The former CFO of Amazon.com, Joy Covey,
died in a bike accident in Silicon Valley yesterday.
Joy was riding downhill on State Highway 35 when a minivan turned across the road directly in front of her. Joy crashed into the side of the minivan and died at the scene.
I didn’t know Joy well, but I admired the hell out of her, as did everyone else I know who knew her. She was the CFO at Amazon in the late 1990s, when I was a young analyst on Wall Street. I remember a couple of interactions I had with her in particular, which I’ll describe below.
But first, some background.
Joy was raised in San Mateo, California, the daughter of a doctor. She dropped out of high school and left home at the age of 16. She moved to Fresno, where she worked as a grocery clerk and got a high school equivalency degree. She enrolled part time at Cal. State Fresno and graduated in two and a half years, at age 19. She took a national accounting test and got the second-highest score in the country. She worked at Arthur Young for a few years and then headed to Harvard for a combination law and business degree.
“I was completely intimidated by the rest of the class,” Joy recalled later, in an interview with the Harvard Law Bulletin. “I don’t think I even knew anyone who went to an Ivy League school when I came to Harvard. Not having finished high school and having been fairly utilitarian in the way I went about college, I didn’t have a deep liberal arts background. So we’d go to lunch and people would talk about their favourite seventeenth-century poets, and I’d be thinking, “Could I even name five poets? From any century?” So that was intimidating, and it wasn’t until we got our first-semester grades back that I started to realise that everything was going to be OK.”
After she graduated, Joy worked at an investment bank for 8 months and then jumped to a technology company called Digidesign. She helped take the company public and then sold it to another company called Avid, in Boston. Then, in the mid-1990s, Joy moved back to Silicon Valley. She interviewed at a bunch of hot companies like Excite and Marimba. It was then that she heard about Amazon.
In 1996, up in Seattle, a tiny “Internet bookstore” was searching for a CFO, and the company’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, was being famously picky about hiring one. As the story went, Bezos had met with viable candidate after viable candidate, only to reject all of them.
Joy Covey heard about the Amazon job from a head-hunter friend. She was intrigued–the famous venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins had backed the company, and it was growing like mad. But Amazon was in Seattle, and Joy Covey wasn’t leaving Silicon Valley.
As a favour to her headhunter friend, Joy agreed to have lunch with Jeff Bezos. According to a 1999 Kara Swisher profile, she spent the first 10 minutes telling Bezos she wasn’t interested.
“She said there was no way she was leaving the Bay area and wanted me to understand that it was a waste of time to try to get her to,” Swisher quotes Jeff Bezos as saying. “But after that, we had an incredible lunch, since the pressure was off to impress each other.”
The next day, Bezos got a call from Joy proposing a “commuting arrangement.” To Joy’s surprise, Bezos went for it.
“After I got home,” Covey told Swisher, “I kept talking about it, so my fiance said, ‘I hate to say this, but maybe you should take it,’ ” she says. “I think he knew it was important for me to work somewhere I believed in.”
Joy took the Amazon job and, five months later, raised $US55 million for the company in a controversial but successful initial public offering. Amazon’s stock wilted for a few months and then, in part due to the confidence Joy, Bezos, and others on the Amazon team inspired on Wall Street, blasted off to the moon.
The first interaction with Joy I will remember came in early December, 1998. That morning, as an Internet equity analyst at a firm called Oppenheimer & Co., I had raised my price target on Amazon’s stock to $US400. For a variety of reasons, the call “plucked the chords of the zeitgeist” (as author Jay McInerney once put it) and touched off an explosion of press coverage. I had spent most of that day — from 7am to about 10pm that night — talking to clients, colleagues, and reporters, trying to throw water on the bonfire.
I was staying at my girlfriend’s that evening, in a cramped bedroom in a converted elevator shaft in an old SOHO warehouse. When the phone rang, it was the head of investor relations at Amazon, a young former Wall Street analyst named Russ Grandinetti.
Did I have a moment, Russ asked?
Yes, I had a moment.
“Good,” Russ said. “Joy wants to talk to you.”
I’d met Joy Covey before, in a brief meeting while I was researching the the company. She had been polite but terse, treating the 15 minutes she had to spend with me — a relatively unknown analyst at a small Wall Street firm — like the waste of her time that it was. By 1998, when I picked up coverage, Amazon was already a big success story, and Joy had become a celebrity in the Internet analyst community.
When Joy got on the phone that night, she was, once again, terse and polite.
She was also livid.
My new price target had caused another spike in Amazon’s stock price that day, and for what was perhaps the only time in history, the company was furious about it.
Amazon’s spiking stock price, Joy helped me to understand, was causing problems at the company. It was distracting employees, for example, who were spending their days focusing on the stock price instead of on Amazon’s customers. It was making recruiting difficult, because Amazon stock options were losing their attractiveness to recruits as the stock shot ever higher. It was focusing the press on the stock price Street when Amazon wanted the focus to be on Amazon. It was, in short, all about the short term, when Amazon’s whole business strategy was also about the long term.
I protested to Joy that I had merely said what I had thought we both agreed on–that Amazon was a great business that would be worth a whole lot of money some day.
“Yes,” I remember Joy agreeing. “Someday. But now everyone thinks that means today.”
I had been dressed down many times by CFOs, but never as effectively and thoroughly as I was dressed down by Joy. She had no real right to tell me how to cover the company or manage my price targets, but she sure made me feel as if she did. When she got through with me, I felt like a once-promising student who had screwed up and been sent to the principal’s office.
I got to know Joy better through Amazon events and phone calls over the next couple of years. She was brilliant, articulate, and talented — the perfect CFO for Amazon and one of the most impressive executives on the Wall Street beat, a huge asset to the company.
The second interaction I will remember with Joy came in the early 2000s, after Joy had retired from Amazon, and after I had run into my own controversy. Following the collapse of the dotcom bubble that Amazon had been a part of, the then-Attorney General of New York, Eliot Spitzer, had publicly keelhauled me for conflicts of interest on Wall Street. After Spitzer had finished with me, many of the professional acquaintances who had been friendly with me in the 1990s no longer wanted to have anything to do with me. Joy wasn’t one of them. Much to my surprise, for the first and only time, she sent me a Christmas card that year. She told me what she was up to (climbing mountains, hiking, windsurfing…), and she said she hoped I was doing ok.
I’ve gotten updates on Joy over the years, through mutual friends. Recently, she has worked as the Treasurer for the Natural Resources Defence Council, and her Facebook page is full of pictures of her kiteboarding under the Golden Gate Bridge. Just two days ago, a friend of Joy’s from business school was telling me one of his “favourite Joy stories,” which was about the remarkable transformation her California surfer wardrobe had undergone after her summer internship on Wall Street. (When she got back to Harvard that fall, apparently, she had gone from beach girl to Marissa Mayer.) This mutual friend will miss Joy. I will miss her. And so, I imagine, will a lot of other people.
Joy’s son Tyler is 8. When he’s old enough to appreciate how smart and talented his mother was, how many people admired her, and everything she accomplished, he will be very proud.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.