Episode 267 – The Family Business with Keel Hunt

Keel HuntIn our fascination with tech start-ups and big corporates, we might be tempted to overlook the family business. Keel Hunt describes Ingram as ‘the quiet company’ – 50 years young, still family owned, and still quietly partnering with all the other players in the book supply chain to innovate and do business better. 

If you love books, chances are you’ll have benefited from an Ingram service perhaps without even knowing it. And as books have faced the challenge of the digital revolution, it’s perhaps down to Ingram rather than other flashier, more famous companies in the book supply space that the book industry continues to thrive, and in particular to their habit of asking: ‘Why are we doing it this way?’

Keel Hunt also reveals some hard-won journalistic secrets of interviewing and research, and how you find ‘the story that hasn’t been written yet’. 

Keel’s site: https://www.keelhunt.com/

Keel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KeelHunt

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Keel Hunt, who is an editorial columnist for the Tennessean and author of Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor and Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the 21st Century and Could Save America. His new book is The Family Business: How Ingram Transformed the World of Books.

He’s been a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent, and he’s consulted to some of America’s largest companies and institutions from HCA and Ingram to first Tennessee Bank and Vanderbilt University. So welcome to the show Keel.

Keel Hunt: Thank you. Thank you for your interest in the new book.

Alison Jones: I’m fascinated in this book and this may be a slightly niche preoccupation, I do realize, but also the contrast between Ingram and Amazon, I think is really fascinating. So I’d love to get into that as we go on. But firstly, congratulations on the new book because it’s always a great thing, isn’t it? Tell me why you turned to this. It’s a little bit off the beaten track of what you’ve done before. I know there’s a Tennessee connection. So just, yeah. Tell me a little bit more about why

Keel Hunt: Yeah, well, I grew up so to speak as a newspaper reporter. And when I was still in, well, I was very early in college and began working nights and weekends at the newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee. And I’ve always been interested therefore, in nonfiction and stories about real people who’ve achieved things and other characters who got into trouble and so forth, because that’s what you do when you’re a newspaper reporter.

And that interest was only accelerated for me when I worked for a time in Washington during my graduate school period. And not long after that I began meeting the Ingram family and I guess I was still in college because I’d heard references to Ingram book company and didn’t know much about it. In due course, you know, several years later I met the members of the family and did some work for them in my public affairs consulting work for a time. And Ingram has really been the quiet company. I mean, if you’re in book publishing or retail book selling and even if you’re an author, you probably know something about Ingram, but the more I learned and the more I got into the subject I realized that not many people know much more than that.

And so it became in my mind, a story that would be fun to tell, fun to read, I hope. And so we jump ahead quite ahead, and in 2018 John Ingram invited me to a meeting, a luncheon meeting was several Ingram executives and retirees and so forth. And to say that well in the year 2020, we’re going to have a 50th birthday.

What started as Ingram Book Company in 1970. And, you know, it was sort of… the purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm some ideas about how to take note of that milestone. And long story short, there was a suggestion that maybe there could be a book about Ingram Book Company, and John asked me to consider taking on that project and I was happy to and eager to. And so that’s how this book came to be.

So it’s not strictly in line with my two previous books, which are more about politics, government in the US. But I felt that what I write about in my newspaper column and so forth has been really more about, not strictly about government politics, but about our culture and how things work, how people get along and, you know, with the passing of time, I’m much more interested in that now than in the beginning. And so this very much relates to that. It’s how our society functions. Ingram of course at this point is one of the principal media companies in the world.

Alison Jones: Absolutely. And it is astonishing to think that they’re 50 years old. If you think about companies that were founded in 1970, there are very few of them still going, but the way that Ingram has grown and expanded into every aspect of the book supply chain and indeed printing and, you know, the whole infrastructure is so interesting.

So for those that don’t know, which will be most people, just, I guess the 30 second version of how Ingram grew from those early days and what is it you think about their story that’s perhaps interesting for other companies facing the kind of, I mean, publishing has been disrupted like almost no other industry, and yet they have, you know, not just survived, but thrived: what can we learn from that? How did they do it?

Keel Hunt: Well, to my mind, Alison, there are two main interests that readers might have in this story. One is as you say is how does the book industry work? How do the books get into the hands? How do they get made? How do they wind up in the hands of readers, consumers or so forth, and all the forms that are today available and Ingram has been an innovator.

You know, innovation in business is key. If you’re not innovating, whatever your field, chances are you’re slipping behind and in danger of expiring. And this happens as we know. So we can get back into that track if you want to.

But at the same time, I became fascinated with how Ingram as a family- owned business found its way. And as you suggest, I mean, it’s been quite a long life as a family business. Not just to talk about their family business and it still is privately held. But sort of doing honor and respect to family businesses everywhere because that’s a particular challenge of a way to make a living.

