Thirty minutes south of Seattle, rain falls on a warehouse so large its size seems illusory. Walls stretch beyond the limits of peripheral vision, and for good reason: Inside is just a fraction of the stuff offered by the largest online retailer in the world, with a little bit of everything you could ever ask for and quite a bit you never realized you needed.
Some people call it The North Pole. Amazon calls it a ‘fulfillment center,’ the place where their legendary commitment to customers is upheld. Life inside this enormous logistical ecosystem begins and ends each day at maximum efficiency, each facet and component—human and machine alike—perfectly calculated to complement the parts around it.
As a result, for the first time in human history, few things in the world are more than a few days away from anyone on the planet with access to the Internet.
It’s a tall, head-spinning task to keep the wheels running smoothly. For Dave Clark ’96, the man who set the machine in motion as senior vice president of global operations and customer service, it seems minor compared to where he once worked.
“I often tell people I learned everything there is to learn about leading people from 250 seventh graders,” says Clark, seated inside one of Amazon’s Career Choice classrooms in the heart of the Kent fulfillment center, aka The North Pole. “Once you’ve taught 250 seventh graders to play instruments in unison, everything else is pretty straightforward.”
Dave Clark’s story begins in the unlikely small city of Dalton, Ga., “Carpet Capital of the World,” where he spent most of his childhood a stone’s throw from the Tennessee state line. The Clarks later took their trade to Orange Park, Fla., just south of Jacksonville, opening a rug store called Dalton Rug Co.
“My parents weren’t the greatest brand developers, but it worked,” Clark says. He grew up inside the Orange Park store, loading and unloading trucks, maintaining the stockroom, learning to drive on the family forklift. Although he didn’t realize it, Clark was gaining valuable insight into back-of-house supply chain management. It would be overshadowed, however, by a music bug developed at Orange Park High School. By senior year, he had his life all figured out.
“I was really into band and was going to be a music major and become a band director, and I was always going to Florida State,” says Clark. “I had FSU stickers on my car and I went to summer camps at Florida State.”
Dead-set on moving to Tallahassee in the fall of 1991, Clark spent his college visitation days on a trip to see friends in Auburn, a place he knew nothing about. It was dusk on a Friday when Clark crossed the hill where Wire Road and present-day Shug Jordan Parkway intersect. It was spring, and the lowlights of Jordan-Hare Stadium mingled with a hazy, Creamsicle sky. “There was this glow everywhere,” he recalls. “I just remember thinking, ‘This feels like home.’ By the end of the weekend I was in love.
I applied on Monday and never applied anywhere else.”
Clark arrived at Auburn to find a thriving music scene. A self-described eclectic from an early age, his decision to play the underappreciated baritone sax significantly helped earn his scholarship.
“There aren’t a million baritone sax players—but you can’t march in marching band. It’s just too big; it doesn’t make any sense. Operationally, there’s nothing sensible about marching with it. But, in the same sort of vein, bands are always short on tuba players—so I also played tuba. The tuba groups are a very eclectic, interesting group of people, so it worked.”
While Clark enjoyed the tuba, he has no kind words for the outfit he wore with the AU Singers, a semi-professional ensemble orchestra that played standards and hits around the country.
“I told my wife I was basically in Glee before Glee was cool,” Clark says, laughing. “The thing about the Singers that sticks with me is that they were really a professional organization. Dr. Smith [Singers founder Thomas Smith] ran an incredibly tight ship and people longed to be in that program.
Big crowds showed up and it was fun to be in a group that didn’t take itself overly seriously and entertained a lot of people. It was a lot of fun; the only bad part was the wardrobe choice.”
For Clark, music served functions beyond entertainment. On a player-to-player level he relished the organization, the interplay between player and instrument, the minor leadership each person shared. Beginning in his junior year at Auburn, music took on a different capacity for Clark—travel. In high school, Clark had helped coordinate the transportation of the marching band’s equipment during away games. It seemed like a natural fit for Smith to put him to work.
“I paid for most of my education at Auburn through work-study, and my primary work-study job was with the music department,” Clark says. “I was basically the equipment manager for the music department for most of my time at Auburn, and music scholarships paid for a lot of my education. I know it’s weird, but I just always ended up doing it, and I liked it, and it paid for college, so I accomplished two things at once.”
