Amazon’s Deep Bench Still Leaves Key Man Risk

Jeff Wilke, a close lieutenant of founder Jeff Bezos, is retiring from the company.

Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg News

Every once in a while, Amazon. AMZN -0.38% com investors get an uncomfortable reminder that Jeff Bezos isn’t immortal.

Those reminders come in different forms, ranging from a helicopter crash in rural West Texas in 2003 to news of Mr. Bezos’ pending divorce early last year. The latter wasn’t exactly life-threatening, but it did raise questions about the ownership stake by which Amazon’s sole founder still maintains a high degree of control over the now-mammoth company. That was enough to shave about 2% off Amazon’s otherwise-buoyant stock price over a three-day period.

The latest reminder came Friday with the company’s announcement that Jeff Wilke, currently chief executive of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division, was retiring. Mr. Wilke has been with the company for nearly 21 years and was a known confidant of Mr. Bezos—making him one of the most speculated about candidates for succession to the top job. And he doesn’t appear to be leaving for greener pastures. In a memo to staff, Mr. Wilke said he has no future job plans and wants to “take time to explore personal interests.”

Mr. Wilke will be succeeded by David Clark, another well-known insider with a long tenure at the company. Amazon also took the occasion to add three new members to its “S-Team,” bringing the total membership of its senior leadership group to 25, at least until Mr. Wilke departs early next year. The size and experience of this crew represent a deep bench; an accounting by the Seattle Times earlier this year found the average company tenure of S-Team members to be 16 years. Five of those matched or exceeded Mr. Wilke’s 21 years at the company.

But Amazon is a unique place. With a market capitalization exceeding $1.6 trillion, and annual sales now above $320 billion and still rising fast, the tech titan is by far the world’s largest company still run by its founder. And while Amazon’s runaway success even in a crippling global pandemic indicates the 56-year-old Bezos hasn’t yet lost his touch, the company’s relentless growth, along with rising government scrutiny, also shows he needs all the help he can get. Whoever comes after him will likely need even more.

Write to Dan Gallagher at

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