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He climbs a podium and launches into his Six Core Values speech, which is the linchpin of most of his speaking engagements. He always begins with the watchword of his faith: the customer comes first. "Wake up every morning terrified--not of the competition but of our customers."
Lots of hands shoot up during the Q.&A. period. "Bloomberg says Amazon is going to fall flat on its face," asserts one person. Bezos dismisses the comment. "We have a ton of doubters, and the fact of the matter is, we don't try to convince them," he says, pointing out that he will start making a profit when the "cone of opportunity" begins to narrow--that is, when there's no room left for more competitors to enter. The questions go on for 15 minutes. What does your house look like? (It's lovely, and we are amazingly fortunate to live there, he replies, pointing out that until four months ago, he and MacKenzie, his wife of six years, lived in a 900-sq.-ft. apartment.) Just how many items do we sell? (Eighteen million, so far.) He answers them all, patiently and directly, without a trace of defensiveness, punctuated by the laugh. Finally, a woman in the front says, "I have two questions... One, why the name Amazon? And two...can I have your autograph?"
And then a surprising thing happens. The workers in the first four rows start handing up their white hardhats to be signed too. Then a group of workers behind them gets up and encircles Bezos, proffering hats, dollar bills, scraps of paper--anything--for his signature. Welcome to Bezosville, U.S.A.
FROM A TO E
Some people must be genetically predisposed to explore the frontiers. As a child, Bezos adored Star Trek, but it is unclear that he ever made a connection back then to his ancestors, people whose role in life was that of risk taker, exploring the unknown. The family can trace its American roots to the turn of the 19th century, when a colorful, 6-ft. 4-in. character named Colonel Robert Hall moved to San Antonio, Texas, from his home in Tennessee. A sepia-toned photo of him is framed in Bezos' living room and shows the man wearing a bizarre outfit stitched together from dozens of different kinds of animal pelts. The settler favored that multicolored garment in later years. "When he walked down the streets of San Antonio, the crowds would part," says Jackie Bezos, Jeff's mother and the family historian.
Her great grandfather, Bernhardt Vesper, acquired a 25,000-acre ranch in Cotulla, in the southern part of the state. Jeff would spend summers there with his grandparents, Lawrence Preston ("Pop") Gise and his wife Mattie Louise Strait (related to country singer George Strait).
Pop was Jeff's favorite relative. A career government employee, he moved his family to Albuquerque, N.M., where he headed the former Atomic Energy Commission's operations in a seven-state region before retiring to the Cotulla ranch at a relatively early age.
Jeff's mother, as smart, headstrong and pioneering as anyone in the clan, married young and gave birth to Jeff on Jan. 12, 1964, when she was 17. The marriage lasted about a year. Jeff has neither memory of nor interest in his biological father. "I've never been curious about him. The only time it comes up is in the doctor's office when I'm asked for my medical history," he says. "I put down that I just don't know. My real father is the guy who raised me."