Barnes & Noble founder and chairman Len Riggio, who announced last week that he will retire as chairman of the company in September, said that he never intended to be a businessman his entire life, but he could never find the right time to leave. “There have been huge changes in the industry over the last 10 years, largely driven by things that were beyond our control,” he explained. But with things at B&N and the industry in general “settling down,” Riggio said, he was sure it was time to fully pursue his philanthropic and social interests.
After Riggio officially steps down at the end of B&N’s September annual meeting, Paul Guenther will serve as nonexecutive chairman and Riggio will remain a board member and the company’s largest shareholder. Guenther is a former president of Paine Webber and a B&N board member since 2015. Ron Boire, B&N CEO will report to the board. Riggio said he will not be a “shadow chairman” and will only offer advice when asked.
In addition to building B&N into the country’s largest book retailer, Riggio founded Barnes & Noble College Stores and the video game chain GameStop. B&N bought B&N College in 2009 and spun it off last summer as a standalone company called Barnes & Noble Education. GameStop was spun off from B&N in 2004. In 2012, after the early success of the Nook digital reading devices, B&N explored the possibility of making the Nook division into a separate company, only to abandon that strategy when sales of Nook devices were a huge disappointment in the holiday 2012 season. The Nook never regained its momentum and B&N has been drastically downsizing its presence in the manufacturing of digital reading devices.
Riggio acknowledged it was difficult to compete in an e-book market where Amazon, Apple, and Google have more financial resources than B&N. Going forward, B&N will sell Nook devices and Nook books on the BN.com site and in apps, but Riggio was excited that the company will “get back to what we do best: selling and retailing books.”
Riggio was confident that physical books and bricks-and-mortar bookstores will weather the digital challenge. “For years people have been talking about the doom and gloom for books,” but books have survived, he said. Riggio said that it’s “great” that independent bookstores are expanding again and that he was disappointed that Walmart and Target have cut back their book sections. “The more places to buy books, the better,” he said.
The big advantage physical bookstores have over e-tailers is the ability for shoppers to browse, something that still has to be duplicated online, Riggio believes. And though he said the indications of bookstores’ future are positive, he nonetheless said he doesn’t see “a golden age of bookselling” coming. “You are not going to make a fortune in bookselling, but you can get a decent return on your investment,” he said.
No one in bookselling has likely ever received a better return on an investment in bookselling than Riggio. He opened his first college bookstore in 1965 and by 1985 B&N was the country’s third largest bookstore chain, with 37 trade stores, 142 college bookstores, and sales of about $225 million. In late 1986 Riggio, with financial backing from the Dutch company Vendex International, acquired the much bigger B. Dalton chain (with 1985 sales of $538 million and 798 stores). The acquisition made B&N the largest physical bookstore in the U.S., a position it still maintains (although, with its sales of e-books, Amazon is now the country’s largest bookseller). While the purchase of Dalton greatly expanded B&N’s presence in malls, it also supported Riggio’s efforts to create book superstores, a format that still dominates the bookselling landscape, although the rise of online retailing and e-books has put financial pressure on large bookstores.
With his long ties to the book world, Riggio has no plans to sever his connection to the bookselling and publishing communities. One of the many things he may pursue in retirement is some sort of literacy program. He also has a number of ideas for books.
Looking over his sometimes tumultuous career, Riggio took a great deal of pride in building a physical book retailer that had the ability to weather numerous challenges. “We are the last man standing,” he said. “I guess that means we did it the best.”