Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting yesterday was a spectacle. Hundreds of people gathered outside the Seattle Art Museum to protest the company’s low tax rate, difficult working conditions at its distribution centers, and its affiliation with ALEC, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Inside, the mood was raucous, as a series of shareholders stood up to declare themselves the “proud owner of 1 Amazon share” before challenging the company’s record on labor, the environment and political issues, with varying degrees of coherence.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave a presentation about the state of the company, including a few statistics to counter the message of the protesters. Amazon has paid $1.3 billion in corporate and payroll taxes over the past two year, he said, noting that the company will spend $52 million this year retrofitting its distribution centers with air conditioning.
During the question-and-answer period, Bezos deferred to senior Amazon executives in the room to answer many of the protesting shareholders. Curt Woodward of Xconomy put it well, noting that Bezos “seemed to watch the antics as if an alien species had landed in the room.”
A few long-term shareholders got questions in, as well, but as the meeting ended, Seattle police escorted the chanting protesters out of the building.
In short, this was their show, all the way to the end.
Don’t get me wrong. Certainly the company should be challenged and questioned about its contributions to humanity, or lack thereof, whatever the case may be.
Amazon also did a disservice to its shareholders by not webcasting the meeting. So far it hasn’t made an archive available online, as it did last year. The company told journalists that they couldn’t record the event, as a condition of access to the meeting, so I don’t have audio or video to share.
But given all the raised hands that Amazon didn’t have time to call upon, I can’t help but feel badly for the long-term shareholders in the room, the people with more than 1 share who were elbowed out of a chance to press Bezos for insights into the future of the company.
Amazon is an enigmatic company. It plays a huge role in the tech world and, increasingly, in the Seattle community. It’s good to question and challenge Bezos, when possible, but it’s also smart to listen to him when given the opportunity.
Even the protesters would benefit from a better understanding of how his brain works, if for nothing more than to more effectively persuade him.
At last year’s annual meeting, the Amazon founder, responding to a shareholder’s question, gave the clearest insight into Amazon’s mindset that we’ve ever heard — explaining that the company is “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time” to achieve its larger goals.
Our transcript of his full comments is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the company.
This year there was no such insight. The headline coming out of the meeting was that Amazon had decided not to renew its membership in ALEC this year, a moral victory for the protesters outside.
Fair enough. I just wish they had made their points more succinctly and clearly, and left time for at least one question about the future of the Kindle Fire, the growth prospects for Amazon Web Services, trends in Amazon Prime uptake, Amazon’s thin profit margins, the company’s battle with Netflix, or one of countless other challenges facing the company’s business.
Hopefully, next year, the rest of the 99% will get to be heard, as well.