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When Bezos wanted to poach Musk’s right arm to lead Blue Origin

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After trying to poach Gwynne Shotwell, the current president and COO of SpaceX to run Blue Origin in 2016, Jeff Bezos finally turned to Bob Smith. A wise choice? The past four years lead us to believe not.

The book Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire, signed by American journalist Brad Stone and published on May 11, reveals several things. Much of this book is obviously about Bezos’ relationship with his e-commerce site, Amazon. We also learn the name of the voice interpreter used by default by millions of Alexa devices (Nina Rolle). However, it is another chapter, devoted to Blue Origin, that interests us today.

In this book, Brad Stone teaches us that in the fall of 2016, the founder of the company focused on aerospace began to worry about the lack of progress made by your company. Its main competitor, SpaceX, already had a good head start in the sector, already recovering its Falcon 9 boosters on platforms at sea (which changed everything), and winning several government contracts, notably with NASA and the Department of Defense.

The journalist then tells us that Bezos, a little distraught, had at the time invited several executives of Blue Origin to his office in Seattle to take stock. During these interviews, some leaders would then have complained of internal communication problems, endless meetings and not necessarily very wise expenses.

Artist’s illustration of New Glenn, the future heavy launcher from Blue Origin. Credits: Blue Origin.

The choice of the new CEO of Blue Origin

Also according to this book, these discussions would then have led Bezos to want to hire, for the first time, a CEO for the company. After informing Rob Meyerson, the president of Blue Origin of his intentions, Bezos then approached Gwynne Shotwell, the current president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. Present since the beginning of the adventure in 2002 after being hired by Musk in a quarter of an hour, she naturally refused this opportunity.

After a year-long search, Bezos finally turned to Bob Smith, then a senior executive at Honeywell Aerospace. Her goal: to make Blue Origin a major player in the space sector and start winning government contracts, like SpaceX. Unfortunately for Bezos, that may not have been the right choice.

And for good reason, by completing his management team, the new CEO of Blue Origin relied on several executives from, say, very “traditional” companies. Many of his recruitments came from Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. In short, they were companies just as brilliant as each other, but built on a culture of caution. This vision obviously contrasts with that of SpaceX, which is very risk-taking.

spacex Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: Taylor Hill / FilmMagic

Ten late cars

Partly because of this slow pace of development, Blue Origin has lost even more ground on its main competitor.

Just a few years ago, the two companies seemed to be on the cusp of a particularly exciting space race, but while SpaceX has already launched and recovered over a hundred rockets, released more than 1,500 of its own. satellites in orbit and transferred several astronaut crews to the ISS, Blue Origin only piloted its New Shepard suborbital launcher fifteen times. And if a first crewed flight will probably take place in July, this step forward will not allow the company to catch up.

Regarding government contracts, again, Blue Origin is on the sidelines. The company has in fact just been excluded from a series of launch contracts on behalf of national security, won by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. This shelving makes sense considering his New Glenn pitcher is still far from being operational. And let’s not forget NASA which has also turned to SpaceX as the one and only supplier of its next lunar lander, to the chagrin of Bezos who decided to file a complaint.

However, things could soon change for the company. Recently, Jeff Bezos indeed announced that he would step down as CEO of Amazon this summer to become its executive chairman. For the sequel, he vowed to devote more of his time and business skills to Blue Origin. It remains to be seen whether his involvement will be sufficient. Only the future will tell us.


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