In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner and producer Mac Greer are mining the radio vault and revisiting some clips from their old radio shows.
In this segment, they play two clips from interviews with Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN). Bezos explained in 1999 that Amazon's goal was to be "Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company." In late 2000, he emphasized the stock's returns for long-term shareholders. The Gardner brothers discuss the visionary CEO's long-term mind-set.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on April 11, 2018.
David Gardner: Mac, without further ado, we're going to go with Clip No. 1. What do you have for us?
Mac Greer: In one of our early shows [this was back in 1999], we had then new CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Amazon was a very new public company and he's going to talk about what Amazon is and I guess what Amazon isn't.
Tom Gardner: What is the promise that Amazon.com has made to people using the service, and buying products from you over the last couple of years? What is the promise that you have to deliver on to build your brand?
Jeff Bezos: Well, I think what we're trying to do is the "Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company." It's a whole bunch of little things that add up, and some big things. But if you can be a customer company... Sometimes people ask us, "Are you a book company, or a music company, or now are you a toy company?" And we're none of those things. We're trying to be a customer company.
And you can sort of uniquely do that well on the internet because of the possibilities for personalization and putting each individual customer at the center of your universe. And if you can do that, you'll have something completely new. [Being] customer centric [the service, the experience], I guess another way to say this is starting with the customer and working backwards.
D. Gardner: OK.
Bezos: If we can be known for that, that allows us to do a lot of things for customers.
Greer: So, guys, this is back when I thought of Amazon as Earth's Biggest Bookstore.
D. Gardner: That's what my mouse pad said. I still have that mouse pad. Yeah. This was early days, wasn't it, Mac? He was mentioning toys. I don't think they'd gotten to many of the other categories, but had broken out of books, music, videos. And I guess when I think about that, Tom, I just think, "Wow! He fulfilled on the vision that he had right back there in 1999." I mean, here he is 19 years later crushing it.
T. Gardner: I would guess that if we were to interview him, or listen to an interview with Bezos today, he would be saying almost exactly the same thing. Although he's now understood, and that has played out in a way that makes sense to everyone, rather than being predictive...
D. Gardner: That's right...
T. Gardner: ... as it was back then. But the principles have remained the same for Amazon all the way through. It's amazing!
D. Gardner: It is amazing. Each individual customer, he said, at the center of the universe.
T. Gardner: Now only one of us purchased Amazon and held it all the way through at this table.
Greer: It's true.
T. Gardner: It's only one of us. In fact, I've taken a single action on Amazon in my life. I shorted it in CAPS and made 20%. That's it. It is the worst thing. Buffett said this about Bezos, and Amazon, as well. It is the worst oversight of my investment career. It literally lives up to so many of the principles that I have as an investor that I learned from David, and I learned from our dad, and there it is. And Mac, at least you purchased Amazon along with Dave a couple of years ago.
Greer: A couple of years ago.
D. Gardner: Are you a shareholder?
Greer: I remember. Even though we interviewed Bezos three or four times in the late '90s -- we interviewed him in 2002 -- that was the last time we interviewed him. But I never even came close to buying Amazon, because I was conventional wisdom personified, and the knock on Amazon is they're never going to make a profit. It's probably hard for people to remember this, but back in the '90s, the question wasn't like, "How big was Amazon's profit going to be or not be?" The question was, "Is Amazon going to survive? Will Amazon be a going concern?" There was no definitive consensus.
T. Gardner: They used a lot of debt.
Greer: Right. And some people thought they weren't going to make it. It's so hard to wrap your head around that idea, and I was in that camp. I had eBay, and the line on eBay was it's got a lighter business model, and everyone was the eBay of something, and I'm like, "Why would you buy Amazon when you could own eBay?"
D. Gardner: Well, and don't kick yourself too much, Mac, because...
T. Gardner: Let us kick you.
D. Gardner: We couldn't actually know or understand that there would even be something called a cloud one day, or that Amazon would go that direction. There's no way to connect the dots to 2018 from that interview or from what we were all thinking looking forward, then.
One thing we could do, I guess, is say this is a visionary guy. This guy is ambitious, and he's creating a great company. We could definitely have said that, but it's only increasingly true of investing today, isn't it, that we really don't know where the next technology is coming from and how things are going to morph. But you've got to be ready for it.
T. Gardner: So, how did you know, then? Because there was a Barron's article in the last two years that said, "Yeah, Amazon. Well, no one bought it and held all the way through." And it was like, "Well, actually, funny..."
D. Gardner: Well, I don't read Barron's, so maybe it's nobody who reads Barron's.
T. Gardner: Possibly. OK, kick them down. But what is it that caused you... And you could just say, "It's my principle of finding something great and just holding it indefinitely," or you could say, "I was reaffirmed by this or that." What were one or two of the things that caused you to hold this all these years?
