Next Amazon CEO got his career start in Connecticut

To drivers passing through Norwalk on Interstate 95, the MBI sign might merit a second look for anyone mistakenly inferring “IBM” from the unfamiliar letters.

But the modest building below those letters now has a claim to a footnote in U.S. corporate history as the place where the man stepping into the shoes of Jeff Bezos at Amazon learned the basics of marketing, before going on to lead the company that now dwarfs Big Blue.

On Tuesday, Amazon named Andy Jassy to succeed Bezos as CEO when the company founder transitions to executive chairman for the retail and technology giant this summer. Jassy is head of Amazon Web Services, which has become a dominant corporation in its own right while building back-end systems for both Amazon and other companies across e-commerce, cloud-based platforms, and artificial intelligence.

Jassy, 53, began his business career at MBI after graduating from Harvard in 1990. He joined Bezos at Amazon seven years later.

In a Wednesday blog, Yale School of Management guru Jeff Sonnenfeld said Bezos told him several years ago that he envisioned in time a gradual transfer of power within Amazon, along the lines of Bill Gates at Microsoft or Andy Grove at Intel. Sonnenfeld added that Bezos has been adding extracurricular interests, ranging from his Earth Foundation that has committed billions of dollars to the issue of climate change to journalism via his control of The Washington Post.

“It’s a wonderful endorsement of the mentor-protege relationship, and that’s not to say that Andy Jassy can’t be his own guy,” Sonnenfeld told Hearst Connecticut Media on Wednesday. “I think it will go really well and their separation of roles will be quite clear.”

From MBI to shadowing Bezos

In his ascent to the top of the “Big Five” tech companies that includes Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet, Jassy’s trajectory has roughly traced that of Mark Zuckerberg, who grew up in Westchester County and dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook.

Raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., Jassy was hired by MBI after graduating from Harvard and exploring a career in sports media. He does not list MBI on his LinkedIn page, but mentioned his tenure at the company during a podcast interview with Derek van Bever of Harvard Business School, where Jassy got his MBA after leaving MBI.

“When I got out of college in 1990, I thought I wanted to be a sportscaster and I pursued that for a while ... and I decided that I just didn’t have the patience to put in all the years before you got a chance to really get your shot at a big market,” Jassy said. “MBI ... was a very entrepreneurial place where I learned a lot.

“I left that and started my own business with somebody I’d worked with at MBI and I’d gone to college with, and that was a great experience,” Jassy added. “But we knew that what we were building was not what we both wanted to do forever, and we decided to close that down. I went back to (Harvard Business School).”

After completing his graduate studies in 1997, Jassy took a job with Amazon. The company had been founded only three years earlier in Seattle, where it maintains its headquarters.

This week the company unveiled its architectural design for a second headquarters campus in Virginia, amid continued growth that has added more than 8,500 jobs in Connecticut at last report.

Founded in 1969 by the late Ted Stanley, MBI businesses include the Danbury Mint, which over the years has sold die-cast models of classic cars along with commemorative coins and other items. Many of its products have been resold on Amazon, as well as eBay.

MBI also runs PCS Stamps and Coins, which sells both historic coins and modern issues like American Eagle silver dollars. The company also operates Easton Press, which publishes leather-bound literary classics with gold-embossed pages, and Willabee & Ward, which has added monogrammed face masks to its product lineup during the pandemic.

MBI remains a significant local employer with 450 workers at last report under CEO Peter Maglathlin, a Harvard Business School graduate whose tenure leading the company dates to 1982. Maglathlin could not be reached immediately Wednesday for recollections of Jassy’s short stint with his company.

MBI is located just off Connecticut Avenue, a short distance from the state’s biggest success story of the internet era: Priceline and its Booking Holdings parent that owns Booking.com and Kayak in Stamford, among other travel websites. Forbes listed Booking Holdings this week as the most admired company based in Connecticut and among the top 100 nationally, a list that puts Amazon second behind Apple.

In its annual report Wednesday, Amazon reported being 2,000 workers short of the 1.3 million threshold entering this year, not including temps and external contractors. Profits in 2020 totaled $21.3 billion as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted people to buy online to avoid any exposure in stores, boosting revenue 38 percent to $386 billion, nearly twice Amazon’s growth rate in 2019.

Jassy has had a front-row seat to Amazon’s growth on the launch team for AWS, where he became CEO in April 2016.

“In 2002 and 2003, Amazon was growing really fast — we were adding a lot of engineers and software projects were taking us much longer than we anticipated,” Jassy said during a 2013 Harvard Business School interview. “At the time I was working for Jeff Bezos as what we called his ‘shadow’ at the time, ... and he asked me if I’d try to help figure out what was going on.

“What they were building didn’t scale beyond their own projects and they knew that multiple people on other projects were doing the same thing — and that was a very interesting realization for us, that there was all this reinvention of the wheel inside Amazon,” Jassy added. “We took a step back and said, well if you believe that developers of businesses will build applications from scratch on top of these web services — which people call the cloud now — then the operating system becomes the internet, which was a really different model from before”

‘That was going to be the end of Amazon’

From his vantage point as CEO of Potoo Solutions — among the handful of Connecticut’s fastest-growing startups and whose Norwalk office is perched overlooking MBI’s — Fred Dimyan has dual views of Amazon. He is an AWS customer and leads a company that oversees third-party sellers on Amazon.com websites to weed out any bad actors.

If AWS is only one of five main drivers for Amazon’s business model that includes retail, devices, media and shipping, Dimyan said the selection of its chief executive makes abundant sense as the company’s board looks beyond Bezos. Amazon’s board has a trio of directors with Connecticut connections, most prominently Greenwich’s Indra Nooyi, who regularly appeared on lists of the most powerful women business leaders in the world as the former CEO of Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo.

“The person who runs the most profitable arm is now going to be running the overall company,” Dimyan said. “They have a lot of ability to really lever and increase that profitability. ... So many people are intertwined and dependent on Amazon.”

As the global economy emerges from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jassy could find among his top orders of business maneuvering Amazon through any antitrust scrutiny, as the U.S. Department of Justice and other regulators assess its influence across business lines at the center of commerce.

Dan Haar contributed to this report. Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman