Get Well Soon, Jeff Bezos

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The most popular column I ever did was on the late Apple ( AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs.

When Jobs went to Memphis five years ago for a liver transplant, I was visiting Chengdu, China, but I quickly dashed off 500 words complaining about how investors had been kept in the dark about the state of Jobs' health, sneaking the copy out by piggy-backing on the WiFi of a nearby apartment.

The piece at ZDNet, for whom I was then working, got more than 300,000 readers, plus 500 comments and a death threat. Because I was paid based on page views, it was wildly profitable. That one column nearly paid for my trip.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com (AMZN) is no Steve Jobs. After he suffered an attack of kidney stones last week, while on a cruise in the Galapagos Islands, Amazon informed the media what was going on, and Bezos sent an email with Reaganesque wit:

"Galapagos: five stars. Kidney Stones: zero stars."

As a reporter and investor in the company, I give Amazon's reaction to Bezos' illness five stars as well.

The only quibble is that Bezos might have also given some stars to the Ecuadorean navy, which flew him by helicopter off his cruise ship for treatment. There was fear surgery might be needed, but the stones passed naturally. All should be well.

Bezos, who turns 50 on Jan. 12, has been running Amazon.com for 20 years, since 1994, and probably has another 10 to 15 years to go before he thinks of slowing down, although many entrepreneurs blow right by the normal retirement age of 65.

Still, an emergency like this reminds us all that none of us get out of life alive, and that death can come at any moment to the hardiest of us.

Which means we should probably focus a little time and attention today on Thomas Szkutak, 52. He has been senior vice president and CFO at Amazon since 2002, having joined from General Electric (GE). If Bezos passed away suddenly, power would first go to him.

But Szkutak is not on the Amazon board. He's an inside guy, a numbers guy, not an entrepreneur. There is no clear successor to Bezos at Amazon. The only board member I see with relevant operational experience is Patricia Stonesifer, 56, who once ran the education division at Microsoft (MSFT) but now works at the Gates' Foundation.

We like to think of men like Bezos and Jobs as irreplaceable, but in fact the way you get ahead in business is by replacing yourself. That's the key to meriting a promotion: getting other people trained to do what you do so you merit a bigger job, and there will be no hiccups when you move up.

Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs, but he's not chopped liver. He has done a good job consolidating the lead Jobs left in the device market. But he hasn't created any major innovation there, either, which is why Apple now sells at a below-market price-to-earnings ratio of less than 14.

Amazon.com sells at a P/E of more than 1,400. They say it doesn't need profits, but the stock is also worth more than twice its annual sales, at $181 billion, while other retailers are priced at half their sales, and the reason it sells for that is Jeff Bezos.

Bezos is a unique character. If that had not just been kidney stones on the Galapagos, or if that helicopter had gone down, we would be looking at a very different situation today.

So when Jeff Bezos gets well, it might be a good time to approach him about this whole succession question. Who's No. 2? Who can be groomed to be No. 2 and then No. 1?

Jeff Bezos is a hard act to follow, but in time he must be followed, and investors putting good money to work buying Amazon.com stock deserve an answer to that question.

At the time of publication, the author owned shares of GE and AAPL.



This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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