You know, family businesses have lots of, and there are scholars who have written about this, of course, but my hope was to kind of tip our hat to the fact that you have family owned and managed businesses, large and small that have survived and thrived. And I think that’s as much part of this story.

If only as a model in the form of Ingram that ought to be interesting to lots of folks.

Alison Jones: Yes. I think it really is interesting because we hear so much about startups and Silicon Valley. And this is such a different model. You used a lovely phrase earlier Keel, you called them the quiet company. And that came across as well in the foreword of the book, which is by Tim O’Reilly, who’s another publishing hero of mine.

And he talks about the fact the way that Ingram have worked throughout their history, in partnership with other players in the book trade, with librarians, with library suppliers, with publishers particularly. And that really interests me. I think there must be some connection there with that family-owned status, you know, they are accountable to themselves.

They don’t have that kind of relentless pressure of the kind of quarterly shareholder things, but also that there are values at the heart of the company that are very, very different to those of other companies that we could mention in the book supply chain, for example…

Keel Hunt: well, yes. And I think the one constant in the, you know, sort of long-running Ingram story over the years has been the drive to innovate, as I’ve said, to find new ways but always to consider the customer unofficially, a business partner or ally over the years and certainly over the time I’ve researched this book.

I can’t count how many times I heard Ingram people say in so many words that if our customer succeeds, we succeed. And there’s no idea that we won’t consider. And the great story of how Lightning Source, the print on demand innovation of Ingram.

I mean, so it tells the story in the book about how John Ingram and a colleague of his were going through a huge warehouse stocking books in Laverne, Tennessee, and John turns to his colleague and says, remind me why we are wallpapering the warehouse with copies of physical books, you know, when there really ought to be a better way and of course, inventory costs had become a major item, an expense item for book publishers and everybody connected to them, certainly including Ingram. And isn’t there a better way? And I think that question appears, you know, in many of the stories in this book.

Alison Jones: It’s one of the most foundational questions of innovation, isn’t it? Is there a better way of doing this?

Keel Hunt: Yes. And so, you know, in a matter of days, they hire a man named Larry Brewster. They begin to form alliances with technology companies and in a matter of months really, they have figured out how to do this.

Now it took a while longer for Ingram folks to persuade the publishers of books, that is the owners of the content, that this was a smart way to go. So, the new book kind of captures that sequence of events and it did work. And now Lightning Source is very important part of the book industry with production facilities in the UK and Australia, as well as the US.

Alison Jones: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, just to give people a sense of the scale and the reach of Ingram, we use Lightning Source as a kind of backfill, so we never go out of stock. So we have traditional printing goes into the warehouse, but then Lightning Source is kind of there to make sure that we don’t miss a sale. So we use Lightning Source, we use CoreSource, which is their digital asset distribution system, which sends our eBooks and our audio out to 30-40 different sorts of channels for that. We use VitalSource, which is their e-textbook delivery platform. We use NBN International, it’s not them anymore, it’s Ingram Content Group, in the UK for our warehousing and distribution, Consortium in the U S for sales and distribution.

And I’m sure there’s other stuff that we use that is Ingram, but it is just phenomenal, the reach, and of course there’s Ingram Spark because they then took that technology, which they developed for the book trade. And they kind of made a version of it for authors, which, you know, is that sort of market development angle.

So it is absolutely phenomenal, the range of activity, isn’t it?

Keel Hunt: Yeah. And so many and I appreciate you going through that kind of litany of, you know, what are now business names, but still to many readers currently those would be just like you’re speaking another language you know.

Alison Jones: No. Sorry for getting carried away there, listeners.

Keel Hunt: Well, for any one player we call them in the industry, you might make use of one or two or three of those services. But not all of them. And so this book in part is a way to say, well, this is how things happen. This how innovation occurs. And Ingram Spark is particularly interesting because for the longest time Ingram did not have a way of serving authors directly.

 And Lightning in the first place became a way to help smaller publishers, not just the leading publishers in the market and so forth, but many, many smaller publishers who were in due course kind of willing to put their content library and this is a very careful decision that they have to make.

But they did, and it became a source of new sales, I remember kind of getting the impression early and learning about Lightning Source that no book need ever go out of print,

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s been incredible for backlist titles. That’s right.

Keel Hunt: There’s new life now for the backlist and therefore the publisher you know, and, you know, benefitting authors and so forth as well, but could capture a new percentage of sales and revenue and profit from their assets?

Alison Jones: Hmm, do you know, I genuinely could go on about Ingram stuff, I think it’s absolutely fascinating. I do want to ask you about writing though, and particularly, you know, when you’re researching, it’s a business and this is a business book in a sense, and there are lessons there for businesses, but it’s also a deeply personal story of a family, as you say.

