It’s not often the death of one person evokes the kind of sadness and sense of loss as that of Tony Hsieh.
I was around him quite a bit when he started the Downtown Project and I wrote about that project and downtown for the Las Vegas Sun some eight or nine years ago.
He was generous with his time. Random people would walk up to him and he would end up talking for 10 minutes or more. He was generous with his money—almost to a fault as his investments in downtown Las Vegas grew. And he sincerely disliked confrontation.
His business mantra was “delivering happiness.” People will now question whether Hsieh, himself, was happy. Many people I’ve spoken to over the weekend question the circumstances of his death-- how it happened; why it happened. And more is likely to be revealed in the months ahead.
What they won’t question is what he did to help downtown Las Vegas, an urban core once dominated by blight and crime, transform into a growing business district.
"It was Tony's money that made East Fremont come together," said former City Council member Bob Coffin when I talked to him about Hsieh's legacy.
Coffin said Hsieh reminded him of Howard Hughes who brought money and energy at a time when Las Vegas was in an economic slump. Hsieh's investment came when the city was still recovering from the Great Recession.
"So we had to think of him as an entrepreneur who understood us and who took a risk," he said, "And when you take a risk on me, as anybody else, I really respect you because that means you thought enough of my abilities."
Betsy Fretwell was city manager when Hsieh made a deal with the city to take over the old city hall and turn it into Zappos headquarters. She said the move was an incredible opportunity at a time when Las Vegas really needed it.
"At that time, it was the worst recession since the Depression," she said, "It was terrible downtown and we had been trying to encourage new businesses to come in and we were struggling with that. And then Tony walks through the door."
She said Hsieh invested in downtown because that is the environment he wanted around him.
"I really think Tony did it, not only because of his business savvy and he knew that great things came out of these kinds of serendipitous interactions, but he did it because he wanted it to succeed and he loved having that kind of environment around him," she said.
David Knight is the founder of a tech company called Terbine. He moved his company from the Bay Area to Las Vegas, in large part, because of Hsieh's success.
"I had all these venture capitalists in the Bay Area saying, 'Are you nuts? Why are you going to move down there?' And I would hold up Tony and Zappos as a big banner and say, 'look how well that worked,'" Knight said.
Knight also remembers Hsieh and an entourage of people showing up at his company's new offices downtown in a tour bus all of them bringing in beer and welcoming them to the neighborhood.
He also noted that Hsieh's push to change the city has made it easier to find young workers because he helped make the urban core walkable, which is appealing to young people.
Besides the investment in downtown, Hsieh and Zappos is known for having a unique corporate culture.
Brian Paco Alvarez worked for the company. He said everyone went through intense training for their first month and everyone in the company - no matter their position - had to work the company's customer phone lines.
He remembers sitting across from Hsieh while he was on phone duty. The irate customer insisted on talking to Hsieh's supervisor. Instead of telling the person who he was Alvarez remembers Hsieh turning the phone call over to someone else.
Alvarez said Hsieh had a "magical personality" that attracted people.
"The time that I got to spend with him on what we called our one on ones and really get to know him the advice he would give you would hang onto," he said, "The morsels of information that he gave you or even conversations you would overhear that he would have with other people, you really got to see how magical he was as an individual."
Bob Coffin, former city councilman, Las Vegas Ward 3; Brian Paco Alvarez, former Zappos employee; David Knight, founder, Terbine; Betsy Fretwell, former Las Vegas City Manager
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