Keynote speakers share wisdom from the business world

At the first full day of the American Booksellers Association's 2024 Winter Institute, two keynote speakers talked about how they manage difficult business situations—one by encouraging action and change, the other by constructive negotiation. Private equity investor James Rhee, author of the book The Red Helicopter: A Parable for Our Time (HarperOne, April), spoke to WI2024 attendees about how to maximize the intangibles of a bookstore or brand, the values ​​that are invisible on the income statement. Conflict resolution specialist William Ury, author of the book Possible: How to Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict (HarperBusiness, February), talked about “navigating this wave of turbulent times” and avoiding the trap of pessimism.

Rhee took the stage with four books, including his children's edition of Aesop's Fables, which he and his father bought in the 1970s at the Corner Bookstore near their hometown of Stony Brook, New York, years later when he graduated from law school Harvard and majored in economics. , Rhee rose to fame after revamping Ashley Stewart's company, which was founded as a retailer of plus-size clothing for black women. Ashley Stewart was close to bankruptcy when Rhee offered to step in as CEO, envisioning it not as a clothing company but as a luxury fashion brand with a positive message for BIPOC people.

“This company was asked to fit into a box, but it wasn't a typical company,” Rhee told the Winter Institute audience. He knew that his success lay beyond the clothes, in the customer's sense of personal identity, and he called his approach “a much more reciprocal form of capitalism.” Rhee believes independent bookstores can succeed by “controlling the story” of their missions and the roles of small, local businesses, a concept echoed in several educational sessions throughout the day. “We will implement our own future,” he said.

inside Red helicopter and in his keynote speech, Rhee, who is Korean-American, also introduced the Korean Principle Jeongin free translation good mood. Jeong it is immeasurable, but it gives or receives Jeong it can forge an emotional bond — “what economists call 'positive externalities,'” Rhee said. He added, “I found myself again” when I worked in good faith to save a failing company. Now he hopes to convince listeners that kindness is a literal business asset and a source of long-term equity, even if it doesn't show up on the balance sheet. “Can we be nice and be mathematically correct?” he asked.

During the debriefing after his talk, Rhee shared advice from his experience at private equity firms. To test bookstore business models, he recommended booksellers try an exercise he called “lemonade stand economics” with their teams, imagining how kids might run a corner lemonade stand. At a typical lemonade stand, everyone usually deals in inventory, splits the profits evenly, and doesn't consider labor, rent or marketing costs: “It's like the purest form of capitalism,” he said, though others might call it a co-op or a collective.

Although Rhee's example was playful, he used it to model a bare-bones company with a “culture of choice” between participants and everyone who understands what needs to be done: “In business school, you call this 'cross-functional training.' Lemonade stand operators exercise the short-term form of “agency” that Rhee is looking for, and those who are not interested in exhibiting an entrepreneurial spirit can be “cancelled”—meaning they can leave. In his examples, Rhee suggested that managers benefit from being transparent with staff about the store's gross profit and net profit. He looked for “what accounting doesn't measure” and urged booksellers to consider how intangible assets—such as generous customer relationships or low employee turnover—affect the bottom line: “Money never lies,” he said. “The values ​​are on your balance sheet.”

Ury, a negotiation consultant and mediator who has worked with governments and businesses, began his presentation by naming all the independent bookstores he had loved in his life. “I have a special love for bookstores and books, and this gives me great pleasure,” he said. “I can appreciate how challenging the last few years have been for you, dealing with competition from big chains and of course the pandemic. But I know the role you play in your communities as a place to gather, a place to learn, a place to enjoy. I am truly happy to share some lessons with you – to serve you as you serve others.”

Asking his audience how “as human beings we learn to live together” and “constructively deal with our differences,” Ury noted that people are constantly negotiating with their families, coworkers, clients, and themselves. Ury described himself as a “can-doer” and said he believed in the potential of people “to transform even the most difficult conflicts we face, from destructive struggles to creative negotiations and dialogue.” Ury urged his audience to change their mindset and see obstacles as opportunities. “Conflict is natural – it's a part of human life,” he said, stressing that people should embrace conflict to “change the form from destructive conflict to creative, constructive, collaborative negotiation.”

To help the audience conceptualize this, Ury constructed an architectural metaphor. He explained that people should step back from any situation in order to maintain a clear perspective from what he called a “balcony”; try to find a solution that will satisfy all parties (from the “bridge”); and seek the help of others in finding a solution (“Third Party”). “When conflicts are severe, we need all three at the same time,” he said. “Negotiations are an inside job. It runs from the inside out. And paradoxically, the best way to start is to stop.”

Getting people around to find solutions is “our oldest human heritage in conflict resolution,” Ury said. “It's our birthright.” He illustrated this natural tendency by asking audience members to “get into a wrestling stance” with the person next to them. When people held hands, laughed and play-fighted, he observed that they were negotiating their behavior with their partner.

Independent bookstores, Ury said, “serve as a natural balcony—a place of perspective where people can see the bigger picture by reading books. Your stores serve as a natural bridge: a place where the community gathers, socializes, and exchanges ideas. Your stores serve as a natural third party: a place that stands for the benefit of the whole, the entire community. I believe you have an important role to play in helping our communities navigate times of conflict. He creates opportunities one book at a time. This is the model of the possibilists: it is humble audacity. High aspirations, no expectations.”

Elvira Parkinson

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