Former Amazon CEO Dave Clark (’99) Holds Campus Fireside Chat with Ted Stank

May 13, 2024

Dave Clark (MBA, ’99), a longtime leader at the online retail and web services giant, Amazon, visited the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business in April for a fireside chat before a standing-room-only crowd of about 250 students, faculty and staff. Ted Stank, co-executive director of the Department of Supply Chain Management’s Global Supply Chain Institute, Harry J. & Vivienne R. Bruce Chair of Excellence in Business and Haslam Family Faculty Research Fellow, served as host for the event. Clark and Stank discussed Clark’s career and took questions on broader aspects of supply chain management during the informative and entertaining session, as the two old friends’ banter elicited frequent laughter from the appreciative crowd.

Alum Superstar

Stank introduced Clark, explaining the Haslam alum started at Amazon in 1999 — when it was mainly an online bookseller — and moved up the management ranks from operations manager to CEO of worldwide consumer business in 2021. Clark helped build one of the most extensive supply chain operations in the world, with hundreds of fulfillment centers and transportation facilities, a fleet of several dozen dedicated aircraft, 100,000 delivery vans and more than 1.5 million employees.

“While holding significant leadership roles, he was the driving force behind the development and expansion of Amazon’s fulfillment and logistics programs, which have become the backbone of the company’s retail business,” Stank said.

Clark left Amazon in 2022 to pursue other opportunities. He currently serves on the American Red Cross board of governors and remains a popular speaker on global commerce. In addition to his MBA from UT, Clark holds a bachelor’s in music education from Auburn University. In 2016, he received the UT Accomplished Alumni Award, and in 2022, Haslam presented Clark with its Distinguished Alum Award.

Taking on Tasks and Taking Risks

During the chat, Clark touched on his entry into the logistics field through Haslam, discussed how to become a leader and advised those in attendance to take chances early in their careers, among the many other high points of the conversation.

Clark taught music for a year after graduating from Auburn, and while he enjoyed it, he realized it would be the same experience for the rest of his life. Desiring a more challenging occupation, he followed a friend’s advice and enrolled in Haslam’s MBA program, focusing on logistics and transportation.

“Probably the best decision I made, and the thing that set me out on my journey, was the decision to come to University of Tennessee,” Clark said, noting that he graduated on a Friday in 1999 and started working at Amazon the following Monday.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, according to Clark, and the way to fill that void is to step up and take on problems others are unwilling to tackle.

“To step into a leadership role in almost any situation, I’ve never been told no,” he told the audience. “When there’s a problem and nobody taking it on, and you take it, usually people are like, ‘Somebody took that.’ That is the evolution of the first 10 years of my career, being the person who was willing to take on the crazy things and leveraging a base set of tools that I had learned both here and in the progression at Amazon to tackle those problems.”

Clark also advised students in the crowd to eschew caution in their 20s, calling everything one does in that decade “reversible.”

“I feel like I took some risks in that time, but I could have taken way more,” he said. “I did take the job at Amazon, and I think there were eight people offered a job at Amazon in that cycle, and only three or four of us took the job at Amazon because everybody else wanted the secure path. So, I think being willing to put more chips on the table and take more risk in that early career cycle can pay much bigger dividends later.”

In-Depth Fireside Chat

Sophomore Hannah Clark (no relation to Dave Clark), a Haslam Scholar of Distinction and Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Ambassador, is representative of the audience’s enthusiasm for Clark’s campus appearance. She called attending the fireside chat and learning about Clark’s career in supply chain management an invaluable experience.

“It was truly captivating to learn about his journey before and during Amazon’s development in the industry,” she said. “As someone who aspires to be a leader, I paid close attention as Dave shared inspiring words on the significance of listening and having an open-minded approach. I would recommend viewing the video of this fireside chat!”

Clark and Stank packed much more into their short time on stage, from discussing Taiwan’s criticality to the U.S. supply chain and the importance of developing out-of-box alternatives should global conflict disrupt connections with it, to an anecdote by Stank illustrating Clark’s observation on demonstrating leadership through problem-solving. A video of the complete event is available online.