Amazon is strange, at least by Wall Street standards. It’s one of the world’s most valuable corporations, with a stock price approaching $1,000 and an ironclad grip on the expanding e-commerce market. And yet for much of its 20-year history as a public company, it has delivered little or no quarterly profit.
“We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term,” CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his 1997 letter to investors. “Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies.”
He’s been true to his word. Instead of focusing on immediate returns — putting dollars in shareholder pockets right now — Amazon looked to the horizon and made some staggeringly large bets. They went from selling books to selling everything. They became the world’s largest cloud-computing business. They poured investments into artificial intelligence, robotics and logistics. They became a major film and television studio.
There have been expensive missteps, too. Does anyone remember the Fire Phone, Amazon’s entry into the smartphone market? Or the company’s attempt to become a travel agency? Not every big investment pans out.
But when you have the patience and discipline to play the long game, some remarkable things can happen.
The Triangle region knows this quite well. Travel back in time 50 years, and the idea that our cluster of modest southern towns and empty pine forest might become the second headquarters for one of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies would seem… remote. Yet here we are, a finalist for Amazon’s HQ2.
It took decades of patient investment to build this region into a global powerhouse in research, technology, medicine and advanced manufacturing. As Bezos put it in that shareholder letter, it meant making decisions and weighing tradeoffs a little differently than other places.
Having low taxes is great, but it isn’t enough to build a truly competitive economy. Employers are looking for talent — for a highly educated, adaptable workforce. Our commitment to strong colleges and universities has helped us keep our best brightest, even as other states have lost their young people to bigger cities. We’ve not only developed our homegrown talent — one of the benefits of having universities that still overwhelmingly serve state residents — but also turned our region into a magnet for smart and ambitious people from all over the world.
When it comes to recruiting a major employer, that’s only the most basic requirement. Companies also look closely at the quality of life and quality of governance. Just like any out-of-towner considering a move, Amazon is looking for excellent schools, access to health care, reliable infrastructure, vibrant arts and culture and strong public safety.
Here, too, our long-term investments in education play an outsized role. It’s not just about the computer engineering, data science, marketing and communications graduates that Amazon hopes to hire. It’s about the teachers who define the quality of education in our region; about the nurses and doctors who staff our hospitals and health clinics; about the police and social workers who make our communities safer.
Our public universities graduate the artists, architects, designers and filmmakers who enrich the culture of the Triangle. We host many of the sports teams, musical performances and museums that make the region a livelier place to live.
We also specialize in the world-class research that a company like Amazon might need. From aerospace engineering to big data science, our campuses are home to the people pushing the boundaries of human understanding.
These aren’t the kind of metrics you can build overnight, because the dividends of quality education don’t come instantly. They play out over decades, over generations, determining which places will thrive and which will struggle.
We’ve done well on that score — so well that we occasionally take it for granted. Bezos includes a copy of that 1997 letter in his annual report to investors, reminding them of the patient strategy that created so much value. We’d do well to remember, too.
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works in the financial aid office at UNC-Chapel Hill, but the views expressed here are his own.