Ambitious New Year’s Resolutions are always a hostage to fortune, so credit where credit’s due to the American billionaire Jeff Bezos.
The intensely driven founder and boss of Amazon, the world’s biggest internet retailer, evidently wrote ‘Take over the world’ some time ago on the top of his ‘to do’ list.
And every year appears to take him and his controversial business empire one step closer to that goal.
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Jeff Bezos, pictured, is the founder and boss of online retail giant Amazon and has a £40billion fortune
Jeff Bezos, pictured left and right with wife MacKenzie, is expanding the company into new horizons
With his bald head and lazy right eye, Bezos looks rather like a Bond villain.
And, by common consent, he has the ruthlessness to match — as the man behind a vast online operation that stands accused of trying to crush the life-blood out of everyone from book publishers and TV broadcasters to the Royal Mail and High Street retailers.
This week it was the turn of both British supermarkets and Hollywood film studios to come under his covetous gaze — the company has quietly been making some successful drama series for some time, but is now planning to up its game.
‘We want to win an Oscar,’ Bezos told a German newspaper with typical self-confidence. ‘Amazon has already won Golden Globes and Emmys.
Our current target is to produce 16 home movies a year.’ If that wasn’t enough empire-expanding, a few days later, Christopher North, Amazon’s UK boss, put the thumbscrews on the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda by announcing it will dramatically expand the range of groceries it sells.
Bezos pictured at a launch event for Amazon’s Kindle Fire, with the firm since expanding into phones
He also owns this 11,891 sq ft estate in Beverly Hills, California, where he lives with his wife and four children
Amazon Pantry, launched in November, offers customers a range of 4,000 food and household products, charging £2.99 to deliver a large box.
Fresh food — already delivered to Amazon customers in New York and Los Angeles — is expected to be next on the agenda with London targeted soon, followed by cities across the world.
Mr North gushed about a ‘phenomenal’ recent period for Amazon UK, but was a little more reticent on the question of whether the company’s planned increase in earnings will translate into increased corporation tax paid to HM Treasury next year.
Amazon has displayed a ‘phenomenal’ ability to avoid paying UK tax, craftily recording retail sales made to UK consumers in low-tax Luxembourg. (Only since Chancellor George Osborne recently started targeting companies judged to be artificially routing profits overseas is Amazon expected to start paying much tax in the UK).
It was a wheeze that enabled Amazon last year to pay just £11.9 million in UK tax on sales of £5.6 billion.
Amazon payed £11.9million in corporation tax in the UK despite sales of £5.6billion
Bezos, 51, is also a magician with his own finances. The self-proclaimed champion of the consumer pays himself a salary of just £57,000 yet, according to the latest Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he managed to double his personal fortune in 2015 to around £40 billion after a single year of rocketing sales figures.
As owner of 18 per cent of Amazon, he is reckoned to be the fourth richest man in the world, comfortably beating the founders of Facebook and Google.
It’s not hard to see why. Quite apart from Amazon’s global reach, Bezos is unlike his Silicon Valley rivals who pontificate about the internet’s mission to connect people and increase the sum of human knowledge — he doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s really all about making money.
And he prefers to keep his share, thank you. Tech kings such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have pledged most of their fortunes to philanthropy, but Bezos has a pitiful reputation when it comes to charity.
In its hometown of Seattle, the company with the smile-shaped logo has given little to local charities in comparison to its wealth, with donations ranging from $1,000-$10,000.
Some say Amazon doesn’t even bother acknowledging their letters.
Following criticism of his personal donations, Bezos has belatedly started signing a few more charity cheques — for example, he has given $25 million in all to a Seattle museum, breast cancer research and Princeton University (from where he graduated with the highest honours in electronics and computer science).
Bezos has been criticised over his company’s charity donations and payment of corporation tax in the UK
In comparison with other Silicon Valley billionaires — Zuckerberg has pledged to donate tens of billions of dollars — this is seen as thin pickings.
He has also sought to spruce up his public image by becoming an eco-warrior, launching Amazon’s own save the planet campaign.
