Former Amazon Exec Wants To Jump-Start American Manufacturing
Re:Build is growing an has acquired a range of engineering businesses to support just-in-time manufacturing for a range of industries.
After more than two decades as part of Amazon’s core leadership team, Jeff Wilke helped transform the way people buy almost everything. His next act is no less ambitious: proving that America can make just about anything.
In March 2021, Wilke stepped down from his post as CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer business — encompassing the company’s online marketplace, Amazon stores, Prime, 175 fulfillment centers, and Whole Foods — and soon stepped into a new role as chair of Re:Build Manufacturing.
The venture’s name signals its larger mission: demonstrating that the United States can be a 21st-century manufacturing powerhouse.
Re:Build was born in spring 2020, out of conversations between Wilke and his fellow MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) classmate Miles Arnone SM '93. By March of that year, the Covid pandemic was already exposing the economic and security vulnerabilities created by decades of offshoring manufacturing.
“Within two months we had laid bare all of the brittleness and problems in U.S. supply chains,” Wilke says. “That was kind of the spark for me. Having 85 percent of our pharmaceutical ingredients not made here in the U.S. seems incredibly risky when you enter a pandemic.”
Wilke soon discovered that he and Arnone — who had decades of experience leading machine tool companies and overseeing investments in manufacturing ventures at asset management firms — were on the same page, in more ways than one.
“We realized we hadn’t lost the passion and drive to accomplish the same kinds of things,” he says. They shared a conviction that the future of the country’s economy — and its national security — depends on developing a robust manufacturing sector that creates durable, well-paying jobs while shoring up those vulnerable supply chains.
Under the leadership of Arnone as CEO and Wilke as chair, Re:Build is off to a running start. In two years, the company has grown to nearly a thousand employees, spanning sites in 10 different states. It has acquired 11 businesses with varying flavors of engineering expertise across the aerospace, clean tech, health, and industrial sectors. Re:Build is developing a suite of design and engineering capabilities to support industrial customers who need solutions for “just-in-time manufacturing” for a range of products, from airplane wings to satellites to medical devices.
“We have to rebuild an industrial base that will let us manufacture here the things that make sense to manufacture here,” says Wilke.
While the pandemic revealed the urgency of restoring the manufacturing sector, the ideas behind Re:Build had been percolating for decades.
Wilke grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. He witnessed the steady decline of the city’s vaunted steel industry, and all of its societal knock-on effects. “I saw the impact of the mass loss of jobs on families and our community,” he recalls.
The experience left a profound impression, one that lingered even as Wilke went off to study chemical engineering at Princeton University and then parlayed his passion for computer science — as a teenager, he would come home from school and happily write code in the basement for hours — into a software development position with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture).
in 1991, Wilke decided to enter the MIT LGO program (at the time known as “Leaders for Manufacturing”), enticed by its unique curriculum — technically demanding but comprehensive in a way that seemed tailored for students with previous work experience. He wanted to help shape the next chapter in the world of manufacturing and operations. “That’s why I enrolled in LGO: I wanted to help build a company that created wealth and created jobs.”
In addition to earning an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s degree from the School of Engineering, LGO students engage in experiential, operations-focused coursework and complete a six-month research fellowship with one of LGO’s 20-plus partner companies, such as Amazon, Verizon, or Raytheon, and now Re:Build, which became the newest industry partner in December.
Students will pursue internships in the areas of lean manufacturing, computer-aided manufacturing, and process development and optimization, gaining real-world exposure to Re:Build’s cutting-edge processes in everything from “lightweighting” — substituting composite materials for heavier metals, such as in wings for drones and airplanes — to supplying key components to manufacturers working in the electrification, hydrogen, energy storage, and fusion technology sectors.
“We’re one of the top hirers for this current graduating class,” says Wilke. “In LGO alums, there is this rare combination of leadership, business judgment, and deep technical competence, which is incredibly precious.” By the time the LGO Class of 2023 hires join the company, there will be 15 program graduates employed there, and counting.
“You’re talking about combining all the ‘soft’ leadership skills with all the rigor required to understand the mathematics of statistics, optimization, and machine learning,” says Wilke. “It’s very hard to teach and to learn all of the pieces necessary to be competent at this, which is why there aren’t many programs like LGO.”
He emerged from his time at MIT in 1993 with tools that he would use again and again, as a vice president and general manager of pharmaceutical fine chemicals at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), and later at Amazon. “I started to view the gift that LGO gave me as a playbook for how to hone operations,” Wilke says. “They work in any environment where people and technology are working side by side.”
A prime application of the LGO playbook
Wilke brought a manufacturing mindset to his transformative work at Amazon.
He was hired in 1999 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to solve a wicked logistical puzzle: how to quickly process, fill, and ship the ever-growing number of unique, impossible-to-predict orders that came in via Amazon.com every day.
A key insight helped Wilke unlock the solution. When he walked into one of the company’s fulfillment centers for the first time, Wilke didn’t see a retail warehouse but a factory.
