As Jeff Bezos ponders space travel, Amazon executives move out of the shadows

Jeff Bezos has a lot on his mind.
Jeff Bezos has a lot on his mind.
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Jeff Bezos has a lot to do. Best known as the founder of Amazon, he also owns a newspaper, the Washington Post, and has his sights set on space. Bezos recently revealed that his company Blue Origin developed a new lunar lander that will help advance the ambitious entrepreneur’s goal of colonizing space as humanity’s energy demands increasingly tax Earth.

This lofty goal may explain what seems to be a shift in Amazon strategy. Although Bezos has long been the undisputed public face and voice of the company, analysts and a new CNBC report suggest that Amazon executives are moving out of the shadows as the founder is focusing more on other endeavors. For example, Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, just gave his first television interview in this role. He has spent nearly two decades at the company and three years as CEO.

Wilke spoke to CNBC at Amazon’s re: Mars conference on artificial intelligence in Las Vegas last week, where Bezos’s own presentation was briefly interrupted by animal rights protestors. Wilke didn’t delve deep into tricky topics, like Amazon’s position on increasing public demand for regulators to investigate big tech companies for antitrust violations, instead attempting to shift focus to events of the conference. “We think that all significant entities in the economy should be scrutinized, so that’s not unusual. And our job is to construct the business and practices that pass that scrutiny with flying colors,” Wilke said. “What we’re going to talk about this week at re: Mars is all of the investment we’re making in customer services and services we offer to developers and AI researchers all over the world to build products for customers and we think that’s a great thing.”

The substance of Wilke’s interview wasn’t particularly revealing but the fact that it happened at all was. Tom Forte, an analyst at D.A. Davidson, told CNBC that he was “shocked” to see the Wilke interview, and attributed the move to a new company strategy. “We’re seeing a concerted effort to show that Amazon is much more than just Bezos.” (Quartz reached out to Amazon for comment on this hypothesis, and will update the story with any response).

The Wilke interview came after a series of presentations over the past year by members of the Amazon S-Team, 18 executives who have Bezos’s ear and with whom he consults on business decisions. They have not, until recently, spoken much publicly. But that seems to be changing. Jay Carney, chief of Amazon’s press and government relations, spoke to the Washington Post (paywall) last month about its second headquarters in development in Arlington. Virginia. Jeff Blackburn, head of Amazon’s video and advertising businesses, gave a rare interview last October at a Vanity Fair event. Dave Clark, who runs the company’s retail operations, last June championed Amazon’s new delivery services. And Web Services CEO Andy Jassy has a relatively high public profile for an Amazon executive, appearing on CNBC with host Jim Cramer this winter.

Previously, Bezos would have been the one to discuss new ventures, providing insight to the press on business developments. However, to the extent he seems focused on other projects, he may now be trying to reassure investors that Amazon is in capable hands. Bezos’s high-profile divorce from his longtime wife MacKenzie, and his targeting for criticism by Donald Trump, could also help explain any Amazon communications strategy for directing attention to other company executives.

Still, there’s little doubt that the founder remains in charge and that he enjoys the position. On May 14, Bezos broke ground on a new 3-million-square-foot air cargo hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in connection with Amazon delivery services, picking up some dirt with a front-loader and declaring, “If you’re wondering … that’s fun!”

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Jeff Wilke gave his first TV interview in his current role, not in his whole Amazon career.