Home » One on One: Customer Obsession Rather Than Competitor Focus

One on One: Customer Obsession Rather Than Competitor Focus

With $15 billion in investment, 18,000 jobs and 16 sites, Kentucky has become a key ingredient in Amazon’s success as the world’s top e-commerce company.

By Mark Green

Andre Woodson is a regional operations public relations manager with Amazon for an area that includes Kentucky. In his seven years with Amazon, Woodson’s roles have included corporate reputation management, crisis communications, corporate affairs, media relations, and employee and stakeholder engagement. Prior to joining Amazon, Woodson was an assistant coach at Morehead State University, a graduate assistant at University of Kentucky, and a professional athlete in the National Football League. A native of Fort Lewis, Wash., he was a “military brat” who became a successful athlete at North Hardin High School and then at the University of Kentucky, where as quarterback he set an SEC record for touchdown passes in a season. He led UK teams to wins at consecutive Music City Bowls in 2006 and 2007, with 2006 being the school’s first bowl game in 22 years. Woodson holds a bachelor’s degree from UK.

Mark Green: The Amazon Air hub facility about to launch this fall at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) in Hebron is the biggest economic development project in state history. Tell us about it.

Andre Woodson: Yes, our own dedicated space at our hub operation, which is located on the south side of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. This project involves a total estimated $1.5 billion investment in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region and will create 2,000 new full-time additions at this state-of-the-art facility. The Amazon Air facility will feature a new ramp—or aircraft parking—a 680,000 s.f. sortation building and a multilevel parking garage, as well as some local road-grade improvements. The project will open later this year as part of Amazon’s commitment to ensure the best preshipping for customers. We’re really excited to call Kentucky home for our hub.

MG: Why was Northern Kentucky chosen as the location for this? Kentucky has lots of major logistics hub operations.

AW: There are a lot of contributors that go into our thought process on where to place a new facility. We’re responding to customer demand. We want to make sure facilities are close to customers so we can offer great Prime service and fast shipping speeds. We also strategically look for various locations that provide robust public infrastructure, a strong dedicated workforce and, of course, great local support. And we found all those factors in Kentucky. Today Amazon’s main investments in Kentucky have included 10 fulfillment-sortation centers, two delivery stations, two Whole Foods Market locations and a customer service center, and an Amazon hub locker location. We’re proud of our investments in the state of Kentucky and we look forward to launching this state-of-the-art facility.

MG: What is the significance of adding this hub to Amazon’s overall e-commerce operation?

AW: Amazon operations has a long history of innovating on behalf of our customers, and we view transportation, not just the aircraft, as the glue that connects customers to their orders from the moment they click on Amazon.com to the time their package arrives on their doorstep. In that regard, this air hub will continue to provide reliable, speedy delivery so customers can enjoy the great value and quality products available on Amazon. Using our technology, we’ve developed a very sophisticated hybrid point-to-point and hub-and-spoke network. Our operation at CVG will help support that network, which lets us serve increasing numbers of customers with fewer aircraft and flying fewer miles per package. At this point now, packages will be loaded and unloaded from the aircraft for onward transport to sortation centers and delivery stations to finish that last mile of delivery.

MG: Amazon has an innovative a new form of hub and spoke delivery and this will be the first hub. Is the expectation at this point that the hub will grow or that Amazon will create additional such hubs or both?

AW: Amazon Air continues to expand globally to meet the needs of its current customer base while investing in jobs and sustainable solutions to power its network. In 2020, Amazon launched its first-ever air hub in Germany and expanded its presence in the U.S. in more than 35 locations. Since Amazon Air’s launch in 2016, Amazon has invested hundreds of millions of dollars and created thousands of new jobs at Amazon Air locations across the U.S. As we’ve continued to increase capacity with the launch of new sites across our Amazon Air network, we’ve also invested in our fleet support to continue fast, free delivery for customers. We now have more than 70 aircraft flying in our dedicated air cargo network, and that number will increase to more than 88 aircraft by the end of 2021.

MG: Amazon has a number of facilities already in Kentucky. What is Amazon’s total investment in Kentucky to date and is it reasonable for Kentuckians to anticipate operations and investments are going to continue to grow?

AW: Amazon is proud to provide a safe and innovative work environment, which employs the heart and soul of our operations, but an Amazon presence in Kentucky means more than just the jobs within the four walls of our facilities. Since 2010, Amazon has created more than 18,000 jobs in Kentucky and invested $15 billion across the state, including infrastructure and compensation. Additionally, Amazon’s investments have contributed more than $12.9 billion in GDP to the Kentucky economy and helped create over 23,000 indirect jobs. From construction and logistics to professional services, Amazon’s component network also supports millions of businesses of all sizes worldwide through fulfillment by Amazon and many of those local organizations are based in Kentucky. Currently there are more than 16,000 small and medium-sized retail sellers and developers in Kentucky working in partnership with Amazon to reach new customers, grow their businesses and create jobs.

