Joseph Burton

By RJ Walters
Photography by Jordan Randall

After graduating from Florida Southern College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in 2013, Lakeland native Joseph Burton found considering top MBA programs to be a frustrating undertaking. During college he spent his summers as an intern for locally-headquartered Global Produce Sales where he managed farms and packing houses across the Southeast for the premiere watermelon grower. By the time he graduated he had paired his book smarts with common sense business acumen—and during his summer employment he also met his wife Brianna, who now works as a recruiter at Amazon. But he learned many top-rated business schools were looking for two consecutive years of related experience, which he did not have.

So Burton updated his LinkedIn profile and started to engage in online conversations with industry leaders, including employees at one of the global trailblazers in e-commerce and technology.

Those employees worked for Amazon, and funny enough, one of them was so impressed with his field experience that he referred him to a recruiter. Fast forward to where Burton was sitting in front of a general manager for Amazon in Lexington, Ky. as part of the interview process.

“He was holding my resume in his hands, and he said ‘I see you’re from Lakeland. I imagine you want to go launch the site there?’” the now 33-year-old recalls. “I said, ‘I would love to, but my understanding is the building’s not going to be done for several years,’ and he told me it was actually going to be done in about nine months.”

So in 2014, after extensive training at the Amazon facility in San Antonio, Tex., Burton became an Area Manager for the first-ever Amazon location in Florida, in the same town he attended Cleveland Court Elementary, Southwest Middle School and Lakeland High School.

He has held a total of seven different positions for a company that is so colossal that it is the second-largest private employer in the United States, yet it is also so personal that people often point up in the sky at the white and blue Amazon Air jets—wondering if the goods they ordered online might be a step closer to hitting their doorstep or mailbox.

Joseph is humble about his role as Assistant General Manager for Amazon Air’s Lakeland operation, noting time and again how the company has invested in him.

It’s a full circle experience for Joseph, who as a youth would attend week-long flight and aviation summer camps at Lakeland International Airport, which included a flight around Central Florida that culminated at the airport.

“I’m very much a sponge, and there’s just so much to learn, and I was constantly wanting to learn so it was a perfect fit,” Burton says about his journey with Amazon. “There’s so much that needed to be learned at the time as we scaled operations as a company, and we needed people that wanted to dive in and learn the technical leadership and the people leadership pieces.”


The Lakelander

What was it like to realize that you’re in your backyard working for a global giant and you’re managing a large team of people? Did you just kind of put your head down and learn and just go with it, or were there moments where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is pretty incredible?’ 


I think it’s all of the above. I mean, you’re supported every step of the way.

Back then and now, I don’t want to say they’re two different companies, but just the growth, if you look at the number of sites across the U.S. 10 years ago versus today, it’s completely different. And a company doesn’t scale to that size at that speed without supporting its people. 

I had some people that were really invested in my development and my growth, and I had some people that saw where my strengths are and pushed me toward succeeding through those strengths. I’m really grateful to have those people over the years.

The Lakelander

How do you, in a company that has everything planned out and strategically organized, sometimes down to the second—take the time to get to know your employees to build relationships that are good, healthy work relationships, so that way you can work well together?


Whenever people find out I work for Amazon, what do they typically think of first?  People always want to ask about the technology—things that are new to them, foreign to them. But make no mistake about it—it is a people-first company. We have over [1,000] employees out at the airport, and we don’t do anything if those folks don’t show up for us. We’ve got a great workforce, we’ve got a great associate team from all over Central Florida, and there’s not a single package that gets moved without ’em. So what I always tell people is, you’re gonna win or lose by your team. 

I don’t remember where I picked it up from, but it’s called the Ford Principle—getting to know someone, getting to talk to someone, it’s about Family-Occupation-Recreation-Dreams. Those are the things when you’re trying to get to know a new employee. As area managers you may be on the ship dock for nine months, but then maybe for the next 12 months you move to [packaging]. As you get a new team that you need to learn…you need to know their names, you need to know which of their kids play T-ball and have a game coming up this weekend—and then the next time you see them you ask how the game went. You’re building relationships, you have to hold yourself to a high bar to get credibility and integrity with them.


The Lakelander

Have you been in any of the ‘big blue planes’ so many of us see up in the skies locally?


I’ve been in and out of ’em weekly [when they land at the airport]. It never gets old, and I say that as an observer—standing on the airfield, it never gets old watching the aircraft come in and out. 

It’s so much different being able to actually stand there on the ground when a 767 is arriving into the gate and you’re standing 20-30 feet from it. It just never gets old. It may sound kind of cliche, but engineering marvels…seeing something that big, a big flying hunk of metal through the sky, it’s just incredible. We only started flying a little over 120 years ago, and we went to the moon within 70 years after that, and now we regularly use aircraft to get people their packages from Amazon faster. 


The Lakelander

How many flights does Amazon have coming in and out of the airport regularly, and how does that compare when operations in Lakeland first began? 


We do 20 flights per day—10 in and 10 out. When we first started we just had one plane come in and go out per day. It was a slower start, but Amazon’s strategy has always been to improve speed and selection for its customers.


The Lakelander

What is it like working at an Amazon warehouse site during the holiday rush?


We will run a peak schedule. When you think about the life of a package, it all starts at our fulfillment centers. From there, depending on where the customer is and where [the package] needs to go and how quickly it needs to get there, that’s where we come into play. It’s what’s called the transportation side. Things like Black Friday and Cyber Monday first hit at the fulfillment centers because that’s where the orders are picked, packed, and shipped out of, but then they come to us…and it’s a rush. I always tell people, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So folks have to make sure they are pacing themselves to go through the four to five weeks that is peak. We plan for it extensively, and we make sure we have the right people in the right place. And it’s a lot of planning, but it’s always really rewarding to switch from the planning phase to the execution phase. And then when it’s going it’s a lot of time out on the floor navigating the different challenges of the day—it’s full aircraft coming in and out and it’s a rush no matter where you’re at.


The Lakelander

Do you remember the first time that you received an Amazon package?


Yeah, I used to buy from them when I was in college. Chegg was a really big book provider, and Florida Southern had the Barnes and Noble bookstore there on campus…but Amazon was a lot easier to navigate and my parents had an account so I started an account to purchase textbooks.

Even as a customer today, the thing I always talk to my team about…I ask the question, ‘Who here orders off of Amazon?’ And folks raise their hands. You can look at a label and typically tell if it’s come through our building in Lakeland; it’ll just say KLAL on the bottom. I ask them, ‘Okay, who here has received a package late from Amazon?’ No one wants to ever get a package late, but as much as we want to be perfect…it does unfortunately happen. And I always tell them…as long as the package has KLAL on the bottom of it, is it getting to the customer on time? Because people know that it has come from the airport, and if you get that package, we wanna make sure it’s getting to them on time.


The Lakelander

How do you see Amazon’s role in the community, especially having spent better parts of a decade working for them while living here?


In my position I’ve been able to drive some of those partnerships with local organizations. We’re members of the Lakeland Economic Development Council and the Central Florida Development Council, but that’s a piece of just staying involved.

As far as community partnership, we’re big partners with kidsPACK, we do things with SPCA…we’ll go to VISTE and pack essential goods and then take packed goods and go deliver them to folks like we did over the holidays. 

It’s nice being able to help people that are looking for help…it’s nice to be able to see folks that are grateful to see a face there at their door and talk to them for a little bit.

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