D. Gardner: I think it goes right to Rule Breaker Investing and then we should probably go to Clip No. 2. Briefly, Tom [and you know this already], but basically what you were buying, there, was you were buying a top dog and first mover in an important, emerging industry. The important, emerging industry was e-commerce, and you definitely had the company that was out front. And it's not easy to get a company to be public and get out front of something that big and be that young.
T. Gardner: They went public very quickly as a company.
D. Gardner: They did. Sub billion. Sub $1 billion.
T. Gardner: Sub $1 billion, yes, and relatively early in their life as an entity.
D. Gardner: Exactly.
T. Gardner: Because their growth rates were so rapid on the top line.
D. Gardner: Yeah.
T. Gardner: So, does anyone here at the table [I know we've got so many other clips]. Does anyone here at the table know what percentage of Amazon Jeff Bezos owned when they went public? I like the long sigh. Long sigh.
D. Gardner: I'm going to go with 23%.
Greer: I'm going 50%.
T. Gardner: The answer is 41%.
D. Gardner: All right, good. So, wisdom of the crowds. Twenty-three plus 50 divided by two and you get close.
T. Gardner: So, there may be a few factors that all match up with some rule breaker principles of yours which is a young, dynamic visionary founder who owns a very large stake getting out ahead of a major trend. You ride along. Some of them won't succeed, but the ones that do could likely succeed so fantastically that mathematically you get ridiculously great returns.
D. Gardner: You bet. Mac, thank you! That was a great clip. What's No. 2? What have you got for us?
Greer: OK, with No. 2 I want to go to another Amazon clip, because it's interesting. It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, as we know in the early years. Amazon sold off sharply a number of times, including the year 2000, so this is Jeff Bezos talking in a 2000 interview we did about the market sell-off.
D. Gardner: How has the market changed? Why has Amazon.com and its shareholders been a little punished?
Bezos: Well, I think the whole sector has been treated roughly, and I think maybe very appropriately. If you look at 1999, 1999 was a year where a start-up company could raise $60 million in venture capital with a single phone call and then spend half of it on television advertising in a single quarter.
That is probably not rational and healthy for the market to support that kind of activity. And one of the time-honored traditions of investors is to play the role of skeptic. And I think we're seeing that happen today in a much healthier way.
D. Gardner: OK.
Bezos: And if you look at the long term -- and I know you guys at Fool.com share our approach to this -- the longest period you can measure Amazon.com over is the three and a half years that we've been a publicly traded company, and our stock is up a factor of 20 in that period of time, even after falling three-quarters off of its 52-week high.
So, we're very proud of the returns we've generated for our long-term shareholders. We wish that the stock chart slowly and continuously moved up and to the right in a straight line. That would be the best for everybody, but unfortunately that's not how stocks work.
D. Gardner: Wow! So, Mac, that was late 2000, right?
D. Gardner: Because having held the stock from when we bought it for The Fool Portfolio [back then our free portfolio at Fool.com], at $3.21, it hit a high in 2000 three years later of $95 and that's kind of what he's speaking to. He said it's down three-quarters from that point. So, we watched it go from $3 to $95 and then it touched down as low as $7 about a year after that interview. And the rest is history. It's gone more up and to the right as Jeff mentioned since then.
T. Gardner: Here are the first few sentences of Amazon's letter to shareholders that year.
D. Gardner: Awesome! Tom, are you bringing some research to this podcast?
T. Gardner: "To our shareholders." I have some data, too. "To our shareholders. Ouch! It's been a brutal year for many in the capital markets and certainly for Amazon.com shareholders. As of this writing, our shares are down more than 80% from when I wrote to you last year. Nevertheless, by almost any measure, Amazon.com, the company, is in a stronger position now than at any time in its past." So, you have humility, tough year, optimism, belief in the future...
D. Gardner: Long term...
T. Gardner: And long term...
D. Gardner: Exactly.
T. Gardner: Mac, I'm going to put you on the spot with a little bit of data. What do you think Amazon's sales growth rate has been since that time, and what do you think their stock has returned?
Greer: Oh, gosh!
T. Gardner: Since they came public?
Greer: The stock has returned a lot, and the sales...
T. Gardner: So wrong!
Greer: Let's see. Oh, shoot. 20%? I don't know.
T. Gardner: OK, that's good! The answer is Amazon's sales have grown 43% a year since they came public...
D. Gardner: In 1997...
T. Gardner: ... and their stock has returned 36% a year. And it really is just a lesson for all of us as investors that over long periods of time sales growth is a pretty important indicator for creating value, and Amazon has had it in spades.
D. Gardner: That is astonishing, Tom. Awesome research! I didn't realize. 43% annualized sales growth over 21 years?
T. Gardner: Yes.
D. Gardner: Insane!
T. Gardner: And 36% investment returns. Actually, we'll do this for another Rule Breakers podcast, but you look at companies like Netflix. They're doing the same thing -- 35% sales growth, 45% investment returns growth since they came public. So, sales is a very good indicator of value creation if you're looking out 10 to 20 years.