MG: What business factors make Kentucky attractive to Amazon? What key factors influence decisions on where to grow—tax structure, infrastructure, education system, supply chain safety, the cost of doing business?

AW: I wouldn’t be able to dive deep on that one because technically that’s a question for a different department, and more specifically that is some of the ‘secret sauce’ with Amazon: identifying different real estate space.

MG: You mention that 16,000-plus Kentucky businesses are already supported by Amazon selling their products, etc. Are there other relationship opportunities Amazon presents to the Kentucky business community?

AW: Amazon is always looking for ways to give back to the local communities in which we live and work. We partner with local vendors and nonprofit organizations and different small and medium-sized businesses that sell on Amazon’s platform to reach millions of customers across the globe. We’re always looking for opportunities to support the local economy.

MG: Amazon has thousands of employees in Kentucky and hundreds of thousands elsewhere; it’s a hiring machine. Is Amazon able to find employees in Kentucky in the quantity and quality it wants and does it provide training after it onboards people?

AW: Kentucky’s been a source of exceptional talent for Amazon, and we’re excited to continue our growth by adding additional job opportunities on top of the Amazon employees already working across the Bluegrass State in its operations. We’re always innovating to bring our customers new levels of convenience and provide them with a variety of options so they can choose what works best for them. However, the health and safety of our employees is Amazon’s No. 1 priority and has been since day one.

All associates go through hours of safety training, such as virtual new-hire orientation, routine safety reminders through multiple internal channels and training modules. We’re reallocating people from other jobs around the world for the purpose of being safety ambassadors. We’re coaching employees about safety, and we send regular emails, newsletters and text messages to convey important safety instructions. We also work closely with health and safety experts. Scientists conduct thousands of safety inspections each day in our building, and we’ve made hundreds of changes as a result of employee feedback on how we can improve their well-being at work.

Last year alone we committed over $1 billion in incremental investments in employee safety. We hired over 180 new leaders and plan to hire an additional 60 new safety leaders by the end of the year. That’s in addition to more than 1,000 new safety team members hired to date and plans to add another 5,000 experts to our global team by the end of the year to ensure the health and safety of our workforce.

MG: Amazon has experienced phenomenal success. Are there unique elements of its business culture that have created this ongoing success that Amazon shares publicly?

AW: Amazon in general is guided by four principles: customer obsession rather than competitor focus; passion for invention; commitment to operational excellence; and long-term thinking. Amazon also strives to be earth’s best employer or place to work. Additionally, our 12 leadership principles [see box on page 24] describe how Amazon does business, how leaders lead and how we keep the customer at the center of our decisions. So whether it’s leaders starting with the customer and working backwards, not sacrificing long-term value for short-term results, or valuing risk taking, our unique Amazon culture helps us relentlessly pursue our mission of being the earth’s most customer-centric company.

MG: Does Amazon have one executive overseeing all operations in Kentucky?

AW: There’s no correct answer on this. It’s hard to categorize one individual as the top chief because there are multiple business lines that have vertical lines going straight up to (CEO) Jeff Bezos; it would be almost impossible to say one individual oversees the region. Several individuals oversee…operations, transportation, delivery, staffing, sourcing, all those different businesses.

Our fulfillment network is made up of state-of-the-art technology and a variety of building types and sizes to support processing orders, but it’s truly our people who bring Amazon to life, who operate world-class facilities in cities and communities across the Bluegrass State. In Kentucky, we currently support more than 18,000 employees who are innovating and working to serve customers in our fulfillment and sortation centers, specialty and receiving facilities, delivery stations, a customer service office, retail location, and Air Hub network. Those are in addition to our leaders on the real estate, public policy, community engagement, and safety teams supporting Amazon’s operations around the region.

MG: Amazon is one of the largest employers in the nation and in Kentucky. What is its successful strategy for finding, onboarding and keeping thousands of new employees on an ongoing basis?

AW: This year LinkedIn ranked Amazon No. 1 on its Top Companies of 2021 list. LinkedIn’s methodology evaluates how companies attract and retain the best talent, including through promotions, finding opportunities for employees learning skills, gender diversity and hiring people from all backgrounds and levels of education. LinkedIn also looked at how recruiters from other companies search for employees currently working at Amazon.

Just this past year, Amazon created more than 400,000 jobs in the U.S. and onboarded tens of thousands of new employees virtually. All Amazon jobs pay a starting wage of at least $15 an hour, twice the federal minimum wage, and all regular full-time employees enjoy health care that starts on their first day, a 401(k) plan with company match, up to 20 weeks of parental leave, company-subsidized backup child and adult care, and access to free upskilling opportunities such as the career-choice program that prepays up to 95% of tuition for in-demand courses. Those are incredible opportunities for our workforce to provide advanced skill opportunities to grow within the company.

