Accounting for Amazon

Shelley Reynolds relishes “big and complicated” challenges

Shelley Reynolds, vice president, worldwide controller and principal accounting officer at Amazon.

Last year Shelley Reynolds (BA 1987) was named to Moves magazine’s prestigious list of Power Women. The honor was conferred at a glamorous New York City gala of the kind usually reserved for genuine glitterati. As a person of the comparably less glittery accounting persuasion, however, Reynolds found the experience utterly surreal—but exciting.

“Accountants don’t often get to walk the red carpet,” says the vice president, worldwide controller and principal accounting officer at Amazon, laughing. “It’s not what we do.”

But, oh yes, she did. And Reynolds’ road to the red carpet began at the UW Foster School of Business. Or, in truth, maybe even earlier, in her intensive training in competitive gymnastics, which instilled the virtues of discipline, focus and fearlessness that would serve her well.

“I’ve never done anything as challenging as gymnastics,” she told Moves.

Deciding to quit competing while her body was still intact, Reynolds found a worthy new challenge in accounting at Foster. The discipline suited her shrewdly analytical mind.

Developing at Deloitte

Reynolds went to work in audit for Touche Ross (soon to become Deloitte) right after graduating. Her first client was a scrappy startup selling gourmet coffee. “I was a few weeks out of the UW, learning fast. I kept going and they kept growing and a few years later this little company called Starbucks goes public,” she recalls. “You never know what tiny thing is going to become a crown jewel.”

After Starbucks, Reynolds audited tech firms through the 1990s boom, becoming well-versed in mergers and acquisitions. This earned her a spot on the Boeing account just as the aerospace giant was acquiring Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas. “I quickly decided that I liked big and complicated,” she says. “I was all in, and I never looked back.”

While later serving some of Deloitte’s financial industry clients out of the New York office, Reynolds was recruited to Amazon by outgoing chief accountant Mark Peek—the man who had recruited her to Deloitte 20 years earlier.

Amazing Amazon 

The Amazon that Reynolds joined in 2006, as vice president and controller, had 12,000 employees and annual revenues of $8.5 billion. Big and complicated enough for her?

“I thought, okay, this is starting to look interesting,” she says.

It would become vastly more interesting. The customer-focused “world’s largest bookstore” has transformed into a customer-obsessed online business of unprecedented diversity. At 340,000 employees worldwide and revenues in excess of $135 billion, Amazon’s financial results are scrutinized to the last decimal point.

The challenge of accounting for Amazon’s dramatic expansion has been right in Reynolds’ wheelhouse.

The dizzying expanse of Amazon’s various initiatives and experiments, fueled by the company’s all-encompassing passion for invention, could be difficult for any accounting organization to manage. Reynolds relishes the challenge—but notes that Amazonians are equally focused on operational excellence.

She describes her role as resembling a lawyer more than an accountant, interpreting old standards to apply them to the financial reporting of new and unprecedented businesses. “There’s no road map for how we proceed,” she says. “For me, it doesn’t get any better.”

She has thrived at Amazon by developing accounting systems that can scale with the company’s amazing growth, anticipating the requirements of each expansion, and by distilling the complexities of its accounting to the very essence. Reynolds explains she is “in the business of: Is it right? And how do I know it’s right?

A role model

Reynolds believes that accounting is a wonderful field for women because it values discipline and ability above personality and politics. “It isn’t hard to figure out who knows what they’re talking about,” she says. “Having said that, I’d like to see more women in the executive ranks.”

In this respect, Reynolds is becoming a role model of increasing visibility. She was asked to join the Foster School’s Advisory Board a few years ago. In addition to the Power Women award, she was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology by the National Diversity Council in 2015.

And she is the ranking woman at Amazon, one of seven executive officers of this company of historical significance.

“Amazon is a company that loves a challenge,” she explains, “that believes there’s nothing that can’t be done if you put your mind to it.”

Just like Reynolds.