Amazon's Bezos enters his Bond villian stage

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Celebrity can be a useful tool for a CEO. It can spread fear, uncertainty and doubt into the hearts of competitors, and make the CEO's company look even bigger than it is.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com , has used 2013 to seize on his celebrity and, like Sam Walton of Wal-Mart  in the 1980s, Bill Gates of Microsoft  in the 1990s, and Steve Jobs of Apple  during the last decade, fill the public imagination in what I call the "Bond Villain" stage of his career.

It's the kind of role singer, actor and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean played in the 1971 Bond film Diamonds are Forever, as Willard Whyte (no relation to Walter White of Breaking Bad). The immense capability of Whyte's money made the audience wonder, through most of the film, whether he was a good guy or a bad guy.

In Bezos' case, this means revealing to CBS' "60 Minutes" a plan to ship packages via drones.

Bezos calls them Octoropters, and while they sound cool they're very limited, carrying just five pounds over 10 miles. By the end of the year the company should have 96 warehouses around the world, but few people live within 10 miles
of an Amazon warehouse.

[Read: Amazon's Drones Set to Take Out UPS, FedEx]

Other companies are experimenting with drones, but when Bezos describes it, alongside plans for Sunday delivery of some packages through the U.S. Postal Service, it suddenly starts sounding practical. 

Like Walton, Gates, and Jobs, Bezos has also gotten his own hagiography. Titled The Everything Store, it describes his giving managers the book The Black Swan, which pushes the idea of improbable events creating enormous change.

Adding to the "Bond villain" allure of Bezos' handsome bald head is his purchase earlier this year of The Washington Post for $250 million. The newspaper is losing about $100 million a year. At that rate, as in the movie Citizen Kane, Bezos might have to sell it ... in 700 years.

For many companies, from booksellers to PC makers, Amazon itself has been a "black swan" event. For many viewers, last night's interview may have been their first introduction to Amazon Web Services, Amazon's cloud rental service.

[Read: Amazon Cuts Kindle Fire Prices for Cyber Monday]

Bezos and CBS interviewer Charlie Rose both emphasized the "gee whiz" aspects, such as Amazon's contract with the CIA and how its video services, and video productions, could make cable television obsolete.

All of this was taking place against the backdrop of a stock that has risen 57% this year, despite the company's negligible profits. Shares are now approaching $400 just three months after hitting $300. That gives Amazon a market cap of $180 billion, almost three times last year's sales, while most retailers sell for half their sales.

[Read: Retirement Fail: Being Your Own Boss]

The stock's strength allows Amazon to easily buy companies such as Kiva Systems, a maker of robots for moving items around warehouses, purchased in March 2012 for a reported $775 million in cash. Kiva shareholders who put their cash into Amazon shares have doubled their money.

Bezos plows nearly every dollar of sales back into the operation, and Amazon's $3 billion in long-term debt (as of the end of September) is less than its cash on hand. Amazon carries about $1 in debt for each $10 in total assets.

By contrast, Wal-Mart had long-term debt of nearly $42 billion at the end of its most recent quarter, more than four times its cash hoard of $8.7 billion. And Wal-Mart carries about $1 in debt for each $5 in assets, which is in the ballpark of other large retailers. Target , for example, has $1 in debt for each $3.70 in assets.

Retailers typically finance inventory, while technology companies are notoriously debt-averse. After trimming its debt relative to its sales, Amazon is a retailer that is now run like a tech company.

All those retailers, it should be noted, have higher annual sales than Amazon, and that should remain true for 2013, although it will be a close race with Target. Wal-Mart, in fact, is still almost six times larger, by sales, than Amazon, yet the two firms are equal in the public imagination.

If you think of Amazon as a tech company, its target this year will be Microsoft, which had 2012 sales of $73 billion last year. Microsoft also has a market cap of $318 billion, much larger than Amazon's $180 billion.

The point is that Amazon, despite its apparent size, has a lot of room to grow. That's what turning yourself into a Bond villain will do for you. Publicity acts as a financial magnifying glass.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

 

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