By Sebastian Herrera
Jeff Wilke, a close lieutenant and confidant of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos who helped build what began as a small online bookseller into a tech colossus, is retiring from the company.
Mr. Wilke, 53, said he would step down in the first quarter of next year and be succeeded by world-wide operations chief David Clark.
"Why leave? It's just time," Mr. Wilke said in a memo to the staff on Friday. "Time for me to take time to explore personal interests that have taken a back seat for over two decades."
Once seen as a potential successor to Mr. Bezos, Mr. Wilke said he has no future job planned after leaving and is focused on leading the company through the all-important holiday season.
His departure leaves Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon's cloud-computing business, as the longest-serving top company executive under Mr. Bezos.
"Jeff's legacy and impact will live on long after he departs," Mr. Bezos said Friday in a separate note to company employees. "He is simply one of those people without whom Amazon would be completely unrecognizable."
Mr. Clark, who joined the company around the time Mr. Wilke did, will step into one of Amazon's most powerful positions. Mr. Clark has led the global operations team since 2013.
Amazon executives Alicia Boler Davis, John Felton and Dave Treadwell will be added to Amazon's "S-Team," the company said, which consists of Mr. Bezos's top executives.
Mr. Wilke is stepping away during one of Amazon's most challenging periods, one Mr. Bezos called the "hardest" the company has ever faced. The coronavirus pandemic hobbled Amazon's delivery network, leading to extended delays for some essential items. For the first time in years, the company's share of online shopping briefly fell, although in recent months Amazon has rebounded.
Mr. Wilke said the pandemic has pulled him back to his roots at the company in focusing on operations. He has also been leading Amazon's push to build virus-testing capabilities at its facilities. Mr. Wilke said he would steer the company through one more holiday season before leaving.
Regulators in the U.S. and abroad have been investigating the company's market size and power. A Wall Street Journal investigation in April found that Amazon employees used data about independent sellers on the company's platform to develop competing products. Amazon launched an investigation into the issue, and Mr. Bezos said in July that the internal probe remains ongoing.
Amazon's marketplace, which consists of millions of sellers, has also faced criticism due to counterfeit or unsafe products on its site. A Journal investigation last year found thousands of products on the site that had been declared unsafe by federal agencies. Some were deceptively labeled or were banned by federal regulators, the Journal reported.
Mr. Wilke, speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference in October, said Amazon was prepared to spend billions of dollars to police products on its site. Amazon in June said it had created a team of "former federal prosecutors, experienced investigators, and data analysts" to join in that work. The company said it spent more than $500 million last year to fight the problem and blocked more than 2.5 million suspected "bad actor" accounts before any sale could be made.
Mr. Wilke is among a number of high-profile executives who have departed or said they plan to depart in the past year. Steve Kessel, who led Amazon's physical store efforts, left this year. Maria Renz, another longtime executive who was vice president of delivery experience and once served as Mr. Bezos's technical adviser, also was set to leave this year. Also, Jeff Blackburn, who heads the entertainment, business development and advertising businesses, has been on sabbatical this year, with plans to return next year.
Mr. Wilke joined Amazon in 1999 to lead its global operations just two years after its initial public offering. He quickly became one of Amazon's most valuable executives and used his manufacturing expertise to help create a more efficient way of running Amazon's warehouses.
The fulfillment network has grown into a key advantage for Amazon, which is now worth more than $1.6 trillion, and has fueled its rise from early bookselling to dominating much of online shopping. About 38% of online sales in the U.S. occur at Amazon, according to research firm eMarketer.
The fulfillment network Mr. Wilke oversaw was once so small and ad hoc that it required senior Amazon executives, including him, to spend much of the end-of-year holiday season helping to ship packages. Now it accounts for most of Amazon's more than one million employees and is capable of delivering millions of products into the homes of consumers in less than 24 hours.
Early on, Mr. Wilke would visit Amazon facilities and even pack some boxes himself. He steered Amazon as it ran into logistics bottlenecks, especially during the Christmas rush. He is known to wear flannel shirts every fourth quarter, a nod to the company's warehouse workers filling holiday orders.
"Our main purpose was to ensure we shipped all customer orders in time for the holiday. But we benefited in other ways from these visits," Mr. Wilke said Friday. "We got to see how the physical operations connected to our digital store, and I got to personally inspect our safety culture."
In recent years, Mr. Wilke was in charge of integrating Whole Foods Market into Amazon's operations, which the company purchased for $13.7 billion in 2017. He was also part of the leadership team who worked on the company's high-profile search for a second North American headquarters.
Before Amazon, Mr. Wilke served as a senior executive at AlliedSignal, which is now Honeywell International Inc.
Mr. Wilke took over as CEO of world-wide consumer in 2016, responsible for Amazon's primary online retail business and a top leader at the company along with Mr. Jassy after Mr. Bezos. Prior to that, he worked as senior vice president of its consumer business.
As an early executive, he helped craft Amazon's famous leadership principles, which have guided the company's workplace policies and culture for years. The first principle, one of being customer obsessed, has become one of Amazon's most recognized mottos.
"I think people, leaders who have been at Amazon for some number of years choose to stay because they like the way these principles have been built into a culture, and if they leave, they take with them some of the things they've learned about how these principles work in leadership settings," Mr. Wilke told The Wall Street Journal last year.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com