As a literacy activist, former teacher and CEO, founder and president of King of Prussia-based American Reading Co., Hileman created The 100 Book Challenge reading program, a unified system for independent reading that is delivered to schools and includes all books, materials, software tools and professional development materials. It’s used in more than 800 schools and has been recognized for boosting the test scores of students in eight states.
With more than 100 employees, American Reading Co. has grown to $14.2 million in 2005 revenue.
Smart Business spoke with Hileman about how she’s grown her company through innovation and how she’s initiated a new sales plan.
How do you introduce a new product into schools?
We’re not selling into an established market. We’re creating a new market, which is a student-centered curriculum. It’s not the way schools currently function.
It’s a complicated sale and it’s long-term, so the partnership extends well into the life of the customer. It’s an expensive proposition for us because our sales folks spend a lot of time working with the customer.
We don’t just sell the product and go away; we become part of the team, and they don’t pay for the team. So there’s a nonprofit side to our thinking. We really want this to work.
How do you nurture that mindset?
The company is centered on employee empowerment and the responsibility that comes with that. (Employees) have to take responsibility for our continuous improvement model. Each of them has a business plan with a critical number they’re working to meet.
It’s not a command-and-control environment. It’s a shared responsibility for creating a high-performing team. We’re applying a business model to our school curriculum and an educational model to our business.
How have you expanded your programs across the country?
For the first five years, we averaged 85 percent revenue growth, and that was driven primarily through references from happy customers. That is still the major contributor to our growth.
However, we have initiated a sales plan, brought on a sales team, so this year, for the first time, we’ll be spending 22 percent of our budget on sales.
We are currently only servicing 200,000 kids, and we want to get to 1 million kids. I have the best vice president of sales in the country, Holly De Leon. We’re bringing in a staff of 20 people. We’ve got teams all laid out and ready to go.
How were you able to initiate this sales plan?
There’s no such thing as creating something out of nothing. It’s evolved over time. It’s still built on our relationship sales.
Many of the people we’re hiring know us. It’s not streaming it up out of nowhere. We’ve been in business eight years, so the last three years, we’ve been evolving this sales plan. We sell directly to district language arts coordinators.
The reading program that we’ve developed works. This 100 Book Challenge is transforming the schools in which it is (being implemented.) It’s transforming the culture. Test scores are going through the roof, and it’s all the buzz.
We work to expand within the districts where this is happening to make sure that everybody is doing this program, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. We also have it in Spanish and as an after-school program.
We also work with the surrounding school districts to bring them in to see it, and then we work with them on how we can best fit with their existing programs and the problems that they’re facing to help them. Really, we’re using a school partnership model, where we come in and provide a model that works with what they’re currently using, only we put this kid energy into the equation so that the kids start to read an hour a day, and all the instructional programs that they have in place begin to pay off big-time.
It’s easy for us because our program works, so you just get in and you bring other people around to see it.
How do you train your salespeople to work with the schools?
Mostly we hire our salespeople out of the schools [that have implemented the program] because we need people who get this. It’s not a sales function, it’s an educational function, so we have to hire experienced reading people. That’s the trick.
We are experimenting with bringing in three new people right now who are in educational sales but whose expertise is more sales than education. We’ll see how it goes. Once (a school district is) a customer, (its) salesperson has to be an educator.
HOW TO REACH: American Reading Co., (866) 810-2665 or www.americanreading.com