"In the Exec Chair role, I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives," Bezos said in an email to employees in February 2021.
Bezos will be replaced in this role by his longtime second in command, Andy Jassy.
"Andy is well known inside the company and has been at Amazon almost as long as I have. He will be an outstanding leader, and he has my full confidence," Bezos continued.
Amazon has grown with relative consistency since its launch in the 90s and now sits near the pinnacle of global online commerce. Since its humble beginnings as an online bookstore, Amazon has expanded into fashion, film, and cloud computing; is continuing to invest in grocery stores; and dominates the smart-technology market.
"Jassy takes over at a critical time," Brad Stone, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, told NPR. "He's inheriting not just the tremendous success but all the baggage that comes with it."
Bezos' decision, if anything, marks a continuation of the company's commitment to growth, with his own justification centered around investments even further from the company's book-selling days.
"Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it's consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it's hard to put attention on anything else," Bezos told employees. "As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions."
Of course, Bezos himself intends to take a personal role in the upcoming Blue Origin venture, with plans to fly in a company rocket to the edge of space in the coming weeks.
While far from a surprise, Bezos's step down is coming at a turning point for the company. Over the past year, Amazon's online sales have skyrocketed due to the pandemic and all of the restrictions that it brought with it. Isolated individuals, remote workers, and those in areas under lockdown turned in mass to Amazon to fill many of their basic needs.
As that demand decreases, Amazon is also facing pressure from all sides regarding its allegedly questionable competitive practices. The Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, Congress, and European regulators have all accused Amazon of using its market dominance to stifle competition.
Unionizing efforts are also on the rise in Amazon warehouses, though the current state of labor regulation and organizing restrictions in the U.S. make it unlikely that any of these union votes will succeed until that atmosphere changes.
Their effort to organize may have failed, but they brought added attention to long-spoken issues regarding Amazon's treatment of its workers. Amazon has faced considerable pushback due to accusations of alleged employee mistreatment including maintaining an unsafe work environment and unreasonably restricting bathroom access.
"I think Jassy has to kind of make Amazon a more empathetic company, a friendlier company," Brad Stone told NPR. "He has to find Amazon's heart."