Book firm writing a success story

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The Independent Online
SUPPLYING school bookshops and public libraries hardly sounds like a golden business opportunity in the 1990s. After all, there's a common perception that children and teenagers are too engrossed in television and computer games to bother with books - and surely schools and libraries are starved of funds.

Books for Students, however, has been growing, increasing its operating profit by 72 per cent to pounds 599,000 in the three years since a management buyout from W H Smith.

Despite its name, the company has only just begun to supply university libraries, and the rapid growth in higher education could provide another lucrative market.

The firm's annual turnover is already running at pounds 13m and it says it is the biggest supplier of paperbacks to public libraries in the UK.

How has this success been achieved? One customer, Barrie Kempthorne, an assistant county librarian from Hampshire, said: 'You feel as though you're being looked after. I could go to a warehouse nearer home, but here I can have a good browse around.'

He said he had spent pounds 10,000 in less than an hour in the vast, airy room at the company's stylish headquarters on an industrial estate outside Leamington Spa. Shelves that stretch into the middle distance hold virtually every paperback in print, from Mills and Boon bodice- rippers to weighty biographies.

When Mr Kempthorne has completed his selections, staff downstairs in the warehouse will roam the aisles with supermarket-style trolleys to fill his order and ensure it is sent to Hampshire within a week.

The company employs more than 260 people, mostly women. Men fill only four of the top 10 management jobs. 'It's the nature of the work rather than a deliberate company policy,' said Mary Emerson, the managing director.

Books for Students has almost certainly benefited from educational reforms. Local management of schools has meant that head teachers are no longer obliged to buy from suppliers used by their local authorities. 'So although the total market is underfunded,' Ms Emerson said, 'the shape is changing and there are things we can respond to.'

John Vaughan, the sales and marketing director, said he kept schools supplied with details of the company's key collections of paperbacks and hardbacks.

'We have a 12-strong sales force ready to respond to their inquiries and to provide advice to English teachers.'

The company also provides help in setting up school bookshops. It is already supplying 5,000 of them.

'We want to get over the idea that reading is fun,' Ms Emerson said, 'and get children into the book-buying habit.'

(Photograph omitted)