Four years ago, PBD Worldwide was on a roll, tearing through its eighth consecutive year of hand-over-fist growth. Then, in the second half of 2008, a hard one-two combination knocked down the Atlanta-based storage and distribution company.
The first blow that staggered PBD was the recession. The broad downturn rocked all the market sectors in which the company does business, forcing customers of all stripes to pull on their reins and cut their budgets.
Second, and more ominously, PBD’s core business — distributing books and other printed educational material — began to shrink noticeably. Customers that had been dipping their toe into digital media started jumping in with both feet. The shift cut into PBD’s core revenue dramatically.
“In 2008, we had our best year ever,” says Scott Dockter, president and CEO. “We’d had eight straight years of double-digit growth. A phenomenal amount of new clients had come on board. Our Chicago distribution center had opened the year before, and it was growing fast. We had a lot of good things going on.”
PBD’s leaders were aware that the print-based book business’s best days were behind it and that digital media was the wave of the future. But they weren’t as prepared as they wish they’d been for the speed and impact with which that wave would hit.
“The thing that had been lurking before the economy took its turn was that our company was very dependent on books — in particular educational material — to achieve that growth,” Dockter says. “There were a couple of groups who were starting to talk about moving to a digital opportunity, and they were looking to change their program.”
PBD had originally stood for Professional Book Distributors. The company changed the name in the late ’90s because it was starting to diversify its product.
“But we hadn’t really diversified all that much,” Dockter says. “Then, in late 2008, we started to see our core business effectively disappear due to some changes some of our clients were making in their business models.”
Those changes involved a couple of shifts that were happening simultaneously: Schools were buying fewer books, and some of PBD’s major clients were being acquired by companies with new and different ways of looking at the business.
PBD had a division, the Georgia Schoolbook Depository, which shipped books to schools mainly in the state of Georgia for grades K through 12.
“We also had a nice contract going with Harcourt — we were doing all their distribution throughout the Southeast,” Dockter says. “Then a couple of things happened. No. 1, Harcourt was purchased by Houghton Mifflin, and No. 2, schools quit buying books. Their budgets effectively changed overnight. A lot of this was economy-driven.”
Suddenly, PBD was facing some core changes that, while it had been aware they were coming, it was not fully prepared.
“Frankly, when you’re going through a long period of double-digit growth, you think you’ve got it all figured out, and you don’t worry so much about what may be coming,” he says.
The long string of robust growth turned to double-digit contraction in the blink of an eye. Between 2008 and 2009, PBD’s revenue dropped 10 percent. It was time for the company to get serious about diversifying its business base.
Broaden the base
By 2008, PBD had built itself into a $50 million-a-year business with five distribution centers around the country. At its peak, the company employed more than 500 people. PBD attained this growth mainly by distributing books and other printed material using a traditional distribution model: pick, pack and ship.
But with the sharp business downturn that PBD experienced between 2008 and 2009, Dockter and his leadership team realized that the company needed to branch into new areas to broaden its base — to put its eggs into more baskets so it wouldn’t be as vulnerable to market downturns in the future.
After looking at what they do well, Dockter and his team talked about applying those revelations to other related businesses.
“We said, ‘We’re good at inventorying items. We’re good at taking orders. We’re good at building e-commerce. We’re good at integrating all of that. So what else can we distribute?’” he says. “It sounds simple, but when you’ve been doing books for 30-plus years, you’re pretty much siloed in. Prospects are out there thinking, ‘Well, they’re really good at book distribution, but I can’t see my product in there.’”
One of the first areas that PBD expanded into was distributing protective cases for handheld electronic devices.
“We got a new client that was really growing their business,” Dockter says. “They had a product that was related to iPhones and BlackBerrys. That was a great diversification for us. It gave us a chance to show outside groups that we could distribute practically anything — anything that could go in a box — that became our mantra.”
PBD’s new philosophy also encompassed a move into an area that — in light of the overall trend of print dying off and digital media booming — seems counterintuitive: printing and mailing acknowledgments of donations for nonprofit organizations.