So just give us a bit of an insight into how you go about drawing out the stories that you’re going to use to move the book forward. How do you find those stories and how do you organize them so that you get a book at the end of the day?

Keel Hunt: Well, I think in the first place you try to understand the subject. I’m working on a new book project now, this is the very outset of the project, but it’s essentially to be a biography of a very interesting character. And well you try to, of course, that sort of structure almost needs to be a chronological one. But the fact is most books about business are chronological too. And you, you started here and you incorporate or whatever and so forth, but, so I try to develop an outline early on. And then that outline will change you know in different ways as you evolve your understanding of the bigger subject, that outline becomes at some point a table of contents.

And, you begin to then flesh. So if the outline has 10 essential parts based on, you know, early research. Well then that constitutes 10 stories that I must write, 10 essays that I need to compose. And then once that, or some of those anyway, are accomplished, you know, words on paper, then that helps to flesh out the rest of the story in that chapter.

And so I love the interview process. I admire what you do, you know, where you’re getting someone to explain how they did this or why they thought that and so forth. And, I love the interview process and it’s, you know, and there are tools now that make it a little more efficient, but, you know, but getting into discussion with actual people is what really kind of takes me back to my early years as a newspaper reporter.

I mean, how do things happen? How do good things get accomplished and people typically then that you asked to interview really love telling their own story. And so from that, you wound up with the material that you need.

 Now in terms of creation of the book, I’m not a fan of footnotes. I mean some authors that I know, including some quite outstanding writers and authors and historians are the opposite.

I mean, they feel they need to cite their sources. And so you end up with many, many pages of notes or footnotes. And so, but I like for my story to be understandable for the layman including some lay people who might be put off by the manuscript being sort of slowed down with too many footnotes.

Alison Jones: Yeah. you see, I love a good footnote, me. Not so much the citing ones, but the ones where they just give you a little kind of aside, you know, a little bit more kind of context and texture to it. I love that.

Keel Hunt: Yes, I totally enjoy the process and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to now have three books published and I know that I’m fortunate. My first two books were published by the Vanderbilt University Press, as you indicated. And this new book is by West Margin Press based in California.

And, but this is how books happen, right? And then they happen in different forms and as you’re suggesting. And so I thought the story of Ingram and how it grew and developed and innovated over 50 years would help people including lay people, who were chiefly interested in how do small businesses get a step and succeed, would find that a compelling story,

Alison Jones: I want to go back to what you were saying about interviewing, because I thought that was really fascinating and I love that you love interviewing. I can just see from the kind of the journalistic flair there. What I find often is that people, when they are setting out to interview people for their book, often over-prepare, you know, they have their sort of list of questions.

How do you maintain that balance between finding out what you know you need to know, what you know you don’t know, but also leaving space for the stuff that you just don’t know you don’t know? And the stories that are actually going to delight you and surprise you and give you insights that you didn’t know?

How do you kind of hold that balance when you’re talking to someone in an interview?

Keel Hunt: Yeah, great question. Well, I think that that’s what requires the writer to keep him or herself open to surprise and to not be so rigid in a set of prepared questions that you can’t be surprised and then flexibility or willingness to want surprise, make that turn down a new path.

And to me, the interview process, like, you know, is somewhat akin to the writing process, that it’s a living thing. You know, you will be surprised and particularly when people who have the information you’re after understand that you’re wanting to know the whole story.

You’re wanting to know their story, you know, where did they come from? And, in most cases, I would say in most cases interviews for me have typically begun with, tell me your story, or even how you, you know, you ran for public office or you, you know, that comes later, but what is your story?

Where did you grow up? Who were the influences in your life? And people will talk about their parents typically, they will talk about role models. I began early in this previous book project to ask people, to make a point of asking each interviewee at some point earlier in the interview.

Well, let me change the channel with you just quickly, tell me who have been your role models. And people will typically mention a parent or, you know, parents, and they will talk about teachers, maybe someone in high school or college who made a particular impression on them. And you know, it might’ve sent them down a totally unexpected career path.

Those questions, I would say are the most important ones. I mean, you always want to get your, if you’re writing about, you know, the biggest company in the world, or if you’re writing about the founding family of an important business, you’re gonna need to get the essentials of those stories, but having a bit of a you know, giving the interviewee a bit of an outlet beyond your prepared questions has usually paid off for me.

Alison Jones: I love that sense of going behind the business to that person behind it and finding what makes them tick. Yeah. And I’m going to ask you actually and it’s… I love talking to people who write professionally. You know, most of the people who listen to this podcast are business people, writing books, they aren’t writers first and foremost.

