Who Will Be the Next Amazon?

"Companies don’t grow forever. Even big and seemingly invincible ones contract, move or break up."

This article appears in the May 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Back in ancient times, when the Puget Sound region’s economy was basically the airplane maker and everyone else, no one talked about “the next Boeing,” much less tried to find it. For all of its booms and busts, for all the economic hyper-dependence on one company’s fortunes, having one Boeing was considered sufficient.

But the region did get a “next Boeing” in the form of Microsoft, which not only brought tens of thousands of jobs that paid well but also elevated the tech sector from an interesting niche in that “everyone else” segment of one of the regional economy’s pillars.

Once the region got a next Boeing and decided it liked what came with having another, the conversation turned to finding the next Microsoft, which could be a company or a cluster of them in one industry. It wasn’t just investors who were chasing that next big opportunity; economic-development types figured a world-class city — remember that phase and phrase? — ought to be able to find one.

In fact, it got several, although hardly by design. Biotech and health sciences were touted as the region’s Next Big Thing. It didn’t work out that way, although hope springs eternal. Seattle developed into a center of retailing, as tenured companies like Nordstrom and relative newcomers like Costco and Starbucks emerged as nationally significant players.

The dot-coms, for a while, looked to be the next piece of the region’s economic foundation. That vision lasted as long as the boom did, but one company survived the wreckage to rightfully inherit the mantle of the region’s next Boeing and Microsoft.

Amazon’s growth as an employer and an influence on the region’s economy isn’t in dispute, but whether the region needed or benefited from having a company of its size pop up has fueled endless verbal brawls. So much time and energy have been expended on that issue that little attention has been paid to an obvious question of huge importance to the Seattle economy: What company or industry will be the region’s next Amazon?

Even suggesting the possibility of a next Amazon should be sufficient to increase the howls of outrage from those unhappy with the presence of the current edition. Their arguments: With regional unemployment bumping against historic lows, there’s no need for another Amazon to churn out jobs, and given the current constraints on land, housing and infrastructure, where would you put it?

But it’s not as outrageous an idea as might first appear. Companies don’t grow forever. Even big and seemingly invincible ones contract, move or break up. Regional economic structures don’t remain static — or at least they shouldn’t. The Seattle regional economy certainly didn’t. The economic diversification that has come with Microsoft, Amazon and those big locally headquartered retailers allowed the region to make it through the recession in much better shape than other parts of the country, and to enjoy a more robust recovery than most.

Amazon’s decision to set up a second headquarters, and what that might imply for its future here, has jolted some regional leaders out of complacency that the company’s outsized economic presence, recent though it is, is permanent. The problem, though, is that none of the biggest components of the economy were planned for or recruited. Even if you wish for a next Boeing, Microsoft or Amazon, you can’t just conjure one up, and you can’t count on a run of good fortune in producing such companies to continue.

That fact helps explain why state and local officials are working so feverishly to land production of a plane Boeing hasn’t even decided it’s going to produce and to make nice with Amazon. While waiting for the next Boeing, Microsoft or Amazon to appear, there might still might be some useful life in the ones we already have.

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