Retail and Consumer

400 per cent growth as staff-owned book business’s turnover heads past £30m

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 09 September 2020 7:10

If ever a book is written telling the story of this Gloucestershire business the chapter on its journey through lockdown will be a page-turner – as the reader tries to find out how it has achieved 400 per cent sales growth.  

We are talking about an already £30 million turnover business whose story began two decades ago when, as a small chain of book shops, it began to feel the early winds of change brought by the internet.       

As its once rock-solid position on the high street began to look less certain owners, Dan Cherrington (then near what you and I might call retirement age), and his partner, Anne Brown, decided not to shut up shop, but explore the possibilities of the new technology

Fiercely independent from the off, they quickly understood the benefits of working closely with Amazon - not yet the household name it is today – and became a successful pioneer of online book sales.

In 2005 the business, the Paperback Shop (PBS) was able to move from the cow shed in which it has been operating to its current Cotswold home and today deals with 150 different publishers and has suppliers and customers in 18 countries.  

Last year Mr Cherrington - erstwhile farmer, TV presenter and author (now in his early eighties) - decided to retire after all and arranged for the business to be bought by its staff.  

Determined to build on their work to date, and not be swallowed by the insatiable appetite of Amazon, they created an employer-owned trust, meaning all who work at PBS would benefit from any on-going success. Many staff have been with the business since it started. 

Then came the pandemic. The resultant growth achieved by the Fairford-headquartered firm suggests the business has lost it none of the entrepreneurial passion or spark with the departure of its founders.  

“Because we deal with countries all around the world we were able to see the impact of Covid-19 quite early and began immediately to look at our suppliers and who we would be able to rely on,” said Caroline Summers, sales director at the Fairford-based business, who joined the business last year, hinting at the forward planning that readied them. 

“We knew that where the transport links stayed open we would be okay. We also looked hard at how we could operate and stay safe.”  

Despite extraordinary demand in certain markets – such as the United States of America – PBS had quickly realised restrictions on the movement of goods made it impossible to deliver within its usual timeframe. And reluctantly they wrote those countries out of the story. 

As forward-looking as they might have thought they were being, they did not predict the drama of what was to unfold.  

Demand for academic books to help with home-schooling, teach-yourself books, puzzles, jigsaws, all of which the firm can deliver, went off the charts.

“By mid-march we had seen a 400 per cent growth online,” said Ms Summers (pictured above), who said the rapid growth had at times seen everyone – from senior managers to sales – packing orders into boxes.  

“We turned over £30 million as of July this year. We had planned to reach £50 million in the next three years. It now looks like we may be on target to make that by the end of next year.”  

It is a story which it has not handled entirely alone, reaching for the support of a certain Gloucestershire-based network of advisors, which specialises in helping business big and small achieve their growth.  

“Where would we be without the Growth Hub and Andy Kime? Possibly still talking about our three-year strategy and not quite getting over the finish line to implement it.  

“As an employee owned trust the advice we have received has been relevant, practical and above all actionable. We have a robust and exciting plan for growth, we have a whole host of new connections and the future for our company is a truly exciting one,” said Ms Summers.   

“Andy has proven to be a trusted advisor and his professional balance of practical implementation skills and business strategy has enabled us to adopt a whole new way of strategizing for the future.”  

More excited than phased by what they are experiencing the business has already been hiring – across the board – and has recruited into its IT department as it works to make its own on-line platform futureproof and further protect its independence and growth potential.  

Since April it has also hired eight new people for its warehouse and a staff member to its finance department.  

It expects growth to continue, not just because of the longevity of the pandemic, but because it thinks much of the shift to on-line shopping will stick with customers. 

Which also explains why as well as the changing staff numbers it has not ruled out including a line about a new premises in its ongoing adventure either.  

We got hold of Mr Kime to get his take on the extraordinary story. 

He said this: “Working alongside the management team has been a pleasure.  

“Helping put a framework around the enthusiasm and professionalism of the business, focussing attention on key performance metrics to measure and target growth has been hugely rewarding.  

“The employee ownership trust culture has been evident with them all pulling together during the pandemic, resulting in exceptional growth, and I look forward to continuing my relationship with them throughout 2020 and beyond.”