Amazon’s Executive Team Is Shrinking

Over the past year, Amazon’s management team has had a lot of turnover.

The Seattle-based company has lost four of its top executives, representing 40 years of combined service. So far, only one has been replaced.

Amazon on laptopAll of the changes have happened quietly, without any announcements from the company — and stranger yet, most of the departed continue to be listed on the company’s leadership page.

But the departures are easily trackable after reading the company’s annual report filed last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission. When compared with the same filing a year earlier, it’s clear that Amazon’s top ranks are dwindling.

In 2011, the executive team had a dozen members. Now it has nine. The departures appear, though, to be part of a normal turnover process, rather than any meaningful restructuring.

Still, it’s hard to comprehend that Amazon’s management team has gotten smaller during the past year while the company’s overall headcount swelled to 88,400 in 2012 from 56,200 in 2011. Additionally, the e-commerce giant has entered several new businesses over the past decade.

The four executives who are gone are: Michelle Wilson, Amazon’s general counsel; Steven Kessel, SVP of Worldwide Digital Media; Marc Onetto, SVP of Worldwide Operations; and Sebastian J. Gunningham, SVP of Seller Services.

Two of the departures are easier to explain than the others.

For example, Wilson, who had been the company’s general counsel since 1999, stepped down in September to take parental leave. Her departure was documented by GeekWire in August, and Ty Rogers, a company spokesman, confirmed that she was replaced by David Zapolsky, who now holds three titles: VP, general counsel and secretary.

Another executive who can easily be accounted for is Kessel, who oversaw the company’s digital strategy, including books, music, video and the all-important Kindle. He has been on sabbatical now for about a year, as we reported last April.

“Steve continues to enjoy his well-deserved sabbatical, and we look forward to him returning later this year,” Rogers said.

Rogers also explained the departure of Onetto, though very briefly, saying that he had decided to retire after seven years on the job. Rogers declined to specify Onetto’s departure date, but according to the company’s annual report, he is no longer a top executive.

The biggest mystery of the four is the disappearance of Gunningham from the executive officer list (mostly because Rogers would offer only vague comments related to his standing at the company). Gunningham had served as the company’s SVP of Seller Services for five years. Update: Gunningham continues to hold the same title at Amazon, but is no longer a Section 16 officer, according to the company.

As I previously reported, I called what I believe to be Gunningham’s home number twice to clarify, but no one answered and his voicemail was full (Note to Gunningham: clean out your inbox!).

And, in response to multiple inquiries, Rogers repeated one answer: “As you may know, the 10-K only lists Section 16 officers.”

To explain, a Section 16 officer is essentially legal jargon for a member of the company’s executive team, so essentially Rogers is saying that Gunningham is simply that — no longer on the executive team.

Amazon, like other publicly held companies, is not required to disclose the departure of all executive team members, only the CEO, president, CFO, chief accounting officer and COO (although there are some exceptions). Therefore, the one way to notice if an executive has left is by checking the annual report year after year. In this case, that’s especially true since Amazon generally has no C-level execs. Rather, all of its officers hold the title of SVP.

Despite the departures, the Amazon team still has a bench of nine executives (including Wilson’s replacement), so it’s not like the company is running without an engine. And, of course, at the top of the pyramid continues to be founder and Chairman and CEO, Jeff Bezos.

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