Thursday, January 14, 2010
All Change at Waterstone's
Although it's too early to put out any flags, I was delighted to read that the managing director of Waterstone's Booksellers has left the company immediately, following a disastrous Christmas that saw sales decline by 8.5%.
This is good news, because it will hopefully deal a severe blow to those people who think that bookselling is like any other branch of retail. Their experiment has failed.
Gerry Johnson joined Waterstone's as Managing Director in 2006, shortly before the company bought the Ottakar's chain of bookshops. The business had been going through a difficult time for a number of years and morale was fairly low, so when Johnson claimed that he wanted to create a new Waterstone's that combined the passion of Ottakar's with the efficiecy of Waterstone's, many booksellers and publishers had high hopes.
I worked for Ottakar's and felt quite pessimistic about my new employer but my boss insured me that I had nothing to worry about. "They've changed. It's all hearts and minds now."
Lacking any Plan B, I decided to stay and see whether the New Waterstone's would be as bogus and disappointing as New Labour. I soon received my answer.
Gerry Johnson seemed an unlikely choice for managing director of Britain's largest bookshop chain. With his high-pitched estuary accent and solid retail background, Johnson wasn't particularly bookish. On one occasion he unwittingly revealed that he'd never heard of "On the Road". However, Johnson was clearly a very astute and intelligent man, who seemed to have some good ideas for Waterstone's. So what went wrong?
As an insider, I felt that there were too many people in senior positions who didn't understand the book trade. I sensed an inverted snobbery on the part of these retailers and their attitude towards the store managers - many of whom were brighter and better educated - was defensive. The mangement were obsessed with systems, efficiencies and procedures, rather than focussing on the nebulous, but all important qualities that make bookshops magical places for both staff and customers.
Johnson's tenure should have seen a renaissance at Waterstone's, but instead we now have a business with rock-bottom morale and shops that are as dull as ditchwater.
The management problems at Waterstone's are symptomatic of a shift in the culture of many organisations during the last two decades, a change that has seen specialists replaced by generalists. In her recent book "Socrates in the Boardroom", Amanda H Goodall convincingly argues that academics make far better leaders of universities than managers. Not a controversial opinion, you'd think, and yet so many organisations reject the expertise of their staff in favour of outsiders.
The new managing director, Dominic Myers, is an HMV insider (HMV own Waterstone's). That shouldn't bode well for the future, but having met Myers I feel quietly hopeful, as he came across as a personable, highly intelligent man who actually gets bookselling. It will certainly be good to have Waterstone's managed by an English graduate instead of someone who confuses Jack Kerouac with Cormac McCarthy.
But even if Myers has the wisdom to radically change Waterstone's, will it make a difference or is the migration from high street retailers to Amazon and the supermarkets irreversible?