How Dave Clark, the mastermind behind Amazon’s coronavirus response, became one of the most powerful executives in America (AMZN)
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- Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, is one of the most powerful people in corporate America.
- Clark is in charge of everything from Amazon’s warehouse and shipping network to marketing and the Prime membership program.
- Since he joined Amazon in 1999, Clark has quickly jumped through the ranks, going from a Kentucky warehouse manager in 2001 to a part of the “S-team,” a secretive group of the 23 most senior executives at the company.
- He’s largely in charge of shaping Amazon’s COVID-19 response, including changes in the supply-chain network and warehouse safety policies.
- While Clark has been successful in leading Amazon through the pandemic, with the company now nearing normal operations, he’s also been criticized for the way he’s handled warehouse safety measures and protests.
- The COVID-19 pandemic is putting Clark under the biggest spotlight of his 21-year career at the company.
- Do you work at Amazon? Contact Eugene Kim via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 415 926 2066) or email ([email protected]).
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On March 14, Amazon’s executives opened their inboxes to find an alarming email from Dave Clark.
Clark, a top lieutenant of Jeff Bezos, has risen through the ranks over his 21-year career at Amazon. He started as a warehouse manager and eventually became the head of worldwide operations, overseeing everything from Amazon’s shipping network to its Prime membership program.
“I’m not going to sugar coat this,” Clark wrote. “I believe the weeks to come will be incredibly difficult, with tough choices and immense ambiguity.”
The coronavirus outbreak had moved beyond China to ravage parts of Italy. It was beginning to take hold in the US, with an increasing number of cases on each coast. In the same week, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and President Donald Trump announced a national emergency.
In Clark’s email, which Business Insider viewed, he said customer demand would resemble peak holiday-season levels for weeks. Amazon, he added, was in a unique position to help people through an unprecedented time, but every Amazon employee would need to overdeliver.
“I know we can do this. I know this team; this team is comprised of incredibly smart, empathetic, passionate, problem solvers who find ways to get things done for their teams and our customers,” Clark wrote. “Delivering items directly to someone’s door has never been more important, and your buildings are the lifeline.”
Clark’s message set the tone for what would become the busiest and most difficult months in Amazon’s history. Sales of certain products, like toilet paper and vitamin supplements, jumped over 200% in March compared with the previous year, while sales of cough and cold medicine grew a whopping 843% in the same period, according to research firm CommerceIQ. The heightened demand for online shopping became juxtaposed with employee safety as hundreds of frontline Amazon workers fell sick. The challenging circumstances tested the limits of Bezos’ trillion-dollar operation and the morality of its leadership team.
At the heart of it all was Clark. His wide-ranging responsibilities put him squarely at the center of Amazon’s coronavirus strategy, making him one of the most powerful figures in the retail industry. In the March email, Clark made it clear that he was taking charge, telling his leadership team that if any additional support was needed, they should escalate the issue “until you find someone who can help, including and especially to me.”
Business Insider spoke with over 20 current and former Amazon employees who have worked with Clark. They detailed his rise within the company as well as his decision-making during the pandemic. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the press.
Many described him as a charismatic and visionary leader with a loyal following. And while some see him as an intimidating figure who could set irrationally high standards, others say there is no one better-suited to lead the company through this unprecedented crisis.
“[Clark] is an operator’s operator,” said David Glick, a former Amazon vice president who is now the chief technology officer of the logistics startup Flexe. “He leads from the front and dives deep into details that most companies don’t.”
Clark, 47, has been quietly building Amazon into a logistics giant for years. He joined in 1999, flying to Seattle the day after he graduated with his master’s in business from the University of Tennessee. The Florida native became a warehouse manager in Campbellsville, Kentucky, in 2001 and became the vice president of North American operations in 2010. He was promoted to senior vice president of worldwide operations three years later.
He is part of Bezos’ “S-team,” a group of the 23 most powerful executives at Amazon that makes big long-term decisions that shape the company’s direction and culture.
Clark’s humble beginnings make him a particular standout in the group. While others are graduates of prestigious Ivy League universities or companies like Apple, Clark went to Auburn University, where he was a tuba-playing music major, and had a brief teaching stint at a Florida middle school.