“We have a lot of not-for-profit clients, and when they receive donations, the IRS requires that they send out a printed acknowledgment,” Dockter says. “There were a lot of printing companies going out of business, so we saw this as an opportunity. It was a chance for us to basically extend our markets within our current client base.”
It was a wise move. PBD’s printing and mailing service, bolstered by the 2012 acquisition of a similar company that was looking to get out of the business, has grown exponentially since PBD began offering the service in 2008.
“It was a natural fit for us,” Dockter says. “We just had to get the right equipment and the right people in place that knew what they were doing. And lo and behold, [last] year, we had a company that went out of business that we absorbed. So now the revenue we’re getting from that part of our business is 300 times what it was in ’08-’09 when we started it.”
PBD has diversified into other areas as well. Among the operations that are bringing in substantial new revenue are electronic distribution, consumer products, gift catalog items and logo promotional items, such as clothing and pins to be distributed at conferences.
“We’re excited about all of these new lines, because they all have a tremendous amount of capacity to grow,” Dockter says. “Plus it gives us more sales points, both within the current organizations that we work with and with prospects.”
As the economy has fitfully rebounded from the recession, all of this diversification and spreading into new markets has begun to pay off for PBD, according to Dockter.
“The economy has gotten a little bit better, and as a result, some of our sales are coming back naturally,” he says. “Our clients are putting more money into their marketing and into new product.
“These newer services we’ve expanded into have really helped us to right our revenue ship. We now have a better array of services to offer and a wider range of products. That’s allowing us to win new business at a better clip. And it’s helping offset the decline in what was our traditional core business — pick, pack and ship fulfillment.”
Dockter says he’s learned a lot from guiding PBD through this ordeal, and he and the company will be better prepared the next time they face a similar set of circumstances.
“One of the key things I learned, from a leadership standpoint, is that you can’t let yourself get too comfortable when things are going well,” he says. “You have to always be challenging yourself and your team with some what-ifs.
“When we were flying high, we weren’t challenging ourselves as hard, because we felt great about what we were doing. But there were some signs that we missed. So even when things are going well, you have to make sure you’re challenging yourself on things that might not go well going forward. Sometimes it’s hard to force yourself to think in that mode when you’re hitting on all cylinders.”
Dockter also says he believes that when PBD runs into a similar challenge in the future, he and his team will recognize the signs of impending change and react more quickly to counteract them.
“Of course, as a leader, you want to show confidence — you want to exude confidence — but you’ve got to be careful not to lose sight of the changes that can happen,” he says. “We knew certain things could happen, but we didn’t want to admit it while everything was going well.
“And, of course, the most important thing is when you do get to that place — when those changes are starting to happen — how do you react? You’ve got a couple different ways you can do that. I think we were slow. You’ve got to be fast. That doesn’t necessarily mean working harder. It means putting your strategy in place as quickly as possible, and then executing it, decisively.” ?
How to reach: PBD Worldwide, (770) 442-8633 or www.pbd.com
The Dockter File
President and CEO
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, University of Virginia
Looking back over your years in school, can you pinpoint a business leadership lesson you learned that you use today?
I played tennis at the University of Virginia. A big part of doing that was creating leadership within my team, especially in the small-team environment. And the work balance was important from a time-management standpoint.
What was first job, and what important business lessons did you learn from it?
I had two jobs that were tied together — delivering newspapers and cutting lawns. The premise was to be able to earn my own money that I could spend the way I wanted to, and to do it without anybody telling me what to do. I learned a lot about responsibility from doing this. And I learned that figuring out how to create an avenue to make money can be a lot of fun.
Do you have a main business philosophy that you use to guide you?
Communicate as often as possible in a face-to-face mode with both your clients and your employees. Our company has a no-email policy on Fridays. We’ve had it for six years. The idea is to communicate at the highest level and to build relationships in order to get things done. When you communicate in that mode, you tend to create partnerships and true teamwork. That’s something we feel strongly about.
