The Corner Office: How Hachette Book Group Measures Success
With its new Web site, HBG has established an infrastructure for digital development, says COO Beth Ford.
With close to one year on the job, Hachette Book Group (HBG) Chief Operating Officer Beth Ford continues to work toward increasing efficiencies—and profits—for owner Hachette Livre, who purchased the publishing company from Time Warner in March 2006. Ford, who joined HBG last September after serving seven years as Scholastic’s senior vice president of global operations and information technology, dove right in by reviewing the publisher’s processes and identifying “gaps” that needed to be filled.
It’s a full plate of responsibilities—one Ford relishes, she says. She spoke with Book Business about her approach to improving HBG’s bottom line.
• How do you improve a process or a department?
Beth Ford: … There’s a couple of ways I’ve approached it. I try to partner with [HBG Chairman and CEO] David Young. [We ask,] “What are the ‘pain’ points? What should we focus on?” … One thing to [understand] is … what the CEO thinks.
I [also] try to look at the major [spending] categories. What are the things—in the order of magnitude that can improve our bottom line—that are important to our customer and internally? … Then I sit with the heads of the departments, and see what their metrics are and how they approach their business. I like to [identify the trends] in their cost elements. I assess to see if that [department] needs some change or if there’s opportunity for improvement.
• How do you measure improvements?
Ford: I’m a very big believer in keeping track and keeping score by measuring the baseline performance and making sure you have the right metrics in place. … At the moment, I have a very strong team that’s working with me to challenge their own thinking or just build on their own baseline, working together to make sure the metrics are in place. If we do that, I think we will be successful [with] the bottom line of the business.
… The right metrics … vary by function. [They] measure service, quality, cost and efficiency, and tie directly to the overall results of the business. For example, measuring on-time performance and [turnaround] time for orders from our manufacturing partners, our order processing team, our warehouse and our deliveries to retailers allows us to see if we are supporting our customers appropriately and efficiently. These types of measures also help us to see where we might need investment in personnel, infrastructure or technology. In the end, these definitely have an impact on the overall results of the business.
• What changes have occurred in the last two years since the change in ownership?
Ford: The one thing we mention all the time here is that the move has been a great move for our business. We’ve had more investment by our parent company in the last year and a half than in the last 10 under Time Warner. When you’re with an owner like Hachette [Livre], they understand this business. It’s their business. They understand the importance of appropriate investments and giving some level of autonomy. They understand the worldwide businesses. I would say this change has been nothing but wonderful.
… The culture here is really quite impressive. … The business is incredibly strong. We’re having an incredible year. The discipline is incredible. David is one of the best leaders I have worked with. He’s a smart man who has genuine fun, as do the publishers. I think everyone feels fortunate to be in this business and in this company. …
• What fresh ideas have you brought to the company’s Web presence?
Ford: We just came alive with our new Web site. We’re thrilled with that. We think it’s a better face to the customer. …
… It’s about putting in place the infrastructure. What we’ve done with this initiative is [that] … we’re digitizing our platform. And in terms of the Web itself, we created a content management system that will help us be more efficient in Web development in the future. … We think it will improve online marketing. …
Making these investments in infrastructure allows us to be more efficient and be in [a] position to face evolutions in the marketplace. That initiative was under way when I came. The [role] that I played since that was initiated was to say, “Over the long-term, how are we best prepared to accomplish it?” …
• How do you approach the company’s distribution strategies?
Ford: In distribution, I would say we have a highly efficient platform. I’m very impressed, having been [on] the operating side of many businesses throughout my career. … One of the things I talked about with Gerry Cummings, our senior vice president of distribution, was his engineering standards and what his unit-costs metrics looked like. When you start a new role, you ask questions of the leaders who are new to you, and sometimes you can get some resistance. … I’ve been very impressed with the team there. … Gerry energetically updated his standards, and it helped him. … These standards measure how many units should be picked per hour, for instance, or how many pallets can be offloaded from a truck per hour. Standards such as these are very granular and allow Gerry and his team to then match their staffing levels to known rates for different work centers. When Gerry did that, in some areas standards got more rigorous. This drove a reduction in the number of personnel he thought he might need to hire for work during the year and had a direct impact on cost and bottom-line performance in the business. … It will help us be more efficient in the future.
• What is your main focus for your second year with the company?
Ford: The past year was just to understand what is working well, what we can improve upon, and just developing the metrics and focusing on the employees to make sure we have the right platforms in place with our appraisal and training and communication that will [continue to] make this a … phenomenal place to work. … We have a really talented group here.
One of the other things I’m focused on with the head of [human resources] is to come up with a competency appraisal. We want to focus on training to develop metrics. I’m a big believer in measuring performance, disseminating the appropriate info to different levels of managers to make sure we develop folks, and that they have full knowledge of what’s going on in this business. …
Peter Beisser is a regular contributor to Book Business. He previously was the managing editor of several North American Publishing Co. titles and has written extensively about the publishing industry.