In words that will be possibly be pinned up in sales directors’ offices up and down the land, Waterstone’s in-coming chief James Daunt said he believes current stock levels are too low throughout the chain. “There are simply not enough books in the shops. Having a well capitalised business means we can address that.”
He had good news for the 4,000-odd staff too. Contrary to widespread expectation, he said he does not want to close branches. He said: “The intention is to keep the shops open and make them vibrant, prosperous places. In an ideal world one would not be closing shops. It may be that some prove irredeemable—the real question is: is there room on our high streets for 300 stores and I believe there is. I believe that Waterstone’s should be an integral part of the community and part of the cultural life of the nation. I wouldn’t be taking this on if I didn’t think it was a worthwhile thing to be doing, and though it is by no means an easy task, I am very excited.”
He stressed he isn’t actually in situ yet and the first priority is to learn from those in Waterstone’s how the business is run. But shopfloor staff should feel reassured that Daunt has been a sleeves-rolled-up bookseller for more than 20 years and knows, as he put it, “the difference between a Marston box and an NBN one”.
He has huge respect for booksellers and believes the Waterstone’s staff in the branches are absolutely key to the chain’s success. “As a bookseller you have a number of stakeholders to satisfy, and a very important one is your employees. That is one of my principles at Daunts.”
The one charge some people lay against Waterstone’s today is that it has become boring—"homogenous" is the word frequently used. No one makes the same criticism of Daunts. How much Daunt can transfer that philosophy of branch individuality to a nationwide chain is a key question. It could mean there will be fewer chain-wide campaigns in the future.
In essence, Daunt’s approach to bookselling is simple: “Bookshops should reflect their communities, and that’s obviously going to vary from place to place.” His own shops respond rapidly to the market and he believes strongly in empowering his staff to be able to do that.
Daunt’s involvement has been a well-kept secret and has surprised everyone. He said he was introduced to Mamut at the Westminster house of a mutual friend around 18 months ago. “We got on extremely well. Alexander is a genuine booklover—bookshops are a world he feels great affinity with.”
Interestingly, both are extremely private men who like to operate quietly in the background. How does Daunt feel about the enormity of the job? “I have zero-motivation for the public glory of it. I don’t subscribe to the cult of the c.e.o.. I’m there to provide the strategy, the tempo, the morals of the company, but it’s down to the individuals in the 300 shops to make this work. It’s all about giving them the tools to meet the challenge.”
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