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THE TORRENT OF ENERGY BEHIND AMAZON

When Jeffrey P. Bezos was three, he got frustrated sleeping in a crib. His mom didn't think he was ready for a real bed, but Jeff was having none of that. Soon after, Jacklyn Gise Bezos found her son--screwdriver clutched in his tiny hand--trying to dismantle the crib to make it more like a bed. She sighs: ''I knew I had met my match.''

Bezos still gives fits to his elders--the likes of Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart. With a genial manner, he seems an unlikely E-commerce mogul. Yet he has made almost no visible missteps since he conceived the idea of Amazon.com Inc. in early 1994.

Back then, Bezos was the youngest-ever senior vice-president at investment banker D.E. Shaw & Co., charged with finding Net ideas to invest in. After surfing the Web for the first time, he hit a site that said the Web population was growing 2,300% a year--and the light bulb went on.

ON THE ROAD. Bingo. Within weeks, Bezos passed up a fat bonus and hit the road. His wife MacKenzie drove while Bezos pecked out a business plan on a laptop and called prospective investors before settling on Seattle for its technical talent and proximity to Ingram Book Group's Oregon warehouse.

The son of a Cuban refugee who is still an Exxon Corp. executive, Bezos displayed an unusual intensity and drive early on. He got so engrossed in activities at Montessori preschool that teachers had to pick him up in his chair to move him on to new tasks. Growing up in Houston, Bezos spent summers on a family farm in Cotulla, Tex., developing a love for science from his grandfather, a retired manager for the Atomic Energy Commission.

By the time he was 14, he wanted to be an astronaut or a physicist. The family garage was always filled with his projects, from a vacuum on its way to becoming a hovercraft to an umbrella soon to be a solar cooker. He flexed his entrepreneurial muscles while in high school when he thought up the DREAM Institute, a summer-school program to encourage creative thinking in young school kids. He even charged his brother and sister to attend.

At Princeton, Bezos quickly veered to computers, earning degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. ''I've always been at the intersection of computers and whatever they can revolutionize,'' says Bezos.

The vision thing isn't all he has brought to Amazon. His energy--he runs up and down the company's three flights of stairs--provides much of the place's electricity. Whenever there's a game of hockey-like broomball, he's the first to tear off his shirt, wrap it around his head, and let out a rebel yell.

But fun and games are few and far between. Bezos works so much that he and MacKenzie haven't found time to move out of their tiny studio apartment. ''Sometimes I yell at him because it's so hard to get together,'' says buddy Nick Hanauer, owner of a Seattle bedding company.

Bezos expects total dedication from people at Amazon, too, where the hours can be grueling. Says Acting Customer Service Director Jane Slade: ''This is everyone's wife, mother, father, baby, whatever.'' He routinely ratchets up goals for managers and often plunges into minute details himself. Slade, for instance, recalls bringing a long list of her job goals to Bezos early on. He handed her his own list, saying: ''You tell me what's more important.''

Still, there's one thing that disarms just about everybody--Bezos' explosive laugh. When he yuks it up in his office, they say he can be heard down the hall, upstairs and downstairs, too. But then, with his Amazon stock worth $4.4 billion, he has a lot to laugh about.

By Robert D. Hof in Seattle



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