Online retailer Amazon is a world class power when it comes to innovation and economic disruption. The Seattle-based behemoth has grown at an alarming rate over a few decades, killing off many traditional retailers and putting far too many others at risk of extinction.
The company’s growth — to more than 380,000 employees globally — is remarkable. It’s literally turned its home city into a company town in a space of just a few decades. In Seattle alone, Amazon’s footprint accounts literally for a tenth of the city’s commercial real estate. The growth it has helped spur is blamed in part for the city’s fast climbing rents.
Now Amazon appears to be outgrowing Seattle. Given the obvious impacts Amazon’s stratospheric growth is having on Seattle, it’s hard to swallow the political opportunism and fretting that accompanied the company’s announcement last week that it is looking to build a second North American headquarters equal to the one in Seattle.
Some politicians were quick to blame Seattle’s far left city politics, including a Seattle City Council vote to enact a municipal income tax (one that is certain to be thrown out by the courts). Others warn of a shifting business regulatory environment and the threat Democrats in the Legislature might try to change the tax system at the state level.
No doubt Seattle city politics swing pretty dang far to the left, and Washington’s high ranking among the states for business climate is helped by the lack of an income tax.
But Washington's business environment is helped by a vibrant high-tech culture, a world-class research university, a global hub for aerospace, and a history of incubating some of the world’s best companies.
Most of this chatter — that even talking about a state capital gains or income tax scares off business — is just baloney.
It seems doubtful Amazon would set up a new shop in another state solely based on local tax policies. Major cities that might bid for the headquarters include Toronto and Dallas, as well as such places as Boston, Orange County in California and, well, Tacoma — but some of those locations already have taxes on income and capital gains.
In the end we count on founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ plan for a second-but-equal headquarters to break the corporate mold. Amazon has made its mark by taking steps unprecedented in retail, by entering the cloud computing market ahead of others and — basically — doing stuff no one else dared or imagined doing at the time.
What Bezos does with company headquarters should be no less astonishing than Bezos purchase of The Washington Post at a low time for journalism or the company’s flirtation with drones to deliver products purchased online by its shopping enthusiasts.
Moreover, as consulting firm North Highland’s corporate strategy adviser Tom Murphy told the Seattle Times, Amazon is growing too fast to stay in one city.
After all, where in Seattle would Amazon put another 8 million square feet of offices and another 50,000 headquarters staff? Seriously, would it be manageable?
The Times noted that a quarter of Amazon’s U.S. corporate employees are already based outside Seattle. Plus, Boston is already home for a lot of the Alexa digital assistant team and staff in Seattle, Texas and Madrid are developing its bulk-sales program. A split up of company functions in separate strategic sites sounds logical.
It’s no stretch to think the company will spread executives to many cities, if not eventually to more than one continent.
If we’ve learned anything from watching Amazon and Bezos it’s that they’ll take steps others would not think of. Bezos even owns the Blue Origin outfit that is building rockets for future commercial space travel.
Though it’s conventional to think of Amazon as a premier global retailing company, perhaps it’s time to think very unconventionally about this disruptive company. Why not ask if Amazon could one day stretch the limits of Earth and become our planet’s first interplanetary company?
That day must await space colonization by humans. But from a certain vantage, an Amazon conglomerate with a lot of very large satellite headquarters around this planet makes a bit of sense. At a date not too far into the future, the company's municipally monogamous connection to Seattle may seem very quaint.
Editor’s note: The number of Amazon employees has been updated and Tom Murphy’s name was corrected.