I’m down at the Seattle Art Museum, where Amazon is holding its annual shareholder meeting this morning. Hundreds of protesters have gathered outside to object to company practices related to taxes and labor.
Inside so far the company has introduced its board, including CEO Jeff Bezos, and it’s now hearing the case for shareholder proposals on issues including environmental practices and corporate governance, related to disclosure of political contributions. The company isn’t allowing audio, video or pictures, but I’ll be taking notes and adding to this post.
Several small shareholders stood up to voice support for the shareholder proposals. The company just announced that the board was re-elected and the shareholder proposals were voted down.
Jeff Bezos takes the stage, promises to take audience on a tour of Amazon by the numbers. He cites stats including a customer satisfaction index of 89, 41 percent year-over-year growth rate in sales, 17,000 movies and television shows for unlimited streaming on Amazon Prime, 145,000 books to borrow for free from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library that comes with Amazon Prime, the $79/year subscription service, which Bezos notes hasn’t changed since launch.
“It’s the best bargain in the history of shopping,” he says.
Amazon has hired 45,000 people since September 2008, tripling employment. He notes the total taxes paid by the company and talks about the company’s safety record in distribution centers and pay compared to similar jobs, using stats to indirectly address some of the issues raised by the crowd outside.
He says the company will spend $52 million this year retrofitting its distribution centers with air conditioning.
Underscoring the breadth of Amazon’s third-party sales, he shows the world’s largest gummy bear, available on Amazon. “This is a real product. In the midst of putting this presentation together several of us have purchased it.”
Now on to Amazon Web Services, talking price reductions and overall growth in usage. Bezos highlights the company’s donations to nonprofits, among other stats. In short, it’s a broad defense of much of the criticism of Amazon over the past year.
Last slide: “Nine out of 10 top selling products at Amazon are digital products.” Bezos says the team is proud of the company’s transition from a physical to digital retailer, as demonstrated by the list. Items on the list include Kindle devices and apps, and e-books. The Hunger Games e-books are at the top of the list. A USB charging cord is the only physical product in the top 10.
First question is about working conditions, political involvement and taxes.
Amazon says it has decided not to renew its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the group that is the subject of some of the protests outside, due to decisions the group has made unrelated to Amazon’s business.
Addressing the tax issues, Amazon says one reason for its lower tax rate in recent years has been its capital spending and other forms of reinvestment that result in tax reductions and credits. The company says it expects to pay more taxes over time.
The next shareholder challenges Amazon over its involvement in ALEC, calling the company one of the “robber barons” of American history, and the company reiterates that it has decided not to renew its membership in ALEC.
Another shareholder stands up and says that if the criticisms were true, Amazon wouldn’t have the customer approval rating it does. He then asks about Amazon’s plan to develop its own campus in downtown Seattle, vs. leasing, as in the past.
“The biggest factor that’s changed is the scale at which we need to develop property,” says Bezos. Renting that capacity would be unreasonable over the long run from a financial perspective, he says, calling it “an issue of scale.”
Another shareholder thanks Bezos for choosing Seattle over Portland back in the day, expresses concern about wage inflation.
Last question expresses “a real disappointment with the company” for bending to the political pressure to resign from ALEC. He calls the group constructive. As a shareholder, he says he’s delighted with the returns.
“You should be applauded by everybody and I hope you keep it up.” Says the Kindle has been a “fabulous thing for me” and says he hopes Amazon continues its investment.
“Count on that,” Bezos says.
Protesters then stand up and start chanting about Amazon not being a moral company, among other issues. Amazon ends the meeting as Seattle police escort several of the protesters out.
Bezos says after the chanting stops. “I’d like to thank all of you for coming, and we’ll see you next year,” he says.