But anyone who has had to wade through layers of cardboard and plastic to get at some tiny Amazon delivery will know the company has a long way to go in its pledge to reduce packaging waste.
The usual spin on Bezos’s notorious stinginess is to say he is an ardent believer in self-reliance, a value that was instilled in him in childhood.
The child of teenage parents in New Mexico, who broke up within a year of his birth, Bezos was four when his mother married Mike Bezos, an engineer who fled Cuba as a boy.
Young Jeff displayed a passion for dismantling things from an early age when he took apart his cot as a toddler. He fell in love with computing but went to work for a New York hedge fund.
Undercutting the competition was always key to his strategy. He set up Amazon.com in 1994 — drawing up its business plan on the hoof as he drove across the U.S. from New York to Seattle — after realising someone could make a killing selling stuff online in the U.S. because companies didn’t have to charge sales tax in states where they didn’t have a physical presence.
Running his business from his suburban Seattle garage using desks made from wooden doors, Bezos started off selling only books.
Amazon-produced show The Man in the High Castle, pictured, was one of the most popular online last year
He originally intended to call the business ‘relentless.com’, which says everything about his determination to succeed.
Politically, he’s a libertarian who once handsomely funded a campaign to stop a state tax on the richest residents of Washington state, where he lives.
Bezos has called the Amazon culture ‘friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense’.
He isn’t joking. Just how hard Amazon staff have to work in the company’s vast warehouses is becoming alarmingly clear.
In the U.S., Amazon spent $52 million hurriedly fitting them with air conditioning after it emerged that a line of ambulances would sit outside one site in Pennsylvania all summer, waiting to take away workers who wilted in the 100-degree temperatures inside.
Last year, Bezos was named the World’s Worst Boss by the International Trade Union Confederation.
A major investigation by the New York Times recently rammed home the message, depicting the unremittingly grim world of working for Amazon.
The work culture at its Seattle HQ was so oppressive, it was claimed, that employees — who routinely work up to 85-hour weeks — regularly and openly broke down in tears.
According to the investigation, staff are bullied into working horrendously long hours and are encouraged to inform on colleagues, while little leeway is given to employees recovering from illness, miscarriages or bereavement.
Model employees are dubbed ‘Ama-bots’ while under-performers are ruthlessly culled each year in a process described by the HR department as ‘purposeful Darwinism’.
Bezos, a micromanager who insists on being involved in every aspect of his business, responded to the investigation by insisting he didn’t ‘recognise this Amazon’ and urged staff to email him personally if they had any evidence it was true. It would be a brave Amazonian who did that.
Bezos is famous for his wild, honking laugh but don’t assume he is an affable boss, say subordinates.
A book by Brad Stone alleged Bezos, pictured, is prone to scream at his employees
In a recent book by Brad Stone about Amazon and its boss, some described a bulging blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead which gives an early warning of an approaching tantrum, when he will scream such favourite putdowns as, ‘Why are you wasting my life?’ or ‘Are you lazy or just incompetent?’ at cowed underlings.
Other Amazon staff have defended his behaviour, saying that it gets the best from them and has ensured that Amazon has remained at the internet’s cutting-edge for years.
Bezos has said he is determined Amazon doesn’t become a ‘country club’ where people go to ‘retire’, citing the example of Microsoft as a one-time predator that became flabby and weighed down by bureaucracy.
Anyway, if humans aren’t up to the task of working for the demanding Bezos, there are always non-human workers.
Or so Bezos would like. He announced plans two years ago to develop drones that could deliver small packages to customers within 30 minutes.
The idea, which is being tested at top-secret Amazon research sites in Canada, Israel and Cambridge, is fraught with technical headaches, not least the challenge of keeping the skies safe.
And Bezos doesn’t just want to conquer this planet. A self-confessed space geek and Star Trek fan, he has long harboured ambitions of colonising space by building orbiting hotels, amusement parks and colonies for up to three million people.
