Jeff Bezos on Joy Covey: ‘Joy was more substance over optics’

November 22, 2013, 6:16 PM UTC
Joy Covey served as Amazon’s first chief financial officer.

FORTUNE — Jeff Bezos remembers trying to recruit Joy Covey as Amazon’s (AMZN) chief financial officer during the mid-1990s. Bezos had flown down from Seattle to California specifically to interview her over lunch.

“She had some brilliant, insightful questions about Amazon — and I got to interview her, too,” Bezos lightly quipped at Covey’s memorial service, held Thursday at Stanford Memorial Church. Covey, 50, collided with a van while cycling in San Mateo County this September.

It was during that meal Bezos realized Covey was the right person for the job. The two discussed her childhood, her dual Harvard degrees in business and law. Toward the end, Covey casually mentioned she had managed the second-highest score on the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, trumping nearly 70,000 others who took it that year. “Joy, really? The second-highest?” Bezos teased. Shot back Covey: “I didn’t study.”

Bezos recalled laughing for a full minute afterward while Covey grinned. That was classic Joy, Bezos explained, because “she smiled a lot, and her eyes were always wide, soaking up the world around her.”

Weeks after their lunch, Covey phoned Bezos to say she wanted the job. When she joined Amazon in December 1996, the company had 150 employees and $16 million in revenues. (Now, Amazon’s 88,400 employees helped generate $61 billion in revenues as of December 2012.) Covey was instrumental in taking Amazon public in May 1997, and two years later, she ranked No. 28 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list. “As CFO, her feat was convincing Wall Street that a profitless company was worth $22 billion,” Fortune wrote then.

“Joy was more substance over optics,” remembered Bezos. “She was a long-term thinker.”

Covey voluntarily left Amazon in April 2000, became an investor, business consultant, served as Treasurer of the Natural Resources Defense Council and on Harvard’s Advisory Board, and plunged back into extreme sports, including kiteboarding and rock climbing.

Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker remembered Covey as inspirational: “I’ve never met anyone like Joy, and I probably never will again. The new LeBron James Nike slogan is, ‘Talent is given and greatness is earned.’ On that scale, Joy had a two-fer. She had off-the-charts I.Q. points, yet she had an uncommon degree of empathy. She had a vision to change the world and leave a mark. She was inspirational, and she was always game for challenges.”

Also speaking at the memorial was author Bruce Feiler, whose book
The Council of Dads
was found in Covey’s bedroom when she died. Other attendees included former Yahoo (YHOO) president Sue Decker, who is now on the boards of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), Intel (INTC), and Costco (COST); Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee; Kleiner Perkins Executive-in-Residence Stephanie Tilenius; and Jana Rich of Russell Reynolds.

She leaves behind an eight-year-old son, Tyler.

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