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Prime Spot On The Billionaire List: Jeff Bezos Was (Briefly) World's Richest Man

Jeff Bezos, chairman and founder of Amazon.com and owner of<em> The Washington Post</em>, addresses the Economic Club of New York in 2016. Bezos was briefly the richest person on earth, after Amazon stock values surged Thursday morning.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Jeff Bezos, chairman and founder of Amazon.com and owner of The Washington Post, addresses the Economic Club of New York in 2016. Bezos was briefly the richest person on earth, after Amazon stock values surged Thursday morning.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos became an even richer man on Thursday morning, when a sudden surge in Amazon stock made him $1.5 billion overnight. His fortune grew to over $90 billion.

For several hours, Bezos was the richest person on earth — surpassing Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The top billionaire title has previously been claimed by Mexican telecom titan Carlos Slim, Spanish fast-fashion giant Amancio Ortega and investor Warren Buffett — though most of the time, it's firmly in Gates' possession.

Amazon stock has settled down slightly, and Bezos is now in the No. 2 slot, according to the constantly fluctuating lists compiled by Forbes and Bloomberg.

Forbes notes one key difference between the wealth of Gates and Bezos:

"Bezos would be nowhere close to being the world's wealthiest person had Gates not given so much of his fortune to philanthropy. Gates, who created the Giving Pledge with Buffett to encourage billionaires to give at least half of their wealth to charitable causes, had given away $31.1 billion over the course of his lifetime through end of 2016. Forbesestimates that Bezos, who has not signed the pledge, had given approximately $100 million to charity through the end of 2015."

Bezos' rise to wealth has been powered by the extraordinary success of Amazon, the online retailing giant he founded out of his garage in 1995.

At the time, few people could imagine the role that the Internet would play in consumer's lives. In 1996, when NPR reported on Bezos' young company, we started by reminding listeners what "the Internet" even meant.

At the time, the average online retailer made just $3,000 in sales per year. But Bezos had a vision for "his bookstore on the World Wide Web, called Amazon.Com," as NPR's Chris Arnold put it.

"Bezos quit his job as a Wall Street executive in 1994 because he says he knew there was money to be made in on-line commerce," Chris said. "He wrote a list of 20 different items he could sell and books made the most sense."

As that list suggests, books were the starting point — not the end goal. By 1999, Amazon had expanded into CDs, toys and electronics and had become the world's largest internet retailer. Even Bezos said he was "the most surprised person on the planet" by the speed of the growth. But that was nothing compared with what Bezos saw in the future.

Bezos explained his thinking to NPR's Wendy Kaufman in 1999.

"Our No. 1 mission is to be Earth's most customer-centric company," he said. "And we mean that across any industry and across any time."

Big words. At the time, Amazon had never even posted a profit. In the years that followed, its profits were small to nonexistent. Skeptics were everywhere, wondering whether the company could possibly merit its $20 billion market value.

But while profits stayed small, Amazon, as a company, got larger and larger. More and more products, more and more customers, more and more services.

In 1995, you might sit at your computer, set up your dial-up connection and order a paperback on Amazon.com.

Today you might be sitting in your armchair (purchased on Amazon), reading that book on your Kindle, eating your Wickedly Prime tortilla chips, when you ask your Amazon Echo to take over and read the book out loud to you. That way your hands are free to unload your AmazonFresh groceries. Discover you're out of Ziploc bags as you're putting food away? You can push your Amazon Dash button for an automatic reload. If you decide you don't want to make dinner after all, Amazon Restaurants will bring you delivery. Notice the kitchen needs a scrubbing? You can book Amazon Home Services to send a cleaning crew. Sick of hearing that book in Alexa's robotic voice? You can always switch to watching Amazon Video on the smart TV you bought on Amazon.

And if you switch to Netflix, well, you're still in Amazonland. Netflix, like many companies, relies on Amazon Web Services for its basic functionality.

In 1995, one analyst told NPR that the online retailing industry might be a $7 billion market by 1998.

Now the unimaginable is here. Amazon made nearly $136 billion in revenue last year. It has even been earning serious profits these days. Amazon is valued at about $500 billion.

And its ambitious leader? His next goal is even loftier than founding "the Earth's most customer-centric company." It's even bigger than being (briefly) the Earth's richest man.

He wants to go beyond Earth. Bezos, who founded the aerospace company Blue Origin, has set his sights on outer space.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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