Amazon makes money; says little about it

January 29, 2015, 11:21 PM UTC
Photograph by Bloomberg—Getty Images

Jeff Bezos is a smart man. Unlike Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Bezos takes a pass on his company’s quarterly earnings calls with investors. After all, he must have a long list of things to do that are more important than discussing his company’s financial performance with the owners of his company.

Perhaps following his lead, his chief financial officer, Thomas Szkutak, tries as hard as possible not to discuss the company’s performance with the owners of Jeff Bezos’s company either. “I can’t help you out much there,” is one of his favorite responses to investor questions.

Here’s a classic example:

Analyst: Noting that you announced just yesterday you’ll be offering email as a web service, do you have plans to expand into other software-as-a-service offerings? (This would put Amazon into competition with the likes of, Microsoft, Oracle, Workday and many others who sell online productivity applications.)

Szkutak: “We’re excited about our web services offerings. The team has done an incredible job. In terms of what we might or might not do in the future we’re not talking about that road map. You’ll have to stay tuned.”

Investors also will have to stay tuned for Amazon to tell them how many customers it has for its Prime all-you-can-eat free-delivery and media-streaming subscription service. Amazon said Prime membership grew 53% last year. As for growing 53% to what exactly, Szkutak referred to Prime’s “sizable base” as being in the “tens of millions.” How are sales going of Amazon’s train wreck of a smartphone offering, the Fire? Szkutak noted that he told investors last quarter Amazon held $80 million of inventory in Fire phones, but that while the company is continuing to “sell through” that pile of hardware he had “no update.”

This might be a good place to pause and note that Amazon had what passes for a good quarter. For instance, it made money, which it doesn’t always do. It earned $214 million, down 10% from the year-earlier quarter, on a 15% sales increase to $29.3 billion. Because this decline in profitability was better than Wall Street had expected, Amazon’s share price (AMZN) shot up more than 12% Thursday in after-hours trading.

There was one significant piece of news out of Amazon’s financial release. Beginning this quarter the retailer will report financial results for its Amazon Web Services business separately. This is significant because–prepare to be shocked–Amazon typically does everything it can to muddy the waters about how its specific businesses perform. Securities regulators expect companies to put into segments significant and distinctly different businesses, which AWS obviously has become. Or, in Szkutak’s words, after being asked why Amazon was breaking out AWS now: “We just think it’s an appropriate way to look at our business.”

Amazon collated a lot of the stuff it did during the year into its press release announcing its earnings. If reading that comprehensive list is of interest, it’s here. If you want more information than that, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay tuned.

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