So it’s really helpful to get a writer to say, well, do you know what, this is how I do it. I’m going to take you under the hood, you know, so if I was to ask you what your best tip would be for a first-time author, it can be as tactical or as abstract as you like. But what, one thing would you say to somebody who’s doing this for the first time?

Keel Hunt: I think being careful to pick your subject. Of course that may seem obvious, but, you know, to be selective of all the things you might write, of all the things you might delve into in your research. What you know, what is the one, what’s the story that hasn’t been written as yet? And that leads to a whole new series of questions, of course.

 And so being flexible in what you decide is the frame of your story. But there’s so many stories in business that have not been told as yet that, you know, where did this founder come from? I thought that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know, was so fascinating.

 There’s so many like that, that haven’t been written yet. And I think taking you know, of course, keeping up with the news, who’s who, what businesses are making news by way of innovations is such a rich, fertile field to think about and decide what you are going to write about because once you decide that is, I think the older I get, the more I’m conscious that I want to be careful about the topics that I select, because that is a major time commitment on the part of the writer.

And I would almost say it’s an opportunity cost because while you’re deeply into research and interviews and so forth on that current project, you know, you really can’t do too much else. And you know, there are outstanding writers, I think of James Patterson, who writes the thrillers and so forth, and he just has a book a year or two. But he has help, and most of us don’t have help.

Alison Jones: Yes, and he’s doing it full time and most business book writers aren’t doing it full time.

Keel Hunt: Yes, Patterson, there are other good examples, but he comes to mind because he went to college at Vanderbilt and I met him in a book expo once. And so amazing author.

Alison Jones: Yes. And you’re right, an absolute book production machine. And, there are writers like that who make the rest of us feel really inadequate. But I love that thing about actually really being alive to the opportunities and it’s where your curiosity takes you. But you’ve got to really be sure because your attention, your time, those are your two most valuable resources, aren’t they?

Keel Hunt: That’s right. That’s right. And I was, and this is connected to a reason that I found this project so enjoyable, you know, this is not really an authorized biography, as we say of Ingram book company. But it’s pretty revealing. I mean, there are stories here between these covers that people generally don’t know and have never heard.

So I think it’s very readable and attractive with a new book for that reason, but also you know, it has been written with the full cooperation of John Ingram and his senior team and his family. And I could not be more grateful for that.

 I was thinking at one point after the manuscript came in, you know, that there was no, quite literally this is true, there was no question that I ever sat there and asked John Ingram that he declined to answer.

He was very forthcoming. And so you combine that with your knowledge that this is, you know, has been the quiet company.

 You know, on the occasions they have something to announce, they will announce it. But then they typically go back into the silent mode and doing their business and providing their services to customers. And, but there was no question he declined to answer. And of course, over 50 years, and there were some you know, there were lots of successes, but there were some failures, there were some ideas that flopped and he talked about, he talks about those too.

Alison Jones: Yes, it is really fascinating. And it’s interesting you mentioned Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography as well, because I was also going to ask you if there’s a book apart from this one, obviously that you would recommend for people to read, it can be perhaps as an example of the craft or it could be just because it’s a really cracking story.

What would you recommend?

Keel Hunt: Well, one of my favorite writers is John Meacham, the historian. John Meacham is a scholar of the U S presidency. He’s written, you know, famous biographies of Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, George Bush the first and so forth. And he is a marvelous writer. And I think, you know, and these are deeply researched books, biographies and he, you know, he’s fond of footnotes and he has long section of his books with notes. And sometimes the notes are as interesting to read as the main manuscript, but he is a fine writer and I would just cite him. He also lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Oh, there’s just so many examples. Alison.

Alison Jones: No, that’s brilliant, I don’t know his work, but you know, as I say, I’m a sucker for a good footnote, so I’m going to go and check him out. That’s brilliant. Thank you.

And Keel if people want to find out more about you, more about your books, where should they go?

Keel Hunt: Well I have a book website, keelhunt.com. And you can see the previous books. This, of course, you know, The Family Business is so new, it doesn’t even appear yet on our book website. But on the other hand, the pub date is not until later in April. So we hope to catch up.

Alison Jones: Well, by the time this goes out, it’ll be just about coming out and you will have all that updated on the website. So that’s all good. We’re speaking in late March at the moment.

Keel Hunt: Yes. Yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Such a pleasure talking to you Keel and I found that backstory of a company that I really love working with actually, you know, the people at Ingram are wonderful. So for me, it was just fascinating, but just hearing how you go about doing that work, talking to the people, organizing the ideas.

You’ve really gone under the hood for us and shown us how you do it. And I really appreciate that generosity. So thank you so much for your time today.

Keel Hunt: Well, that’s a generous comment and thanks again, Alison. You’re doing important work.


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