SUN VALLEY, Idaho — A funny thing happened on the way to Sun Valley this year. Despite predictions that turnout for the annual Allen & Co. conference would be lighter after last year’s COVID-forced cancellation, attendance at the three morning sessions on the first full day of the gathering was strong and included the mega-mogul of the moment, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
There was chatter on Tuesday as the captains of industry alighted on central Idaho mountain resort about whether Amazon founder Bezos would make it this year, given that he’s about to blast off on July 20 for a brief orbit in the spacecraft crafted by his private space exploration firm, Blue Origin. Further, this week marks the first time in 27 years that Bezos hasn’t been CEO of the e-commerce giant that he founded in his Seattle garage in 1994. The longtime lieutenant who took the CEO reins from Bezos (now executive chairman), former Amazon Web Services chief Andy Jassy, is also on the scene this year.
There was some “Succession”-worthy speculation among attendees about why the event is a Murdoch-free zone this year. Logical reasons for them sitting it out this year include the fact that Rupert Murdoch just turned 90, while Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch has temporarily relocated his family to Australia from Los Angeles to ride out the pandemic. But that didn’t stop jokes about a deal brewing somewhere. Meanwhile, James Murdoch, who has distanced himself of late from the family business that made him a scion of privilege (again with the “Succession” parallels), has not been spotted, either.
There was no missing Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, another one of the world’s richest individuals, who was all smiles as he arrived around 7:15 a.m. Wednesday via golf cart at the Sun Valley Lodge for breakfast.
The first day of morning conference programming kicked off with a presentation on business-building, leadership and creating a distinct workplace culture from Tobias Lutke, CEO of Canadian software firm Shopify, and Patrick Collison, the Irish billionaire who is co-founder and CEO of financial tech firm Stripe.
Multiple sources said the session, moderated by Andrew Ross Sorkin, CNBC anchor and New York Times columnist, was well-received in part because it focused on a discussion of hard decisions that entrepreneurs and leaders have to make. Lutke made headlines in May with a company-wide memo asserting that Shopify employees should consider themselves to be players on sports team rather than a family, in response to growing calls for private companies to proactively address social justice concerns. A lively part of the conversation revolved around the meaning of corporate responsibility.
“They talked a lot about how to stay focused on the mission of the company,” one attendee said. “There are social things out there that we can’t solve, but everybody can do what they can to nudge things along.”
That session was followed by a macro take on the post-COVID global economy delivered by hedge fund pioneer Stanley Druckenmiller, former Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent and investor Chris Davis. The upshot? Much of the conversation revolved around questioning the federal government’s stimulus policy and whether that will have unintended consequences including the I-word: inflation.
“The thinking is that stimulus payments made sense last year when things were falling apart. Not sure it makes sense anymore,” one attendee said.
The final session of the day was a look at various movements in criminal justice reform, moderated by CNN anchor Erin Burnett.
Conference organizers have sought to create as much of a COVID-bubble environment at the resort as possible. Idaho is behind only Louisiana and Mississippi on the list of U.S. states with the lowest vaccination rates, with only 36% (or 670,354 as of Wednesday) of the state’s 1.8 million residents having been fully vaccinated. The advancing years of many attendees makes precautions important. The need for security around high-profile targets and the need for social distancing has combined to discourage many of the boldface-name business leaders from talking with the handful of reporters pounding the pathways here in this Alpine village-themed ritzy resort.
The weight of the post-COVID world is definitely hanging over the crowd this year, another factor that contributed to what several attendees said were lively discussions on thorny issues.
“The world has a lot of challenges. We are going to get through them,” Shari Redstone said, flashing two thumbs up as she walked past the press line following the morning sessions.
“It’s a 35-year tradition and everybody’s excited to be together,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, former DreamWorks Animation and Quibi chief said. Disney executive chairman Bob Iger politely declined interviews, no matter how many times reporters shouted that “Black Widow” looks like a hit.
Among the notable attendees spotted Wednesday were Apple CEO Tim Cook, Disney CEO Bob Chapek, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Verizon’s Hans Vestberg, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, ICM’s Chris Silbermann, Horizon Media’s Bill Koenigsberg, NFL owners Terry Pegula and Robert Kraft, former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, “CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and IAC chairman Barry Diller in his regular Sun Valley morning uniform of a sweatshirt and long gym shorts.
Several attendees observed that the proceedings have seemed quieter overall this year because guests were not allowed to bring young children, for COVID safety reasons. The chance to spend time in the Idaho wilderness with family members has long been one of the lures of the Allen & Co. gathering.
“I miss the kids,” said a veteran conference-goer and father of three. “It’s the thing that makes it more than just a business conference.”
(Pictured: Jeff Bezos)