“I saw people and process and machines and technology and computer science,” he recalls. “Fulfillment centers, airports, hospitals, hotels, even Disneyland — these all are effectively complex operations that are manufacturing something, though not necessarily a physical product,” he says. “For a long time, Amazon didn’t manufacture a physical product, but it assembled orders for customers.”
As Amazon’s vice president and general manager for operations, Wilke drew on his LGO playbook to solve a host of other challenges, including revamping the process for fulfilling customer orders.
“At LGO, we spent a lot of time talking about the mathematics of variation, ways to characterize it and improve processes by understanding it,” he says. “It informed this idea that supply chain is a great place to apply the analytical tools of optimization and process control.”
Wilke and his team redesigned the fulfillment centers’ layout, built new software and algorithms for stocking items and combining them efficiently in orders, and shrank the average time required to complete an order. By 2003, Wilke’s managers could get any item out the door in two-and-a-half hours. That enabled the company to make very precise guarantees to customers of when they would receive the item.
Around the same time, another team at Amazon was developing a new subscription service and searching for a keystone offering around which to build it. “We decided to build that service around fast delivery,” Wilke says.
Thus was born Amazon Prime, which now has well over 200 million subscribers around the world who pay for access to streaming music, movies, deals and discounts, and, of course, free two-day delivery. Today more than half of all U.S. online purchases are made via Amazon.
At Amazon, Wilke was also instrumental in developing and codifying the company’s famous “leadership principles.”
“Some were already in use, and were what attracted me to Amazon,” he says, “and some articulate a style of leadership that was heavily influenced by LGO ideas.”
He points to “Dive Deep” as an example. “Understanding the entire business and process details, this idea that ‘leaders operate at all levels’ and ‘no task is beneath them’ — that’s totally LGO!”
Software and service
Wilke believes that the original mission of LGO — “to bring leadership and technology together to improve these operating-intensive businesses” — remains just as important now as it was when he attended.
That’s one reason Wilke has stayed closely involved with the MIT LGO program, serving as a co-chair of the governing board for a decade. “It’s intellectually stimulating, and it feels like the program is pursuing a noble mission,” he says.
“Jeff’s impact on the world and our daily lives is tremendous,” says LGO Executive Director Thomas Roemer. “He inspires everyone in the MIT LGO community with his example of applying our technical and leadership grounding in entirely new ways that transform the world. But I am even more impressed by his humility and his passion and dedication to the LGO program.”
At the same time, he has been a strong advocate for ensuring that LGO’s curriculum keeps pace with the times.
“We have to reinvent management science for a world where machines and humans work side by side,” he says. He credits the recent emergence of ChatGPT and other advances in artificial intelligence with awakening more educators and industry leaders to the imperative of changing the way they operate. “The trick to stay relevant, for LGO, is to stay on top of technology that changes how business is done.”
Wilke walks this talk. Right after leaving Amazon in early 2021 — and before throwing himself into the task of revitalizing American manufacturing, he spent two weeks teaching himself how to code in Python.
Wilke has since carved out time to bring that passion for marrying software and hardware and human insight to expand opportunities to other corners of academia and America. Through their family foundation, Wilke and his wife Liesl have committed to funding computer science professorships at each of the 35 tribal colleges and universities serving Indigenous students across the United States.
Wilke, who serves on the board of Code.org, is a big believer in the productivity-expanding power of investing in software.
With 25 in-house computer scientists, software is one of Re:Build’s core capabilities. When he talks to leaders at other firms, Wilke looks to see if there is a computer scientist in the C-suite. “You want someone sitting at that table who is still writing code, up on the most current architectures, who can advise executives as they make choices on process for products.”
Looking to the long term
At Re:Build, Wilke and Arnone have developed their own set of principles to guide their employees. Many are distilled from Wilke’s storied career — and similarly inflected by their LGO experience. He points to number 14: “We focus on and measure inputs we control and expect excellent performance on input metrics to create long-term value.”
Wilke is determined to create a culture at Re:Build that’s focused on not on short-term financial engineering or quarterly earnings targets, but long-term value creation — for investors, for employees, and for society.
Re:Build provides a range of services for manufacturing companies that assemble products as diverse and complex as airplanes, power plants, stents, or satellites. “Companies building these things need sophisticated partners that can co-engineering with them, design with them, build subcomponents, and maybe even do final assembly with them,” Wilke says.
Their initial focus has been on acquiring existing companies; over time the company plans to develop its own manufacturing plants. In April, Re:Build announced that it would build its first one near Pittsburgh (New Kensington, Pennsylvania), not far from where Wilke grew up. “I didn’t put my hand on the scale!” he says.
Building those plants is key to helping strong companies realize their potential — but it is also capital-intensive. Wilke points to the incentive structures of private equity funds — which want to see much quicker returns — as a key force in driving manufacturing offshore over the past several decades.
“Building good companies takes time,” he says. If they succeed, the larger case for a broader renaissance in American manufacturing will make itself. “Money follows success. We don’t have to do much other than have people who invested in us originally do well.”
“We are just getting started. And I don’t think we’ll be the only company doing this.”