You Just Can’t Box Jeff Bezos In. His Latest Venture Is Taking on Healthcare

Amazon Chief is No. 1 on Adweek’s Power List for second year in a row

Jeff Bezos, CEO, chairman, president, founder, Amazon; Revenue: $177.9 billion Getty Images

Can Bezos cure America’s healthcare blues? No stranger to bold initiatives, Amazon’s founder and chief executive began writing a prescription in January, joining Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon in a venture designed to lower costs for consumers. Though details have been scarce, Bezos made two key moves last month: naming surgeon and Harvard professor Dr. Atul Gawande to lead the initiative, and acquiring online pharmacy PillPack, which operates in 50 states.

“Like everything Amazon touches, it will make filling prescriptions more convenient for customers,” says Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at brand consultancy Landor. “It already has the capabilities to ensure fast and speedy service. Given its size, it could possibly even be able to use its negotiating power to provide customers with lower prescription drug prices—especially on generic medications.”

Though he adds this caveat: “Healthcare is a much more regulated and complex industry [than retail], so to completely transform the current healthcare system could be out of reach even for Amazon.”

Fair enough. But transforming complex, seemingly inflexible systems is what Bezos has been all about since founding Amazon in 1994 and remaking the way billions of people buy and sell stuff every day.

Amazon has over 100 million Prime members.
Cover illustration: GlueKit

Since then, he’s kept evolving—Bezos once famously said it was dangerous not to do so—gaining traction in smart homes (Alexa, Echo), original content (The Big Sick, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), grocery stores (he bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion last summer), mass media (he acquired The Washington Post in 2013), cloud services (a huge Amazon revenue driver, where the sky appears to be the limit) and private space exploration (his Blue Origin program will sell tickets for suborbital flights next year).

“Jeff Bezos is an architect of tomorrow,” says Faith Popcorn, futurist, author and CEO of marketing consultancy BrainReserve. “Our whole lives are going to be consolidated under Amazon and optimized by Amazon and its metrics of what people like us buy, and what other products and services we’re Primed to want—yes, Primed with a capital P. It’s both brilliant and terrifying at the same time.”

That might sound like hyperbole, but consider: Amazon’s reach is ginormous, with more than 100 million Prime members and 5 billion items shipped through that subscription service last year. And as Bezos expands into new areas—which he does with dizzying frequency—Amazon seemingly becomes more ubiquitous every day.

Of course, other corporate visionaries, such as Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, are likewise creating the future through technology. But Alphabet’s sweeping notions—smart cities, flying cars, increased longevity—feel somewhat distant, while trust in Facebook has eroded of late.

Bezos, however, keeps excelling in the present day, and his aggressive style paid off with a stunning first quarter, in which Amazon’s revenue jumped 43 percent and profits more than doubled to $1.6 billion. And that performance followed an impressive 2017, in which sales were ahead 31 percent and profits increased to $3 billion, compared with $2.4 billion in 2016. It’s hard to believe the company reported a $250 million loss just three years ago.

Naturally, Bezos is doing well for himself. He ranks as the richest human in the planet’s history, worth more than $150 billion. But the man is also spreading the wealth around, most recently through Amazon’s Delivery Service Partners program. “He’s basically helping Americans launch small businesses to get Prime packages from sorting centers to customers’ front doors,” Popcorn says. “Soon, we won’t just be shopping from Bezos, we’ll be getting paid by him, too. A perfect circle.”

Could anything spoil this utopian vision and topple Bezos from his lofty perch? It seems unlikely in the short term, but the man and his company aren’t unassailable. For one thing, heightened competition looms on various fronts from formidable players such as Walmart and Alibaba. “Right now, Amazon still does digital better than anyone else, but other companies are getting close,” Ordahl says. “Once a number of brands begin to get on equal footing with Amazon, it will have to find a new touch point to separate itself from other competitors.”

Popcorn views lingering questions about Bezos’ ethics—stirred up by his vague responses to recent protests over Amazon pay rates and work conditions—as a possible Achilles heel. “In this era and tomorrow, as millennials and Gen Z rise in the culture, you must be transparent and communicate,” she says. “If a company doesn’t listen to criticism and respond thoughtfully, it’ll end badly. He may be on the road to an employee-supplier-consumer strike/revolution.”

So far, however, the operation has been a massive success. All signs indicate a long, healthy stay on top, and the willingness to meet challenges head-on.

“What we need to do is always lean into the future,” Bezos once said. “When the world changes around you and when it changes against you—what used to be a tailwind is now a head wind—you have to lean into that and figure out what to do, because complaining isn’t a strategy.”

Check out all 100 names on Adweek’s 2018 Power List.

This story first appeared in the July 23, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.