Based on an internal organizational chart seen by Business Insider, Clark’s responsibilities now include: compliance and product safety, marketing, physical stores (including Whole Foods), shipping and delivery, warehouse management and worker safety, robotics (including Kiva and drones), Prime membership, supply-chain management, sustainability, and Amazon Fresh food delivery.
With so much under his purview, Clark, an avid Diet Coke drinker, spends most of his days in back-to-back meetings. It’s not uncommon to find large groups of people gathering near his desk, waiting for him to start the next one. To accommodate this, Amazon built a small waiting room outside Clark’s office, one employee said.
People who have worked with Clark say he likes to open meetings by voicing strong opinions. Team members are expected to either prove him wrong or go in stride. He moves quickly and sets ambitious goals, even if that means taking on additional risk.
Clark can be extremely direct and even intimidating with his team. Some colleagues described situations in which peers kept their heads down in meetings, hoping not to be called on for fear of scrutiny. Clark gets particularly frustrated when he feels like the team is unprepared or wasting his time, employees said.
Data is one way to impress Clark. Some of his reports use this to their advantage and deem themselves “Dave whisperers” for being able to discern his directives in a way to impress him and write favorable reports. For example, six-page reports are a staple in every Amazon meeting. But when employees present to Clark, that report might have an additional 50-page appendix so he can dive deeper into the numbers.
Some engineers said they’ve spent hours preparing for meetings with the executive, fearing “Brilliant Clark,” as they like to call him, would spot flaws in their thinking.
“You don’t know where he’s going to drill in,” one former executive said.
Clark also has a laid-back side that often shows up in his tweets. He famously started “The Vesties” club at Amazon for a group of employees who like to wear business-casual vests to work.
His charisma and decision-making abilities have earned him a loyal following within Amazon, even among his critics.
“He makes calls that other people don’t,” one person said.
Amazon’s leadership team is tested under unprecedented demand
While the S-team typically meets once a week, an even tighter circle that includes Clark is now also meeting daily to review COVID-19 strategies.
Decisions made in those meetings get implemented within days, if not hours. The executives assess the company’s safety measures and track the spread of the coronavirus among their employees. More recently, the team discussed how to plan a new office space with proper social-distancing measures, as some employees are expected to stop working from home later this year, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Because of Clark’s firsthand experience with warehouses and shipping, Bezos relies on him when making key operational decisions, people familiar with the team said.
Clark’s sharp leadership instincts are more necessary now than ever.
Since the coronavirus has trapped 95% of Americans indoors, many have relied on Amazon for basic needs. In March and April, Amazon orders soared over 40% and 60%, respectively, compared with last year, according to the research firm Second Measure. The increased demand resulted in a 32% jump in the number of products sold on Amazon during the first quarter, the largest expansion since the fourth quarter of 2012.
Meeting this demand hasn’t been easy, and Clark’s team has had to make sweeping changes to keep up.
In mid-March, Amazon stopped accepting nonessential items at its warehouses to focus on vital products instead, including household staples and medical supplies. Shoppers have faced long shipment delays, with some delivery times exceeding one month. Amazon also suspended long-term storage fees and canceled special promotions to put more of its resources toward handling popular products.
In the meantime, frontline workers at Amazon’s warehouses and delivery stations have fallen sick. Many have publicly voiced concerns over what they deem to be loose safety measures and have staged walkouts in protest.
Amazon met the criticism by requiring mandatory face masks, social distancing, and regular temperature checks at its warehouses. It also offered temporary pay increases and unlimited unpaid time off for hourly workers. While the unemployment number soared, Amazon went on a hiring binge, adding 175,000 new warehouse and delivery jobs. The company expects to spend about $4 billion this quarter on coronavirus-related initiatives.
Half-empty warehouses and soaring infections as COVID-19 hits Amazon’s frontline workers
Still, many believe Amazon and Clark could be doing more to keep the workforce safe.
Amazon won’t disclose the total number of infected employees, though reports estimate there have been over 800 positive cases with at least eight deaths. Some workers said the recent safety measures were not always enforced and infection notices were not fully transparent.
“It’s been a learning experience for Amazon,” Cathy Roberson, the president of Logistics Trends & Insights, said. “There’s no rule book on how to manage this type of environment.”
