Neil Van Uum Featured

4:54am EDT March 27, 2006
Twenty years ago, when Neil Van Uum and a partner founded Joseph-Beth Booksellers, their goal was to successfully run a single, independent bookstore.

Van Uum — who at the time was an in-law of the brothers who founded Borders — was inspired by that bookstore’s success. Today, he is the sole owner of Joseph-Beth, which has grown into a chain of eight independent stores in four states -— impressive in an industry in which Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders are competitors. Van Uum spoke with Smart Business about how he remains independent, taking risks and the importance of being humble.

On humility
This may sound counterintuitive, but in order to do well in business, you have to have a good deal of humility. And by humility, I mean the sense that I need to recognize my own weaknesses. We all need to know where our weaknesses lie.

Most businesspeople tend to fall either on the functional side or the creative side. Either you’re the kind of guy to come in every day and think about what plans you put in place yesterday and how are they working today, or you’re the type that looks at life and says, ‘Gee, I’ve got issues and problems to deal with; I need to fix them for tomorrow.’

Organizationally, you have to build your management team around you to support your weaknesses. Even then, if you think you’ve got it figured out on one side or the other, you have a sense of always learning from others and trying to understand how to get better.

All along the way, you have to appreciate the people and the relationships you form. You may need to call on them from time to time, whether it’s people that work for you that really dig in and help you solve a problem or work extra hard to get through something ... then having the sense of trying to understand how to honor those relationships and build on them.

Sometimes I look at people who fail and say, ‘You know, you didn’t listen to anybody or look to form win/win relationships.

On success
It takes a lot of different factors to be successful. ... I believe a lot in teamwork and in a management team — and it’s so important that you all have good chemistry. It’s important that (your management team) helps you blend into an organization that has all your bases covered.

And then, be willing to work pretty hard and be a good, quick decision-maker.

On being independent
I think there’s good and bad in size. Clearly, larger competitors have a lot more resources at their disposal, whether it’s inexpensive Wall Street money to grow their company, whether it’s buying leverage because they are a much larger customer to their suppliers, whether it’s the ability to leverage technology and information to better, more-efficiently operate their businesses, on and on. Large retailers have a lot of benefits.

If I had 1,000 bookstores, I would, in some ways, be smarter. On the other hand, an independent retailer is more attuned, usually, to their community, usually has management that is more empowered to be reactive instead of sitting back and waiting, and proactive in the sense that I trust the team’s opinion about what to do with this store, what changes to make and what events and what inventory will work. We move much quicker. There’s a difference, pro and con.

We have to be better than (the competition) or we would be dead. We don’t have the brand awareness they do or the buying clout — all that goes with being a $5 billion company. So we have to be better at most phases of the game.

On seizing opportunity
I didn’t even want to have more than one store. I had young children and I just was really intrigued by what a bookseller could be. We opened our first store and were successful. A year later, we knocked out a wall and took the space next door and we were at 10,000 square feet.

A year-and-a-half later, the anchor tenant went out, and I said, ‘What the heck? We’re doing well, let’s move down there.’ So we moved the store and then expanded that space twice.

On making a difference
The work we do is important in the sense that ... a lot of people come here at transitional points in their life — I’m getting married, I just got married, the doctor says I’ve got an illness, I’m getting ready to take a trip, I’m getting divorced. There’s a lot that happens in this store where people come to us for answers, for hope, or for escape and education.

We try to attach a sense of community to that. We are unabashed in support of local writers — you write the book, we carry it.

We do a lot in the way of community partnerships and trying to understand the important organizations in town that we can work with, help, synergize with. As we look at retailing and the people aspect of what we do here, we place a lot of capability or empowerment to make this store as responsive as it possibly can be in the ... Cincinnati community.

I look at these other retailers and I don’t know that they care. I don’t know that anybody comes down and says, ‘Hey, let’s see what we can do to focus on the community.’ There are companies that do, but most companies I don’t think pay much credence.

HOW TO REACH: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, www.josephbeth.com