On the morning of Thursday, March 6, 2003, Jeff Bezos chartered an Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopter in the remote reaches of southwest Texas. He knew the mountainous area from his teenage years, when he spent summers at his grandfather's ranch: At the Lazy G, he castrated and branded cattle, worked on a Caterpillar tractor, and laid pipes. Now he was interested in buying his own ranch. The chopper flew near Cathedral Mountain, a monumental pile of eroded rock rising sharply from the high plains to a peak of 6,860 feet. The stony soil below was covered by dense forests of live oak, Douglas fir, aspen, maple, ponderosa pine, madrone, Arizona cypress, and juniper. Bezos rode with his executive assistant, Elizabeth Korrell, as the chopper was piloted by a local legend, Charles "Cheater" Bella. The veteran airman had flown in Rambo III, and survived a crash into New Mexico's Organ Mountains. He'd even been hijacked in 1988, when a woman aimed a gun at him and forced him to land in the New Mexico State Penitentiary to break out her inmate husband.
That morning in March 2003, while carrying the richest and arguably most renowned passenger of his long career, Cheater nearly lost control of the copter in the powerful winds. He brought it to a quick landing, but the main rotor sliced into a cedar tree. The airframe split, and the helicopter rolled over and finally settled in the shallow waters of Calamity Creek. The copter was destroyed, but its passengers used their cell phones to call for help, and the U.S. Border Patrol sent a rescue party.
One year later, back at Amazon.com's headquarters in Seattle, Bezos shows no sign of the minor head laceration he was hospitalized for — and no emotional trauma either. "People say that your life races before your eyes," he says. "This particular accident happened slowly enough that we had a few seconds to contemplate it." He lets out one of his famously booming laughs. Bezos's laugh is like a streak of exclamation points. He laughs much the way a businessman from an earlier era might have slapped your back or pounded the table. But it's a backslap that would break three of your ribs, and a table-pounding that might chop a wooden desk in half like a bravura karate stunt.
"I have to say, nothing extremely profound flashed through my head in those few seconds. My main thought was, This is such a silly way to die." He laughs and laughs and laughs. "It wasn't life-changing in any major way. I've learned a fairly tactical lesson from it, I'm afraid. The biggest takeaway is: Avoid helicopters whenever possible! They're not as reliable as fixed-wing aircraft." Then he laughs hysterically, as though his brush with death were the funniest thing imaginable.
It's tempting but too facile to dismiss Bezos as a guy enjoying a charmed life. His boundless optimism is matched only by his outrageous good luck. The chopper accident was just the latest hairy episode he has survived in nine years as founder and chief executive officer of Amazon. Back in 1997, when the book barons at Barnes & Noble launched their rival Web site, Forrester Research chief George Colony famously predicted that Bezos's little venture was "Amazon.toast." A lot of people in the press and on Wall Street — and inside the company as well — thought the critic was correct. But Bezos flourished. Later, when the collective delusion of the 1990s finally ended, Amazon's shares fell from $100 to $6. Bezos remained sanguine. "Jeff irrepressibly casts every challenge as an opportunity," says his longtime friend Linda Stone, a former executive at Apple and Microsoft.
Now Bezos has been vindicated once more. The company posted its first full-year profit in 2003. It's on track for nearly $7 billion in sales and $400 million in earnings. The stock has revived to $50 a share, giving the company a market value of $21 billion. Amazon is one of the handful of Web pioneers — along with eBay, Yahoo, and Google — that have endured as pillars of the Internet. And Bezos is the only founder in that bunch who's still running his company as the CEO. He's the only one to make the notoriously hard transition from the visionary of a small startup to the boss of thousands of employees.
Has he been lucky? "Extraordinarily," he says. It couldn't have happened without "planetary alignment," he explains. But luck isn't all. Bezos's success also springs from his ideas about running companies and creating innovation. His thinking is farsighted and intuitive. But it's all too easy to be distracted by his quirky, hyperbolic personality and not see what he's really up to. You have to look beyond the popular image of Bezos the goofy geek, the wacky PR stuntman who recently played tennis with Anna Kournikova on a makeshift court at Grand Central Terminal for charity — and to publicize the debut of Kournikova's new sports bra on Amazon. And you have to get past his reputation within the industry as the ultimate quant jock, the by-the-numbers boss who supposedly wants to measure everything with spreadsheets, and base all decisions on data, not judgment or instinct.
Not that Bezos isn't a supergeek. It's easy to believe that he had a 4.2 grade point average in his electrical engineering and computer science major at Princeton, meaning that he got a bunch of A-pluses, which count as 4.3 (and are given rarely). Bezos did emerge occasionally from the computer center to take his meals at the Quadrangle "eating club," where one of his future marketing executives, David Risher, was the president. But Risher's only memory of Bezos from that time was that Bezos enjoyed playing "beer pong," a variation on Ping-Pong with cups full of beer placed on either side of the table. Whenever the ball lands in a player's cup, he has to chug a beer.
"The thing about inventing is you have to be both stubborn and flexible. The hard part is figuring out when to be which!"
Just how geeky is Bezos? The man talks in numbered lists. He likes to enumerate the criteria, in order of importance, for every decision he has made — even why he married his wife. The number-one reason for that particular choice: He wanted someone who would be resourceful enough to get him out of a Third World prison (presumably without pointing a gun at a helicopter pilot).
But lots of businesspeople are highly analytical, even if they reserve that knack for their PowerPoint presentations rather than their romantic life. What really distinguishes Bezos is his harrowing leaps of faith. His best decisions can't be backed up by studies or spreadsheets. He makes nervy gambles on ideas that are just too big and too audacious and too long-term to try out reliably in small-scale tests before charging in. He has introduced innovations that have measurably hurt Amazon's sales and profits, at least in the short run, but he's always driven by the belief that what's good for the customer will ultimately turn out to be in the company's enlightened self-interest. Bezos sees himself as a "change junkie," and the culture he has created is adept at coming up with innovations, but he's also surprisingly blatant and unabashed about copying ideas from competitors. And while Amazon has benefited from Bezos's forceful convictions, he's remarkably good at listening to outside critics and following their advice when they convince him that he's wrong.
The seeming contradictions are what make Bezos so unusual — and so formidable. He's the rare leader who obsesses over finding small improvements in efficiency at Amazon's huge warehouses right now while sustaining an entrepreneur's grand vision of changing the world over decades. Depending on the situation, he can be hyperrational or full of faith, left- or right-brained, short or long term. That's why he endured even after other 1990s dotcom founders handed over power. "The thing about inventing is you have to be both stubborn and flexible, more or less simultaneously," he says. "Of course, the hard part is figuring out when to be which!" Then comes his earthquake of a laugh.