After helping Amazon reinvent commerce, Jeff Wilke turns attention to reviving U.S. manufacturing

Jeff Wilke was CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer business until earlier this year. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Jeff Wilke did something unusual when he left his role as Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer CEO in March, after more than two decades with the company: he learned to code in the Python programming language.

“I had lots of computer scientists that were working for me and the organization, and I was heavily involved in a bunch of architectural decisions, but I hadn’t written code in years,” he explained. “I didn’t understand exactly what it took to turn the ideas that we had into actual code. … So I just thought it’d be useful to update my skills after a couple of decades.”

He was “blown away” by the experience.

“The coolest thing about coding … is that you get to stand on the shoulders of all the other people who have written code and uploaded it to libraries before you and so you don’t have to go back and reinvent everything. And that just means innovation and invention and goodness can accelerate,” he said. “So I actually left those two weeks totally optimistic.”

Wilke is translating that optimism into a variety of investments and projects, across a range of interests and industries, from biotech to honeybees. But the venture getting most of his time and attention is Re:Build Manufacturing, a Massachusetts-based company on a quest to reinvigorate the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Re:Build has raised more than $400 million and made six acquisitions in engineering services and advanced materials, with six facilities in five states.

Wilke is the company’s chairman and co-founder, and it’s a return to his roots. He grew up in Pittsburgh and worked early on in pharmaceuticals, chemicals and electronics.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we talk about the future of U.S. manufacturing with Wilke and Re:Build Manufacturing CEO Miles Arnone, a longtime industrial business leader, inventor and investor who co-founded the company with Wilke.

Later in the show, during a momentous week for Amazon, we also get Wilke’s thoughts about his former employer, as Andy Jassy succeeds founder Jeff Bezos as CEO. Wilke was considered a potential and even likely successor to Bezos prior to the announcement of his departure. He addressed that in a prior interview with our partners at the tech news site

Listen to the episode above, and continue reading for edited highlights. 

Todd Bishop: Jeff, let’s start with you. Obviously, you were an Amazon executive for many years, and left the company a few months ago now. Learning to code in Python was step number one, but there’ve been multiple steps since then. So what have you been up to?

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Jeff Wilke: Mostly what I’ve been doing is connecting with founders in a whole host of industries. It’s been super interesting to learn about the innovation that’s occurring throughout the economy and the really passionate people who are behind these companies, and then working on one that I’ve co-founded with Miles, to help to build Re:Build Manufacturing. Of all the things that I’ve been spending time on, that’s the thing that gets the most of my attention.

Miles Arnone, Re:Build Manufacturing CEO.

Miles Arnone: What we hope to do with Re:Build is to help create a new model for rejuvenating the U.S. industrial base, and we recognize obviously that in the U.S., the labor pool is not a low-cost labor pool, and frankly, we don’t want it to be, necessarily. And so you need a different way to go about that than just slinging inexpensive labor at the problem. Our approach to that is to invest in advanced technologies that can drive substantial, meaningful change in products or production processes, and then acquire and build businesses around those technologies that we can improve by deploying that technology across these businesses.

Wilke: What we did at Amazon was borrow from manufacturing, implement these things to change the way warehouses worked in retail, and added computer science, great technologists who are turning the ideas that you generate on the shop floor into code that can repeat those ideas, which proved to be very scalable.

What we need to do is take that combination of technology, modern computer science, and the ideas that have been around in manufacturing for decades that are about process improvement, and that marriage that worked at Amazon, and bring it back to manufacturing. That’s the way that you can compete with folks who have low wages and different environmental standards, for example, as their competitive advantage.

TB: What types of products make the most sense right now for the U.S. manufacturing base to start with to try and revitalize itself?

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Wilke: It’s not an accident that we started with advanced materials, thermoplastic and thermoset composites, titanium, aluminum. There’s a lot of engineering that goes into the application of certain materials for certain parts, components and ultimately finished goods.

If the only design partners they can find who can both do the engineering with them and then produce because they understand the materials are outside of the United States, you’re going to probably end up building a lot of your factory capacity outside the United States.

So we started with advanced materials in part because we think if we could demonstrate great engineering work and great finished product work in advanced materials, then we can start to build around it and build more and more complicated sub-assemblies and then people can ultimately locate in the U.S. You’ll have people building finished good factories right next to those tiers of suppliers who can co-engineer with them and start with the materials and basic assemblies that are needed to assemble their final product.

TB: Jeff, you’ve been on the other end of this supply chain in a very big way, receiving these products from overseas, largely Asia. To what extent did that experience inform your return to manufacturing, and are you able to apply any unique insights from your role at Amazon, your past role at Amazon to this new venture at Re:Build?

Wilke: What I am most proud of at Amazon on the operation side is the jobs that we created, more than a million jobs that we created directly or as a result of the work that we did in the United States. That gave me hope that we can and will need to have people working alongside machines for a long time.

If we can create environments where those jobs are good jobs, where the pay is good, the benefits are good, people are treated well, there are educational opportunities to move up, that people who are in these parts of the country where they don’t have a lot of skills and they don’t have a lot of prospects, that that trajectory might change for them.

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Amazon really gave me hope in that regard, and that hope — coupled with some expertise in manufacturing — led to this new venture.

TB: This, though, seems like a huge challenge at this point. I mean, you’re in some ways trying to turn back time. What are the biggest things that you’re taking on that keep you up at night?

Arnone: I’ll say what doesn’t keep me up at night was the premise of your question, which is effectively, “Is it game over already?”

It seems like so much has changed and so much industrial power and prowess has moved to China and Asia. If 25 years ago you said that this would be the situation, no one would have believed that, or very few people. And for those same reasons, I think that there can be substantial shifts, even today, because I do think there are a lot of levers in the United States in the way we’re organized, in terms of our economy and government and educational system and the use of technology that can give us a lot of industrial capability and power and the ability to grow.

TB: Jeff, I know this is not the topic of our conversation, but it’s obviously a momentous week at your former employer. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least ask you for some of your impressions about what this moment means in Amazon’s history.

Wilke: Well, I think the world of Andy and I think Jeff isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be executive chairman. He and Andy have worked well together for decades.

I was encouraged to see the new Amazon leadership principles. I do think they’re appropriate for this stage at Amazon. I think striving to be Earth’s best employer makes a lot of sense. It was always important to me when I was there, and I actually always considered the leadership principle that was about “earns trust” to be an important component of building a great employee environment.

And then, look, I’d love for Re:Build someday to be big enough to start worrying about whether we should add a Re:Build way that’s called success and scale. We have a lot of work to do to get there.

Audio editing by Curt Milton; theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

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