From the Washington Business Journal

Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters will be … decided by Dec. 31.

That was the response the etailing giant’s CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, gave to fellow billionaire and The Carlyle Group LP (NASDAQ: CG) co-founder David Rubensteinwhen asked in an interview about its yearlong search for its so-called HQ2, a $5 billion, 50,000-employee endeavor that has 20 markets around North America, including Greater Washington, vigorously vying to host it.

“We will announce a decision before the end of this year,” Bezos gave as his only response regarding HQ2 at a supremely well-attended dinner marking The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.’s 32nd anniversary. “We’ve made tremendous progress. The team is working their butts off on this and we will get there.”

And yet, despite the anticlimactic response to the most-anticipated economic development decision in recent memory, the evening, like so many other companies and things, belonged to Bezos.

Never had so many business leaders packed into the massive ballroom at the Washington Hilton on the off chance the tech leader and richest man alive said … something. But that’s exactly what about 1,400 business leaders, politicians and local celebrities and 130 credentialed members of the media did for an hour-plus-long interview filled with humorous quips from Bezos, recounting everything from Amazon’s early days — when he changed its name from “Cadabra” because his lawyer thought Bezos said “cadaver” — to his fervent dream that he could one day afford a forklift.

He recalled how he didn’t want to buy The Washington Post at first, believing the entire print newspaper business model was fried and financially upside down. He followed that up with a prediction that he will eventually look back at that purchase as his greatest accomplishment. He said he paid what then-owner Don Graham asked — $250 million — and didn’t do any due diligence before closing.

He also defended the newspaper from the frequent criticisms of President Donald Trump.

“It is a mistake for any elected official, in my opinion — I don’t think this is an out-there opinion — to attack media and journalists,” Bezos said.

He talked about Blue Origin LLC, his Kent, Washington, business venture in space exploration and the need to keep Earth habitable through conservation efforts. “This is the best planet,” Bezos said. “We have now sent robotic problems to every planet in this solar system. Believe me, this is the good one.”

So, we needed to know: Does he like the title of “richest man on Earth?”

“I have never sought that title. It was fine being the second-wealthiest person in the world,” Bezos said. He also said he still carries cash and, yes, still uses credit cards.

A man who needed no introduction, in fact, got many Thursday night, including from JBG Smith Properties (NYSE: JBGS) CEO Matt Kelly — whose company’s new affordable housing initiative was one of the night’s biggest sponsors and, incidentally, is one of the landlords rumored to be high on an HQ2 wish list with its Crystal City and Potomac Yard real estate holdings. Another introduction came from Rubenstein himself, as well as some high praise from billionaire and Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK) founder Warren Buffet, who had previously been in Bezos’ shoes during the Economic Club’s 25th anniversary event. Buffett, in a video played at Thursday’s event, praised Bezos for revolutionizing retail while “building spaceships on the weekends.”

The audience, at times quietly listening and at times roaring with laughter, was so large it required multiple levels of the Washington Hilton to fit it. A pre-event reception was so packed that organizers held a smaller, but equally packed, separate reception for sponsors and the biggest VIPs in a crowd of VIPs.

It was, without a doubt, one of the largest gatherings of local luminaries and business leaders in recent history, with one such luminary calling it the “White House Correspondents’ Dinner for business” and another dubbing it “Fight Night without the smoke.” But to describe it as just that would be underselling it. There were enough ambassadors to hash out a global trade deal with dignitaries from Australia, the United Kingdom, Greece, South Africa, Panama, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Singapore and many more.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan attended (Amazon accounts for a substantial portion of USPS’ package delivery business). So did General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy and a series of District mayors, from current Mayor Muriel Bowser to predecessors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams, who also chairs the Federal City Council. D.C. Council members Vincent Gray, a former mayor himself, and Jack Evans also were in attendance.

There were enough developers and real estate captains to fund and build a second nation’s capital alongside the first one, with Boston Properties’ Ray Ritchey, MRP Realty’s Bob Murphy, Ernie Jarvis of Jarvis Commercial Real Estate, Norman Jemal of Douglas Development Corp., PN Hoffman chief Monty Hoffman and former First Potomac Realty Trust and current DSC Partners LLC founder Doug Donatelli in attendance.

And among the crowd were business leaders of all stripes, including the likes of Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment; Russ Ramsey, chairman and CEO of Ramsey Asset Management; Reggie Aggarwal, CEO of Cvent Inc.; and Mark Ein, CEO of Venturehousegroup LLC, chairman of Kastle Systems LLC and owner of the Washington Kastles.

Bowser might have summed up that eminent crowd’s expectations best at the sponsor reception when she said, “We are eager for any announcements he might have.”

And while there were no Earth-shaking pronouncements from the book mogul-turned-cloud computing giant-turned-potential space explorer-turned-recent philanthropist, the mood was one of frenetic energy and, in many ways, triumph for a region and business community that is often overlooked in favor of others (looking at you, Silicon Valley).

“We are known as the coolest city in the country, and we have earned that reputation,” Bowser said.

Rubenstein, chairman of the Economic Club who quickly found himself as the host for these evenings, got some love from the dignitaries as well. In his video, Buffett also showered praise on the Carlyle co-executive chairman, calling him “a mild man and lawyer-turned-private equity guy. Then he must have gone into a phone booth and come out as a super interviewer.”

“He has a talent for bringing out the talents of others,” Buffet added. “One way or another, he gets you to enjoy and learn from the people he interviews.”

One thing the attendees learned: whom Bezos considers Amazon’s competition.

“Where we elbow for customers is in the physical world,” Bezos said, pointing to how Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) captures 40 percent of online sales, but a small percentage of total, in-person retail sales. “That’s where we face competition.”

And they learned what Bezos wants his legacy to be: “World’s oldest man,” he joked, before adding he aims to live his life with few regrets. “It’s going to be whatever it is going to be. I don’t even want to spend a lot of my time thinking about it.”

At the end of the event, for his time and disclosures, Bezos was given three tokens of appreciation: a leatherbound copy of the first book ever sold on Amazon, Douglas Hofstadter’s “Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought.” A jersey of Stanley Cup champs Washington Capitals emblazoned with his name from Leonsis. And an honorary membership to the Economic Club.

 

 


Legal Notice