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Clark said warehouse illnesses were “not a particularly useful number” because they don’t represent the infection rate relative to the size of the building or the broader community. Instead, he said Amazon tracked other measures, like the number of quarantined people for every confirmed case, to prevent the spread of the disease within its facilities.
After reports of employee walkouts earlier this month, Clark downplayed the event’s significance, saying there were more reporters writing about the event than employee protesters. In late April, he disputed similar reports about the walkouts, tweeting, “There is no mass strike.”
In mid-April, a group of warehouse workers who were on leave received emails from Amazon titled, “Attendance – Immediate Attention Required.” The email, seen by Business Insider, linked to a survey asking whether the employee intended to return to work or wanted to resign from the company. Employees who got the email suspect Amazon ran the survey because of the high absentee rate at its warehouses. They said some facilities were nearly half-empty during the March and April period over COVID-19 concerns, contributing to the delayed shipments.
Amazon’s handling of outspoken employees has also drawn widespread criticism. Several employees who organized worker walkouts were fired last month, leading to louder protests and a lawmaker’s inquiry into the company’s decision. In an internal note obtained by Vice Media, Clark and several top Amazon executives discussed smearing one of the fired employees. Amazon previously said the firings were unrelated to the walkouts.
The backlash reached a tipping point earlier this month when Tim Bray, a former Amazon vice president and renowned software engineer, stepped down in protest of the company’s COVID-19 response. In a scathing blog post, Bray slammed Amazon’s firing of the employees, calling it a “chickens—” move. (He later retracted the word from his post.)
Andrew Murphy, an analyst at the investment firm Loup Ventures, called Amazon’s response disappointing. Though many consumers and investors view Amazon as a “hero” for its continued service during the pandemic, the company is now also viewed as a “perpetrator” for failing to fully address worker concerns.
“Amazon can do more,” Murphy said. “There’s an evident lack of clarity around the mission, vision, and values at the most senior levels of the company.”
In an email to Business Insider, Clark said that he was “100% focused on Covid-19,” with a particular focus on the health and safety of his workers.
“Every day has been a challenge — the world is adjusting to an unprecedented situation and information has moved incredibly fast,” Clark said. “We aren’t going to stop there; we continue to meet daily and consult with medical experts to consider all options to support our teams.”
Internally, Clark is considered to have handled the crisis well, according to people familiar with the matter. Amazon seems to have come through the hardest pandemic weeks; it has lifted all shipment restrictions to its warehouses and brought back certain promotions, signaling a return to normal operations. Since the pandemic was declared, Amazon’s stock price has outperformed the broader market, and it is up over 30% so far this year. During Wednesday’s annual shareholder meeting, Bezos said he was “proud” of the leadership team’s response to COVID-19.
“Dave is definitely earning his cookie points right now,” one Amazon executive said.
Clark has been encouraging employees to come up with new ideas that could support the company’s COVID-19 response, according to people on his team. His message has been to leverage existing resources to find ways to innovate, even if that means delaying longer-term projects.
The Prime Air drone-delivery team, for example, started allocating resources toward manufacturing face shields for warehouse workers. Amazon’s robotics team launched a “Safety Innovation Portal” where employees can submit coronavirus-related ideas that can be implemented within the next six months. Amazon also previously said it was spending $300 million to build an internal lab for testing employees for the coronavirus disease.
Many of the changes that were put in place because of COVID-19 are expected to stay. Heather MacDougall, Amazon’s head of safety, told Business Insider that the installation of barriers in the workplace, temperature screening, and new methods of cleaning and disinfecting would be permanent at Amazon warehouses.
“Just as the security measures that were immediately taken after 9/11 are part of normal airport procedures today, some of the measures we implemented during this pandemic will lead to a safer workplace during any time, including cold and flu season,” MacDougall said.
For Clark, the coronavirus has completely upended his normal work scope. Before the pandemic, Clark was more focused on big-picture ideas, like building up Amazon’s in-house delivery service that could one day rival FedEx or UPS. Now he’s committed to Amazon’s evolving response to the virus.
“I typically spend a lot of my time evaluating future programs,” Clark told Business Insider. “But right now, I’m focused every day on studying the measures we’ve put into place for the safety of our teams to ensure those measures are working.”