Jeff Wilke, the head of Amazon’s consumer business, spoke to Seattle business leaders on Monday, the first major public appearance by a high-ranking company executive since a widely-read New York Times article gave a less-than-flattering portrayal of the inner workings of the e-commerce giant.
He discussed everything from food trucks in South Lake Union to the company’s contributions to public street cars and affordable housing. But what he didn’t talk about was its hard-charging workplace culture in Seattle, which has recently come under fire.
Afterward, when GeekWire asked Wilke why he didn’t address the controversy head-on, an Amazon spokesperson initially said Wilke would have no comment. Pressed to address the issue, Wilke said, “We had a very specific invitation and we’re really excited to share the partnership we have with Seattle today. That was the most important thing.”
Wilke tossed out all sorts of interesting statistics to shed a more positive light on Amazon’s operations here, talking about the $4 billion the company has invested in building its urban campus and the nonprofits it supports without “beat[ing] our chests.” He also said the company now has more than 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle and is one of the city’s largest taxpayers and employers.
Wilke, an Amazon senior vice president, made the appearance as the keynote speaker at the annual Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce meeting, where his colleague John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, was recognized as the incoming Chamber of Commerce chair.
The event came just over a month after the NYT article painted the company’s workplace culture as “bruising.” But that remains the elephant in the room around Seattle. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded to the allegations in an internal memo immediately following the article’s publication, but we haven’t heard much from the company since then.
Meanwhile, many employees have stepped forward to talk about their experiences — some positive, some not. Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella weighed in during the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco earlier this month. He didn’t reference the NYT article directly, but he did say that work is too important for companies not to focus on shaping the way it fits into employees’ lives.
“It’s a cliché to say culture is everything, but it is,” Nadella said. “I don’t think our success is going to be determined by anything other than our culture facilitating everyone at Microsoft being able to do their best work.”
Instead, Wilke’s speech focused on the company’s often-discussed leadership principles. He said they aren’t just slogans on motivational posters throughout the company’s offices, but are actually used to “guide discourse, priorities and action.”
Catering to his audience, Wilke talked extensively about how important Seattle is to the company, including plans for the company’s new three-block campus on the northern edge of downtown Seattle. He said it would have been much cheaper for the company to move out to the suburbs, but Amazon remains dedicated to building out and expanding its urban campus.
He reported that Amazon has more than 24,000 employees in the state of Washington, and it estimates it has created about another 28,000 jobs in supporting companies. Together, Amazon estimates its economic impact came out to about $5 billion in Washington state in 2014.
“While, yes, we don’t offer free food, we do pay pretty well,” Wilke said.