Amazon also has 13 affinity groups—better known as employee resource groups—with more than 90,000 members across 190 chapters. Those groups bring Amazon employees together across businesses and locations around the world. Affinity groups play an important role in building internal networks for creating a community, advising Amazon business units, leading in-service projects and reaching out to communities where employees live and work. We’re proud to create a global business with a lot of diversity and different backgrounds as we continue to grow across the globe.

MG: Are there workforce characteristics specific to Kentucky that are conducive to being effective Amazon team members?

AW: This is simple. What unites Amazon employees across the Kentucky teams and geographies is that we’re all striving to innovate on behalf of our customers and make their lives easier. Our diverse and inclusive teams have a positive impact on our products and services and help us better serve customers, employees and members of the community. We’re just proud to continue to invest in the state of Kentucky where there’s incredible workforce talent for us to employ.

MG: There’s debate as to whether robots are displacing human jobs or employees are increasingly becoming robot overseers. What’s the role and trend of robotics use in Amazon facilities?

AW: Stepping into an Amazon facility that uses robotics is pretty cool. Keeping the machines operating safely and smoothly requires thoughtful engineering and maintenance, so the responsibility of maintaining these systems falls to multiple technical professionals throughout Amazon facilities who possess a very valuable set of skills and experiences. Those are skills and experiences that we know will continue to play a key role in the future of logistics and operations at Amazon.

We’re investing in research and development that provides assisted and collaborative technology to extend the human reach and capability in a manner that will make tasks easier, but also allow our associates to turn their abilities to more sophisticated tasks where they can add the most value. I would also say that across all of our sites, we use innovative technology to assist employees on a daily basis and we will continue to consider the introduction of robotics in areas of our facilities that make most sense. Our teams continue innovating, utilizing advanced technology and all types of abilities to make jobs safer and easier for employees and improve the customer experience.

MG: There’s a high interest level in drones and drone delivery. Is drone delivery taking place or about to take place in Kentucky?

AW: I can’t comment on that, but there is general information in the public domain. The latest prototypes are incredible. If you go on amazon.com/primeair I believe the different variations of the creative will pop right up. There are like seven different prototypes, and there’s a new one that was recently released and it’s astonishing. They continue to change. Depending on what terrain they’re going to be hovering in—if it’s a rural area, if it’s urban area—that will dictate the creation and the engineering. They’re pretty neat to look at.

MG: You mentioned a lot of community support and engagement. Is there an Amazon foundation and are there any projects that such a foundation is involved with in Kentucky?

AW: There’s no Amazon foundation (but) Amazon does a lot of community stuff. We’re a global business and have local roots set firmly in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and firmly in the Kentucky region. From the local jobs we bring to local people we employ, train and upskill, our business is made up of people from the communities in which we operate. Amazon is part of this community and we’re invested in its success. It is important to us, and the thousands of employees who live and work where we have a physical presence, to continue to find ways to support local organizations that matter the most to the people from the communities. We are constantly looking for ways to give back to those local areas.

It’s important to us that the thousands of local organizations we support are the ones that matter the most to the people from the communities in which we operate. Our work includes providing children and young adults from underrepresented and underserved communities access to computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education through the Amazon Future Engineer program. We address immediate needs—such as reducing family hunger and homelessness and serving communities in need following natural disasters. We also make it easy for customers to support their favorite charity through AmazonSmile. A few of the many Kentucky organizations we have worked with recently include Louisville-based Dare to Care, Northern Kentucky Freestore Foodbank, Taylor County Public Library, and God’s Pantry in Winchester.

MG: Many people believe team sports is good preparation for business success. How does your experience as quarterback of some of the University of Kentucky’s best football teams, where you were a leader and a communicator, play into your current role with Amazon?

AW: The University of Kentucky football program helped me develop an incredible skill set needed for working with phenomenal builders and innovators through Amazon. To find the best talent from all backgrounds, Amazon brings varying cultures, ideas and points of view as a way to scale their impact as they continue to grow. In that regard, I was fortunate to learn from diverse educators at UK that instilled self-reliance, self-discipline and leadership skills to prepare me for the ‘real’ world.

MG: How did you come to work for Amazon? Did you seek them out or did they come to you?

AW: Actually one of my good friends who was working for Amazon suggested me for a position that became available in community relations. I went to meet with the leadership team in Seattle. I traveled there for an in-person interview and had a chance to understand the culture and see the campus and see firsthand some of the incredible things that Amazon was doing, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this. I wanted to be a part of this network and grow with this company that was having such an impact on millions of people across the world.

MG: When did you join Amazon?

AW: I joined in 2014. My seven-year milestone with the company—we call them AM-iversaries—was June 15. I celebrated seven years with the company and I’ve had an array of positions, from community specialist, community relations, supporting community activations nationally to public relations, crisis issues management, now more storytelling opportunities. In the multitude of roles that I’ve had, I’ve had the pleasure of supporting and working with some phenomenal people across the network.

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