May 30, 2014
News & Opinion: A Covert Departure
Today is officially the last day of Jack Covert's tenure as President of 800-CEO-READ, a company he founded and has led since 1984.
If it were up to us as a staff, we would find some grand gesture to mark the occasion. We would release a flock of exquisite birds in his honor, or etch "Thanks, Jack" onto the face of the moon.* But Jack has us all working too hard to arrange such a grand gesture, and he doesn't go in for such pomp and circumstance anyway.
(*About as close as one can get to having a "Thank You" etched onto the moon in our world of business bookselling, Seth Godin wrote a beautiful Thanks, Jack on his blog Tuesday afternoon.)
It was, at first, a company of one. Jack started with a three-shelf business book section at a local, left-leaning, literary bookshop in Downtown Milwaukee that was at best indifferent to business books, and at worst openly hostile to the idea of hiring someone full time to hawk them (you can read more about that early history from a former Schwartz Bookshop employee, John Ecklund, who was there to witness it, and wrote a recent post on "the business book visionaries of milwaukee"). But Jack turned that business book section into what industry veteran William Shinker has called "THE premier marketer, seller, and community of business book lovers in the country." And that business book community has continued to grow. In an Inc. article in 1995, they asserted with awe that "Jack Covert sells nearly $2 million worth of business books annually"—a number that would spell doom for us today.
800-CEO-READ just had its best year ever in 2013, which makes Jack Covert the Sandy Koufax of niche bookselling, "hanging it up" while still at the top of his game. Part of what made Koufax so great is that he didn't try to do it all himself—he trusted the team behind him to make plays. Jack has always done this, as well, putting the ball in motion and getting everyone behind him in a position to handle the orders and responsibilities that came our way to complete the transaction. He has always been a hands-off manager. If we ever screwed anything up (which was inevitable because what we do can become very, very complicated logistically), we took personal responsibility and felt worse about it than anyone, because we had put a blemish up on the scoreboard that day, a mark in the error column.
And, when an error occurred, Jack always made sure we went above and beyond to solve the issue and make the customer happy, even if it was at great expense to our organization—even if it meant we lost money on the play. As he stressed to me time and time again, giving your all to correcting a customer issue builds a greater personal relationship with them than if there were never an issue with the order in the first place, so treat the blemish as a blessing in disguise.
800-CEO-READ just had its best year ever in 2013,
which makes Jack Covert the Sandy Koufax of niche bookselling,
“hanging it up” while still at the top of his game.
On a personal level, Jack has always quietly encouraged and utilized our strengths, allowed for individual idiosyncrasy and a little personal excess, while championing our overall personal and professional success. By allowing us all to show up to work everyday as our authentic selves, he has encouraged us to be our best selves. And, as a result, we now have a team of veteran booksellers—and everyone here, from the accounting department to the customer service team to the general manager, considers themselves a bookseller. To illustrate the length of most of our team's tenure, consider this: I began my twelfth year with the company in January, and I still feel a little like "the new guy." But, really, I would say it feels more like being a younger brother (a role I know all too well), because Jack built more than a company here—he has built a family. He has fostered in us a friendship with each other and loyalty to himself, the company, and the cause of bookselling that has become a part of the fabric of who we all are as people. And he has done so much to help so many of us grow as individuals.
By allowing us all to show up to work everyday as our authentic selves,
he has encouraged us to be our best selves.
He always cared more about the growth of the company and its employees than he cared about growing his own pocket book. Most founders and presidents of successful organizations in our town would have been much more greedy, demanding a higher share of the profits and a lakeshore address. Instead, he is more interested in his employees being able purchase homes of their own. He himself still lives in the lovely yet modest home he bought when he was a record store owner in the 1970s. This lack of personal greed, in combination with a devotion to hustling down every last lead to put money in the till of the company, is a unique combination that will leave its mark on the organization and everyone that passes through it. And, of course, Jack would have had a far different life without the company and all of us.
Jack will still be coming around once a week to consult with us, so thankfully we don't have to write a "We'll miss you, Jack!" eulogy in this space. But today, being his official retirement from the presidency of the company, is truly the end of an era in an industry that barely existed when he entered it, and a company that he built from scratch.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.