Thoughts on the hijacking of Amazon’s annual meeting

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.

  • Seattle Investor

    what a difference to the alaska airlines annual meeting last week where a similar group did a similar thing. the *brand new* alk ceo brad tilden listened with great empathy to the questioners, answered their questions personally, and promised to meet with a group of them in the coming weeks.

    no one was escorted out of the room.
    bezos could learn from him.

    • Guest

      Similar size? If not, there’s a big difference dealing with a few “new” shareholders trying to disrupt the regular agenda vs hundreds.

    • Guest

      I was there, and lemme tell you – the protesters at the AMZN meeting engineered their own escorting-out. They stood up, shouted slogans as a group, linked arms, and looked immediately to the police – it was almost like, ‘OK guys, come get us now.’
      This is a well-worn tactic in protest. That doesn’t mean their message is meaningless. But this was 100% stagecraft and should be treated as such.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this insightful piece. I look forward to a time when terrorists and attention-seekers are relegated to their proper place and those with something to say are able to be heard.

  • Guest

    While it’s technically legal to buy a share, attend, and protest, it’s morally bankrupt when done at scale like this. There are many avenues open to people who legitimately want to change the direction of the company without resorting to this.

    • Guest

      As we learned during last year’s shameful “Occupy” protests, the poor believe that one conveys a message by being loud.

      The rich stay rich and powerful by being more intelligent and persuasive, not simply by being louder, than their neighbors.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    Great observations, Todd (and I appreciate the clever close). While it’s one thing to air clearly legitimate concerns at an annual meeting, it’s another to apparently dominate the entire meeting and keep others from asking what they consider equally legitimate questions about how a business is run. Those questions from multiple-share owning shareholders are frequently as biting.

    The protesters may not respect Bezos or Amazon execs. But they might respect others in the room who also only had that one shot to ask a question at the annual meeting.

  • http://twitter.com/bikehugger byron@bikehugger

    A contrarian viewpoint here would say, good on them for challenging a company when the media doesn’t or hasn’t. For them, total win, and I suspect they knew a personality like Bezos would be stunned by their PR move. Expect he erupted in the board room afterwards. As Guest said below, theatrics played well.

  • Raleigh85

    Nothing really unusual going on here, these behaviors are encouraged by the Hussein Admistration against evil American corporations.

    • Guest

      Saddam Hussein is dead. Why would he be encouraging behaviors against “evil American corporations”?

      • Raleigh85

        silly, Hussein isn’t dead

        • Guest

          Oh, did you mean another Hussein besides Saddam?

          • Raleigh85

            I’m not sure why you keep bringing Saddam into this?

          • Guest

            Sorry for the digression. Which Hussein did you mean by the phrase “Hussein Administration” in your original post?

  • http://twitter.com/fijiaaron Aaron Evans

    Q: Who protests that a company isn’t paying taxes?
    A: The government.
    The real question is, should the government be allowed to tax you and then use your tax money to attack you?

  • Appohlmann

    One share does not give someone the right to hijack a meeting. Not unlike those individuals who don’t pay taxes (which likely includes most of the protesters with a single share) and believe they should dictate how others should be taxed and how the dollars should be allocated. Also unfortunate that while most of these nut jobs scream for free speech, they won’t allow Amazon exercise their right to free speech and contribute to  the ALEC.

  • Solararis

    Regarding legalities of the projector use, there are no light pollution laws in the State of Washington or in the City of Seattle, so yes, it is legal.