What trait do you think is most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?
You need to be trustworthy. Your customers need to trust you, and your employees need to trust you. It comes down to this: Do you look them straight in the eye? And do they look back at you straight in the eye? When you’re able to create that bond, that means you’re truly a trusted partner and leader.
“Today, with a world that’s filled with ruthless competition, dizzying speed and exponential complexity, just doing things efficiently is no longer a formula for success,” says Josh Linkner, author and founder of the promotions company ePrize. According to Linkner, what separates successful companies from the rest is their approach to creativity.
In his new book, “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity,” Linkner dispels the myth that creativity is something with which people are born. Below, he discusses the impact of using a borrowed idea and tells the story of the day he kidnapped his own company.
Why do so many companies get in the habit of waiting for someone else to innovate?
Society tends to reward followers. We’re taught in school to follow the rules — do what you’re told; don’t make mistakes. The problem is that if you do that today in the business environment, that’s a surefire path to mediocrity. Similarly, the companies that follow the herd are the ones that get left in the dust. What we’re seeing now is that the companies, and individuals, by the way, that are winning are the ones that forge new ground, the ones that dare to break the mold and dare to come up with something that is remarkable. [These are] people that are more interested in standing out rather than fitting in.
What’s the secret to finding and adapting a borrowed idea?
Great sculptors will often tell you that they start with a big piece of rock and they chip away the things that don’t need to be there and they reveal the artwork underneath. In other words, they don’t create it. They reveal it.
There are many ideas out there, and there are many points of inspiration. Creativity isn’t something that you’re just born with or not. In fact, it’s absolutely a learned behavior and a skill, just like doing math or some other skill. There are ways to find creativity in other places. You can borrow ideas from other industries or even nature. There’s a metalworking company, for example, that’s developing new cutting techniques for metal by studying the teeth of predatory fish like sharks and piranhas. If you can borrow these ideas and then twist them in a unique and compelling way that solves a real problem for your customers or your colleagues, that’s the type of creativity that’s still remarkable but doesn’t require a lightning bolt from above.
Tell us about how you kidnapped your company.
We had about 250 people. I wanted to share the success that we’d had, but I didn’t have that much money at the time to do it. I did the math and it turned out that I only had about $200 per person to share. Well, I figured that if I gave everybody $200 that would be kind of a nonstarter. You could pay half of your light bill and that would be it.
So, I thought it would be fun to make something more exciting. What I did was on a random Thursday afternoon, I shut off the phone system. I shut down the servers, and I said, ‘Guys, I’m kidnapping the company.’ I grabbed everybody and I took them all to the closest Best Buy, gave them each a $200 gift card and said, ‘You have to spend it right now.’ What happened was that pandemonium erupted. People were running up and down the aisles saying, ‘Are you going to get the Xbox? Are you going to get the digital camera?’ It was really a fun, cool experience. A year and a half later, people were still talking about it. Sometimes you don’t need to have more money to solve problems, you can use creativity. We applied creativity to do something that had a high impact and a low cost.
Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity
By Josh Linkner
Jossey-Bass, 256 pages, $26.95
About the book
“Disciplined Dreaming” helps individuals and organizations unlock the creative process. According to the author, creativity is a skill that can be learned and developed. The book provides a five-step methodology for the “Disciplined Dreaming” process and offers strategies to breathe fire into the creative soul of a company. Linkner proves that creativity is about far more than “brainstorming.”
Josh Linkner is the founder, chairman and former CEO of ePrize, an interactive promotions agency. He is currently the CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm helping to rebuild urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship.
Why you should read it
Creativity is something that many companies label as an essential part of their organization’s culture, but they struggle to free themselves from the procedures that limit it. “Disciplined Dreaming” takes the freedom and artistry of the creative process (something which many companies dismiss as frivolous) and gives them structure and purpose. Linkner provides numerous examples to help companies empower their staff and generate creativity in an open, productive environment.
