SEATTLE -- For the city of Seattle, Amazon.com has long been the 500-pound gorilla.
But it isn't on fine display at the zoo, where the city can preen and show off the $48-billion-a-year company to visitors. Rather, the company is more like King Kong in the jungle, a powerful, largely invisible and vaguely threatening presence.
Started in 1994 in the Seattle suburbs, the online retailer is one of the city's biggest downtown tenants, spread across a dozen buildings in the city’s up-and-coming South Lake Union neighborhood. In keeping with the company’s low-key presence, you won’t see the famous logo on any of the buildings.
When the company broke ground on its new corporate headquarters in 2009, the mayor and the governor were on hand for the festivities. Nowhere to be seen were company founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos or any other company executive.
"It wasn't the first or last time that people in the community would be left wondering: Where is Amazon?" wrote the Seattle Times, which recently weighed in on one of the region’s best-known and little-seen companies.
The newspaper's four-part series documents Amazon’s poor record on local philanthropy, its take-no-prisoners pricing war with book publishers, its showdown with states over sales tax collections and working conditions in its warehouses. The lack of air conditioning in a few workplaces, the Times reports, has turned some into literal sweatshops.
The reader blowback has been huge, much of it in largely anonymous online comment forums and much of it rushing to Amazon’s defense against, as one commenter called it, “your trashy take on a local business rock star.” Signed emails, meanwhile, are said to be running strongly in defense of the Times’ investigation.
On one side of the debate are those who want to see Amazon taken to task for its conspicuous absence, compared with generous local corporate benefactors such as Microsoft and Boeing. On the other side are those who think a company generating jobs and revenue at a breakneck pace in a difficult economy is engaging in a better kind of corporate welfare.
“You interviewed a bunch of foundation directors who pay themselves huge salaries whining that Amazon wasn't supporting their lifestyle of spending [all] their time at cocktail parties on the Seattle social circuit,” wrote one reader from nearby Kirkland.
“I notice that the refrain throughout is that workers not measuring up were let go ‘quickly.’ I guess the workers were let go too fast for the reporters. But where I come from, letting go of people quickly who aren't performing up to expectation is a great thing -- and far too rare,” wrote another.
That reaction was countered by readers who said it was time Amazon was held accountable.
“They are the Internet's Wal-Mart, albeit with even shadier work ethics and employee treatment. Their CEO is a heartless megalomaniac. He's the Anti-Bill-Gates,” one reader opined.
The reader dust-up prompted Times Executive Editor David Boardman to devote a column over the weekend in defense of the series.
“No, it wasn't because Amazon.com's newest building blocked our view of the Space Needle. No, it wasn't because my latest book order from Amazon arrived late. And it certainly wasn't because the lines at the lunch spot across the street are a lot longer since Amazon moved into our neighborhood,” he wrote.
With Amazon attracting increasing attention around the world for its business policies, Boardman wrote, “it seemed not only natural, but imperative, that the Seattle Times, as the major journalistic entity in Amazon's hometown, would examine the company's practices as a corporate citizen.”
After devoting months in interviews with hundreds of people and reading documents, he said, “we were able to shed light on largely hidden aspects of a company that is as secretive as it is successful.”
The revelations, to anyone who's been following Amazon, aren't new.
The company's fight with government officials in states like California, where Amazon has sought to avoid collecting sales taxes, has been widely documented. Book publishers and authors across the country have been bristling over Amazon’s attempts to limit the wholesale prices it pays for books even as the Internet retailer opens the door to its own, potentially competing, publishing ventures.
And, as the Seattle Times notes, the Allentown Morning Call in Pennsylvania first broke the story about temperatures in an Amazon warehouse soaring so high that the company had ambulances parked outside to take workers to the hospital.
But the Times managed to coalesce the various beefs about Amazon into a coherent inquiry with a distinctly hometown touch, mainly centered around the company’s relative invisibility as an institution in Seattle.
Conspicuously, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, started by Microsoft’s co-founder, sits near Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union.
The local United Way last year received a $4-million donation from Microsoft, $3.1 million from Boeing and $320,000 from Nordstrom. Amazon.com gave “zero,” the newspaper said.
The company “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown,” the paper said. The series included reporting on a January 2011 luncheon hosted by the Puget Sound Business Journal to honor Bezos as “executive of the year,” to which Bezos failed to show up.
And while Microsoft matches employees’ charity contributions and pays nonprofits $17 for every hour that they let a Microsoft employee volunteer for them, one Amazon employee told the Times he tried to have charitable donations deducted from his paycheck but found he’d be charged a 6% fee from a company that processes them for Amazon.
At the same time, the paper noted, Bezos himself and the Bezos Family Foundation have recently donated or pledged $35 million to philanthropic projects. And Amazon has published a long list of more than 100 charitable organizations, many of them in Seattle, to which the company has recently donated cash or products.
“At Amazon, if we do our job right, our greatest contribution to the good of society will come from our core business activities: lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services, and other initiatives we'll work hard on in the future,” the company said in a brief statement to the Seattle Times. That statement, along with a few other short explanations, was its only interaction on the series.
Boardman, in his column, invited a company executive to join a live chat to discuss the series, but so far, he said in an email to the Los Angeles Times, that’s not happening.
“Not surprisingly, we’ve heard nothing from Amazon,” he said.