October 13, 2013

Author tracks down CEO’s biological father

According to a new book about Jeff Bezos and Amazon, Ted Jorgenson, now 69, had no idea that his son from a teen-age relationship is now one of the world’s leading businessmen.

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The story of Jeff Bezos being raised by an adoptive father is hardly new. The CEO has said that he never knew his biological father and that the only time he thinks about him is when he fills out medical forms.

But in his forthcoming book, Bloomberg Businessweek senior writer Brad Stone unearths Ted Jorgensen and finds a sympathetic figure who had no idea that one of the world’s most successful businessmen is his son. Instead, the onetime circus performer expresses regret that he walked away from the son he fathered when he was 18.

“I wasn’t a good father or a husband,” Jorgensen told Stone in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which has been excerpted in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek and will be available next week in bookstores, as well as on “It was really all my fault.”

While Bezos has been largely dismissive of his biological father in interviews over the years, Jorgensen has been entirely oblivious about his son.

The 18-year-old Jorgensen, who was an expert unicycle rider who performed with a local circus, married Bezos’ mother, the 16-year-old Jackie Gise, after she was pregnant. But the young Jorgensen stayed out late and drank, dropped out of college and wasn’t interested in getting a job. Some 17 months after young Jeffrey’s birth, Gise filed for divorce.

Three years later, Gise told Jorgensen, according to Stone’s book, that she was remarrying and wanted him to stay out of their lives. Jorgensen complied.

“After a few years, he lost track of the family and then forgot their last name,” Stone wrote.

Stone found Jorgensen at his bike shop in Glendale, Ariz., late last year and told him that Bezos was his son. The 69-year-old had no idea who Bezos was. Stone had to pull up photos from the Web on his phone to explain.

“His eyes filled with sorrow and disbelief,” Stone said.

Bezos was born in New Mexico but grew up near Houston, where his dad was an engineer with Exxon. His family moved to Florida when he was in high school. He spent many of his summers on his grandfather’s 25,000-acre ranch near Cotulla, a small town between San Antonio and Laredo.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram in 2000, Bezos recalled making many trips to Fort Worth to visit a sister, and he discussed his fondness for Joe T. Garcia’s, calling it his favorite restaurant in the world. He said he kept jars of Joe T.’s salsa in his refrigerator.

The excerpt from the new book goes into much more detail about Amazon than Bezos. And Stone acknowledges that Bezos, while approving many interviews with family, friends and senior executives, did not comment for the book, saying it’s “too early” to look at Amazon’s history.

But Stone details how Amazon is ultimately a reflection of its founder, who recently bought The Washington Post. And often, the corporate culture is not for the faint of heart. Stone tells of Bezos’ ability to belittle executives who fall short of his expectations with a quick “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” And rivals that occupy a business that Amazon is eyeing get particular focus.

Stone wrote about a 2009 meeting between an Amazon executive and the founders of Quidsi, a startup making a name for itself with mothers with its site. Amazon was planning to move into the category. At first, Quidsi’s founders told Amazon that the company wanted to remain independent. But as Amazon moved into the business, their thinking changed.

Amazon cut prices up to 30 percent and quickly matched any price movement at Revenue growth at the startup began to stall, and venture capitalists became reluctant to pump new money into a company that was clearly in Amazon’s sights.

Quidsi began talks to be acquired by Amazon archrival Wal-Mart Stores. When the Arkansas retail giant made a lowball bid, Quidsi turned to Amazon. At the exact same time that the Quidsi founders met with Bezos in Seattle, Amazon issued a news release announcing Amazon Mom, a deal that gave users a year of Amazon Prime, with its free two-day shipping, and 30 percent off diapers if they signed up for regular monthly deliveries.

“Quidsi could now taste its own blood,” Stone wrote.

Two months later, Amazon acquired the company for a slight premium over Wal-Mart’s original bid but below its final offer.

“Bezos’ Khrushchev-like willingness to use the thermonuclear option had had its intended effect,” Stone wrote. “The Quidsi executives stuck with Amazon, largely out of fear.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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