Clark served in his dual role as player-conveyor throughout his time at Auburn, retiring from the marching band to handle equipment duties full-time while playing sax in the symphonic program and AU Singers, all while majoring in tuba as his primary instrument. He graduated from Auburn in 1996 with a degree in music education and returned to his junior high school soon after, taking over middle school band duties with his old teacher.
That December, the seventh grade band was scheduled to play a 30-minute set during the annual school-wide Christmas concert. Clark looks back on the challenge with a smile now, but recalls how incredibly daunting it felt at the time.
“It’s still in my Top 5 ‘best life moments,’ ” Clark says with a laugh. “Taking 250 seventh graders from nothing to sort of sitting still for 30 minutes and playing music together was super rewarding and an incredible experience. When I went home that night, and as I thought about it through the next week, I realized that every concert from that moment on would be a degraded version of that experience. It was magical, and I wanted it to stay that way.”
Having accomplished his goal of becoming a band director and music teacher, Clark started itching to do something else. He ‘banked’ his experience from the Christmas concert and started thinking of graduate school.
A family friend and Tennessee grad who worked for the Kimberly-Clark Corp. suggested Clark look into logistics, noting the correlation with conducting an orchestra.
The University of Tennessee’s reputation for supply chain management and logistics education was built decades earlier and became a valuable resource for early dot-com businesses looking for the next generation of leaders and number-crunchers. Still, the fact that Amazon.com—a small but rapidly expanding online bookstore founded by Jeff Bezos in 1995—was working on network topology design with Tennessee at the same time Clark wrapped up his MBA turned out to be a remarkable coincidence.
“Amazon was working with Tennessee on where to add the first additional fulfillment centers for the U.S., so the head of operations—the guy who had my job back in 1999—came to Tennessee and gave a presentation.”
In contrast to all the companies that were looking for new hires at the time— “the P&Gs, the John Deeres, Lowes, all the classic consulting firms”—Clark was intrigued by Amazon’s outsider status and uncharted future. In a class project presented to the Amazon head of operations, Clark’s group demonstrated possible solutions for the new fulfillment center schematics.
Impressed by their work, Amazon interviewed Clark for a position immediately after grad school. “It felt like the right place to be. I’ve been here ever since.”
“Here” is a relative term for Clark. Since joining Amazon in the summer of ’99 he has held nine different positions in a variety of operations around the country, each more decisive and complex than the last.
“For me, many of the things I loved about Amazon in ’99 and the things that keep me here today are the same—we really are a meritocracy. You get what you earn, and if you’re really good at what you do, if you’re really good at leading people, you get bigger opportunities.”
Joining Amazon at the dawn of the new millennium gave Clark an inside look at the ideas that would dramatically transform the retail and logistics industry in the years to come. But the era was not without pitfalls.
During the dot-com bubble, when a company’s stock value could skyrocket overnight by simply adding a .com to the name, a popular ideology was to create as big a splash as possible. By 2001, the stock market for online commerce had exploded due to overspeculation, inflation and poor investments. The autopsy did not look good: companies like Boo.com, an early online fashion store, spent $188 million in six months before declaring bankruptcy. eToys.com stock once sold at $84.35 per share before falling $247 million in debt.
As competition shrank, Amazon grew. While others had spent millions, Amazon quietly consolidated its operations and grew an impeccable reputation for customer service. In Clark’s view, Amazon was focused on cost- and defect-reduction before the external world said it needed to be—anomalous in a world driven by profit. Amazon was focused on delivering on time, every time, for less than anyone else.
People began to take notice.
“We have this philosophy that [Bezos] calls ‘Divine Discontentment,’ where we’re never really happy,” says Clark.
“The good news is, you know what customers want—lower prices, more selection and faster delivery. As long as you’re never happy with your current state, you’ll always work harder to be better.”
Clark’s first position at Amazon was in the ‘Pathways’ program, where new recruits are assigned different field positions to learn leadership skills and develop into general managers of fulfillment centers. After some hard work, Clark was promoted in 2001 to senior outbound operations manager of the Campbellsville, Ky., fulfillment center, the “biggest risk” he’s taken with Amazon so far.
“I moved into a leadership role several sizes larger than anything I had done before, in a building that was under a great deal of pressure to turn itself around. This was back in 2001, when there were only a half-dozen or so fulfillment centers, so when one didn’t work, it was a real problem.” Complicating things further, right after his arrival, two of Clark’s peers resigned. Suddenly, instead of one very large job, he had three. He worked late and ate later, always the last one in one of Campbellsville’s only restaurants, usually with the owners, who introduced Clark to their daughter, Leigh Anne.