He now has his own space flight company, Blue Origin, and says he wants to send humans ‘everywhere’ in space.
In November, Bezos claimed his New Shepard spaceship had been successful on its second flight, after it was launched unmanned into sub-orbital space and returned to land vertically so it could be reused.
For all his reported volcanic temper and gargantuan ambition, Bezos’s domestic life sounds surprisingly restrained.
He is a father of four with his wife, a novelist named MacKenzie Bezos, and the couple say they are determined not to let their children become isolated by their enormous wealth.
Although the family live in a secluded $28 million home on Lake Washington, Mrs Bezos is often seen tootling around the neighbourhood in a modest Honda people carrier.
She says her husband provides enormously useful input by reading her manuscripts at single sittings and then giving her copious notes on her work.
She must be about the only novelist who has a good word for him. Most loathe him for the damage they say he is doing to publishing.
The industry initially applauded Amazon for bringing books to readers so much more easily. Then, Bezos started to demand ever-steeper discounts from publishers whose books he sold.
Those who refused were punished by Amazon raising their book prices, or making them impossible to find on the website.
According to a recent biography, Bezos said to colleagues that Amazon should treat publishers ‘the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle’.
And given Amazon now controls more than half the U.S. book market and three-quarters of the UK market, it was inevitable the cheetah would get his meal.
Publishers and authors, including J.K. Rowling, have denounced the company, claiming Bezos is crippling the industry by squeezing earnings from every book to the point they become hardly worth producing.
Bezos counters that he is simply making books cheaper. And for books, you could just as easily substitute any other product that Amazon hawks.
Bezos uses whatever tactics it takes — paying terrible wages, bullying suppliers on their prices or introducing new labour-saving technology like drones — to cut costs and increase convenience for consumers.
And one reason Amazon gets away with paying so little in taxes is in large part because it is willing to sacrifice profits for long-term growth — selling stuff for next to no profit in return for grabbing more and more of the market.
Over the past decade, Amazon’s sales have grown more than tenfold to nearly $90 billion in 2014, but its profits have lagged well behind.
Last year, though, it pleasantly surprised investors by booking profits in two successive quarters, thanks partly to people and businesses signing up for its ‘cloud’ web storage.
Amazon made $92million in the three months to June, and then $79million (compared with a loss the previous year of $437million).
Of course, some small businesses have prospered because of Amazon, which has provided them with thousands of new customers.
But sceptics warn the company’s bargain basement prices may ultimately come at a terrible cost.
When High Street shops have been driven out of business and only online shopping is left, will Amazon remain quite so cheap or will it — as some fear — ramp up prices with the sort of monopoly power undreamed of in retailing history?
Some UK customers were bruised last year when they discovered they had been charged £79 for annual membership of Amazon Prime — a service that offers free one-day delivery, free photo cloud storage plus access to films, television shows, music and books — without realising they had ever committed to a contract.
Amazon will produce a new car show with Jeremy Clarkson, centre, Richard Hammond, right, and James May
Many had ticked a box offering a free 30-day trial without realising this would automatically ‘upgrade’ to a paid annual membership if they did not cancel once the trial period was over.
Amid controversy, Amazon offered refunds to those who felt this ‘upgrade’ was more like sharp practice.
Back in Hollywood, what of those Oscar chances? They might be a few years off but Amazon Studios already spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year making TV shows and now even films which can be streamed — or watched live — on the internet.
Bezos famously snapped up Jeremy Clarkson after he departed from the BBC, to make a rival programme to Top Gear.
Amazon’s biggest production to date is a glossy adaptation of the sci-fi novel The Man In The High Castle. It’s set in a disturbing alternative 1960s in which the Nazis won World War II.
The U.S. and Europe languish under an all-powerful empire whose obsessions with technology and space travel have just seen it land men on Mars.
Given that in the real world, we may soon be sitting on an Amazon-purchased sofa, eating Amazon-delivered food as we gawp at an Amazon-made programme, perhaps about an Amazon mission to space, maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine at all.