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Amazon expansion will lead to public tour, more jobs

RUSKIN — Amazon Ruskin Fulfillment Center director of operations Brian Owens says the facility's continued expansion will result in more hiring and a long-awaited grand opening that will allow the community to see what goes on inside the massive building.

"Last year we only opened half of the building and over the past year, the remainder of the building has been under construction, Owens said at a recent SouthShore Chamber of Commerce event held at the Hillsborough Community College SouthShore campus.

"This new construction should be completed by the end of this year," he said.

Owens said once construction is complete, it will hold the public viewing, allowing residents to tour one half while the other half remains in operation. The expansion also will result in the hiring of an additional 1,000 associates to fully staff the operation.

Amazon opened the 1 million-square-foot warehouse in September 2014 and eventually hired an initial force of 1,000. The state of the art fulfillment center is one of only 126 similar facilities world wide that offers warehousing and order fulfillment for third-party sellers, often small businesses and individuals.

Owens, who has been with Amazon for 17 years, started as a temporary associate in a Delaware Amazon warehouse. Working his way up through the company, he transferred to several facilities in Kentucky and Tennessee, watching as the company grew in scope and efficiency.

"When I started working for Amazon, I used to walk up to 15 miles a day fulfilling orders," Owen said. "The exciting thing about this new facility is that it is one of only six (Amazon) buildings in the U.S. that uses robots. They do a lot of the walking for us now."

Owens moved with his wife and three children to accept his new position in Ruskin. He touted his enthusiasm for the job and the company's commitment to its employees, noting that every employee receives excellent benefits, including shares in the company as part of their benefit package.

"Everyone that works at Amazon is an owner," Owens said. "Our associates are very important to us."

Becoming a part of the community is a priority for Amazon. They want to give back to the communities that house their warehouses. Owens explained that the company consults with their associates to learn where they would like to see company assistance offered in their community. The Ruskin associates pointed toward helping veterans.

"We have partnered with a couple of local military benefit groups to help out veterans and their families," Owens said. "We have also gone out to area elementary schools in Ruskin and Wimauma to provide backpacks and school supplies. We've sponsored Toys for Tots drives during the holidays.

"Amazon will even provide tuition for associates who wish to further their education, even if it's in an unrelated field such as the medical field. These are things we can do to help the associates that live in the community."

When questioned about a recent New York Times story that reported Amazon employees work under extremely taxing conditions, Owens referred to the response from Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos.

"I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market," Bezos said in a statement.

He also declared in a letter to employees that Amazon would not tolerate the management practices described in the article. He urged employees to contact him directly if such conditions existed.

Owens echoed the sentiments of his CEO.

"That is not the Amazon that I know," Owens said. "I love working for Amazon."

Contact Kathy Straub at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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