The two were married in 2008 and now have two sons, Hudson, 5, and Gavin, 2.
“I spent two crazy years in Campbellsville,” he says. “We turned the site around, I learned a great deal and later became general manager and site director for all northeast fulfillment centers in 2003 as a result.”
Being general manager of a fulfillment center was the Amazon job Clark considers his “most fun.” He likens it to being the mayor of a small city, charged with everything from process flow to lunch, parking, toilet paper, meeting with the local chamber of commerce and more. For Clark, though, the true reward was the teaching and guidance he gave his staff, especially when it produced tangible results.
In 2006 Clark was promoted to regional director of fulfillment & engineering, then again to director of the Amazon Customer Excellence System in 2008 and again in 2009 to regional vice president of North American operations and engineering.
Just like going to the gym, solving problems and exercising leadership gets easier with time, Clark says.
“You learn to lead by screwing up, by having experiences and working with people and putting yourself out there. I think Amazon is fantastic in giving you an opportunity to fail in a non-permanent way.”
“I got some advice early in my career: When deciding what role you want to take next, take the hardest job you can find, the one others don’t want, the one the others think you might
fail at, then find a way to learn fast and be successful. If you’re a finance major and take a job as a business analyst and create great analysis, that’s nice, but expected. If, on the other hand, you’re a finance major who demonstrates the ability to lead large teams, that is a surprise. It demonstrates fungibility and the ability to adapt quickly to grow with the company.”
Clark’s first ‘fungibility’ test at Amazon was launching their Japanese operations in 2000. He took the job as soon as it was offered, never mind that he didn’t have a passport, speak Japanese or have any international travel under his belt. It turned out to be an amazing experience, one that enabled him to take bigger risks back home.
“This culture that allows people to fail quickly and grow quickly is super powerful—I think that’s the key to what’s enabled me to be successful.”
Clark was named vice president of North American operations in 2010, then VP of global customer fulfillment in 2012 before ascending to his present position as senior VP of worldwide operations and customer service.
“Now I get to sit at the top and support all of our teams globally, which is fun in a different way,” he says. “I get to help solve some of our most complicated problems and help our leaders around the world see what’s coming and enable them to be the kind of leaders they’re capable of being. That’s very rewarding and it’s a very fun experience.”
Clark’s career experience has been rewarding for Amazon, too. Easily the largest online retailer on the planet, claiming 43 percent of all online revenue in 2016, there are few things Amazon does not somehow have a hand in. From delivering food to commercial Internet services to TV shows and movies for online streaming, the staggering volume of its reach is hard to fully comprehend, even for Clark.
As Amazon’s inventory expanded, so did delivery. When goods could flow to and from anywhere in the world, it set about breaking delivery time records and further maximizing its storage capabilities.
A significant factor has been its increasing reliance on automation to assist and improve human workers without taking their jobs away. In 2012 Amazon acquired robotics manufacturer KIVA Systems to help expand Amazon’s technology architecture and improve its operations for both customers and employees.
“The only problem with earth’s most massive selection is you’ve got to walk by a lot of it to get what you want,” Clark says. “Now we bring it to the employees, so they spend more time engaged in activity that provides value to the customer. It has improved our cycle time substantially, it’s improved our cost substantially and it allows us to get more product into a building than we could in the past.”
Tweaking shipment systems, building new fulfillment centers and striving for the ultimate goal of yesterday shipping—“we’re gonna ship it now and you’ll get it yesterday”—is the predictably unpredictable part of the day for Clark.
It can be difficult to reconcile the preconceived image of Amazon—a monolith towering over global commerce—with the people like Clark who make it happen: a friend, a father, an Auburn football fan. Not to mention a mean tuba player.
And yet, the largest online retailer in the world is itself a network of small businesses, workers, transporters and more.
The human element is never far from the heart of Amazon—in fact, the company has been built on the human element.
“It’s both a privilege and a challenge to work with the best people in the world and find more of them to bring in,” says Clark. “It’s a great opportunity for people from Auburn—Auburn was such a great experience for me and I’d love to see 10 times the number of Auburn flags flying around Amazon.”