

      I think you’re right on the strategy vs. stupidity. At least that’s what Bezos claims publicly – in his big interview with Wired last year, he said Amazon would “rather have a very large customer base and low margins than a smaller customer base and higher margins.”
      http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/11/ff_bezos/all/1