As a preschooler, Jeffrey P. Bezos displayed an unmatched single-mindedness. By his mother's account, the young Bezos got so engrossed in the details of activities at his Montessori school that teachers had to pick him up in his chair to move him to new tasks. It's a trait that goes a long way toward explaining why the company he founded, Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN ), has survived to become the most dominant retailer on the Internet.
It was Bezos' attention to detail in 1994 that made him realize that commerce soon would change forever. A Princeton University electrical engineering and computer-science grad who grew up in Houston and Miami, Bezos was investigating potential new businesses for hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co. in New York. He noticed that the number of people on something called the World Wide Web was growing 2,300% a year. A few months later he and his wife MacKenzie hopped in a Chevy and drove across the country to start an online bookstore in Seattle. Says Paul Saffo, research director at think tank the Institute for the Future: "Jeff Bezos was the first one to figure out what the power of the Internet was for selling."
Just as important, he was one of the few dot-com leaders to understand that sweating the details of Internet technologies would make all the difference. Amazon wasn't the first store on the Web. But Bezos beat rivals in inventing or rolling out new Internet technologies that made shopping online faster, easier, and more personal than traditional retail. He offered customized recommendations based on other buyers' purchases, let people buy an item with just one mouse click, and created personalized storefronts for each customer.
Almost since Amazon.com debuted in July, 1995, Bezos has endured the slings of skeptical analysts and the arrows of ferocious competitors. After the dot-com crash of 2000, many people questioned his company's ability to survive. Yet this year Amazon is expected to notch its second straight profitable year selling $6.8 billion worth of everything from books to DVD players to miter saws. Moreover, it enables thousands of other merchants, from individuals to the likes of Target Corp. (TGT ), to sell items on Amazon.com. That's turning it into more of a marketplace à la eBay Inc. (EBAY ).
Bezos has long aimed to make Amazon more than just a store that happens to sell online. The lower cost of operating on the Web, sans stores and clerks, has helped it rewrite the rules of retail. Instead of depending solely on mass-market blockbusters, Amazon can make money on countless niche products that physical stores can't afford to stock, including once-obscure books such as mountain climbing narrative Touching the Void or that hard-to-find Peg Perego stroller. Says Amazon director John Seely Brown, a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication: "Traditional retailers can't do this."
Ultimately, Bezos, 40, wants to create something that transcends his own company. He points to Sony Corp. (SNE ), whose co-founder, Akio Morita, aimed to make Japan known for quality. For his part, Bezos wants to set new standards for providing a great customer experience. If he can pull that off, he will deserve an enduring place in the history books.
By Robert D. Hof