Why it’s different
Linkner, an experienced jazz guitarist, brings an artist’s touch to the realm of business thinking in “Disciplined Dreaming.” He doesn’t resort to lists of tips or case studies of the same four or five companies that are featured in the majority of the business books lining today’s shelves. There is a sense of freshness to Linkner’s process and prose that makes his ideas adaptable in an organization, regardless of the industry in which it operates.
“Defining the Creativity Challenge.” This is an essential chapter because it conquers the most difficult challenge that many companies face: how to begin the creative process. Linkner provides a system to help companies define the problem that requires a creative solution, then helps companies find the right approach to solving the problem.
To share or not to share
The difficulty that most organizations experience in generating new and creative ideas can drag down everything from morale to the bottom line. There isn’t a department within an organization that doesn’t need to generate new ideas. Linkner’s book is a great accelerant to help the creative fires brightly burn.
The Soundview Corporate Solutions Program powers your staff’s development by offering a comprehensive suite of business content. Give your staff an executive education resource that can be accessed from anywhere, using any device. Visit http://Corporate.Summary.com for more information.
If you had the chance to share with your peers a great way to handle a particular business problem, would you do it? Most of us would say yes, because most people like to help others and share their successes.
For instance, Michael Feuer, the founder of OfficeMax and our longtime columnist, has a book available this month that shares more than 40 business lessons he has learned while taking his company from a startup to more than $5 billion in sales. He covers everything from getting through the startup phase to selling a business. No matter what phase of business you are in, there are best practices that you can learn from someone who has already been there.
I’m proud to say that this book is from our book division, where we help top leaders translate their ideas into print.
These books aren’t about bragging about successes — they are about helping others learn lessons that can be slow and difficult to learn without guidance. Think of them more like business textbooks where you are the professor, helping people eager to learn or grasp complex issues.
Even longtime CEOs of highly successful companies are always on the lookout for new ways to handle old situations. Maybe you could be the one that teaches Jack Welch something new about how to handle employees, but that can only happen if you attempt to share your ideas with others.
Books can also be a great way to share your broader leadership concepts with your employees. When you have hundreds or thousands of employees, getting all of them to understand your strategy can be difficult when it’s in the form of short e-mails, videos or town-hall discussions. A book is a great way to explain the intricacies of your strategies and share lessons learned with your junior executives so they don’t repeat the same mistakes you did when you were coming up through the ranks. You can teach them firsthand how to navigate negotiations, difficult employees or tough customers, all without ever leaving your office. What better way to educate employees about your company than to explain in detail your rationale for how you go about making decisions and how you develop strategy? If getting employee and customer feedback is important to you, you can illustrate the book with examples of how to effectively do it so your managers can carry the message throughout the company.
Employees aren’t the only ones who can benefit. Longtime customers might be interested to know how you think so they can better craft solutions and products that fit your vision. When they better understand where you are going, new partnerships might open up opportunities for both of you.
A lot of CEOs think about writing a book, but few ever get around to it. The No. 1 reason is a lack of time. But when you have someone else helping you shape your general ideas and guiding you through the process, it doesn’t take as much time as you might think. It’s like any other transaction — when you have someone helping you through the process, it moves much faster than trying to figure it all out on your own.
Michael Feuer took the time to pen the secrets to his success, and the result is an outstanding collection of tips that even the most experienced CEO can learn from. It’s not only an entertaining read, but it will also help you run your business better. I highly recommend it.
If you’ve ever dreamed of putting your ideas to paper to help others find the same road to success you’ve found, why not make a commitment to doing it now? We’ve been helping CEOs convey their best ideas to the business world for more than 20 years now in various media. Shouldn’t you be next?
For more information about how the Smart Business Book Division can help you, please call (440) 250-7026.
For more information on Michael Feuer’s book, “The Benevolent Dictator,” go to www.thebenevolentdictator.biz.
FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.