From the Corner Office: Scholastic Is By the Book

UPDATED: June 23, 2011
PUBLISHED: June 23, 2011

For Richard Robinson, expanding a successful business has proved challenging child’s play.

During the past 90 years, Scholastic Inc. grew from the one-room classroom magazine enterprise his father started into the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books that Robinson oversees today. The $2 billion revenue company has more than 9,000 employees in 16 countries. Since the mid-1970s, when Robinson became president and CEO, Scholastic has emerged as a world leader in school-based distribution through book clubs and book fairs.

“We are constantly looking for a connection to the child’s basic interests, what about a book captures what’s important to the child reader or presents some fact in an amazing way,” Robinson tells SUCCESS. “In general, that’s what has characterized our most successful books, both as a publisher and distributor.”

Robinson’s strengths as a motivator and communicator of his company’s mission have proved critical as he expands his father’s company into a significant online services provider and burgeoning new media player.

“I think the most amazing thing about Scholastic is that you can ask anyone in the company, and to a person they will tell you our mission,” Robinson says. “My favorite story in this regard is from a trip to our distribution center in Jefferson City. I asked one of our many long-term employees there, ‘What is your job? What are you doing here?’ He never mentioned the forklift he was sitting on but rather said, ‘My job is to help children love to read.’ As far as he was concerned, when he was moving the books off the stacks of pallets to the people who would send them out to the kids, that’s what he was doing.”

Robinson credits his father with his early leadership lessons. “He had a great sense of mission,” the younger Robinson says. “He was most interested in clear communication, focusing on every single word the company put out, and in serving the customer. What I also gained from him as he navigated his ups and downs—he was constantly struggling to make the payroll in the company’s first 35 years—was the importance of resilience and focus. As I took the company to a different level, I tried to follow the basic tenets that I could see had worked for him. Keeping them working in a bigger company was my challenge.”

M.R. Robinson was Scholastic CEO for 55 years, a title Richard has held for the past 35 years. Their leadership overlapped for five years, which Richard calls “the most difficult years of my life and perhaps his as well,” as M.R. agonized over many of the decisions the son made. “After he died, eventually I figured out that he had just been trying to maximize his ability to work and to be involved as he grew old rather than there being a vast difference in how we approached problems,” Robinson says.

Growing the company brought certain demands on the younger Robinson, who has carried with him the lessons of resilience, persistence and optimism from his childhood favorite, The Little Engine That Could. “You have to upgrade the talent base, and then manage those talents effectively,” he says. “Then you have to listen and find out what’s on your employees’ minds, and to put yourself in their shoes. Typically, people want to do a great job but they want to know what is expected of them, and understand how they can benefit from their good work. If you link all those things together, then you’re doing your leadership job.”

The second-generation CEO worked a variety of jobs—ranging from linotype operator to bricklayer to teacher—before joining the “family” business. From those experiences, “I learned to never underestimate anyone, and that every individual brings his own value to the table,” he says.

Early on, Robinson realized he needed to recruit people with skills and talents he didn’t possess, and to “depend on them and delegate some of the tasks of building the company.”

That philosophy proved timely. In the early 1980s, as baby boomers’ children began reading, Scholastic built its children’s book business with book fairs and clubs, and direct sales to the home. In the early ’90s, the company leapt into Internet product development before Internet usage was widespread, with an interactive teacher service in association with AOL. “We knew that teachers would be using the Internet to teach, so it became a part of our growth strategy. We also developed a strong technology education business, which is now worth about $250 million in revenue.”

The company’s education core grew dramatically. “We kept making our company more relevant, and were able to increase our revenues,” Robinson says. “We had some great fortune, such as the phenomenon of Harry Potter [the company took a ‘small big risk’ in 1997 by ponying up an advance to then-unknown British writer J.K. Rowling for U.S. publishing rights on the Harry Potter books], and from our book fair and international expansion efforts.”

Today, Scholastic is developing e-book stores as an extension of its e-commerce business, where it has converted the company’s book clubs to an Internet-based platform. “Since we both create and distribute content, and have direct customer relationships, the most important thing for us is to provide our customers with books in forms they want them, whether in print or on screens.” Robinson says. “The selling of these books is similar to traditional print; the making and delivering of them is different. We have many of these skills in the company already, as we have been in the television and movie business for 30 years and have people who are good with animation and producing videos, including book-based videos. We’ve been in the Internet business for 15 to 20 years, and have capability in that area. The blending of print-audio-visual techniques into new forms of reading offers great potential.”

Although the company is constantly challenged, Robinson’s mission has never been clearer. “Kids are still reading great works on a page, even in a digital format. It’s clear that there is going to be some combination of theater, movies, writing, video, audio that’s going to emerge as a new media format. What format it will take, we don’t know yet,” he says.

“You create in your own mind when you read,” Robinson says. “The power of viewing is something different. Right now, one of our missions is to keep the books alive. The ride at NBC-Universal Studios in Orlando and the movies are now how many children are introduced to Harry Potter. We are fighting for the books, and trying to keep them in forefront of kids’ minds.”

For Robinson, reading is more than fundamental. It is operational, and inspiring.

The company has long sponsored an arts and writing awards program for U.S. students in grades seven through 12; alumni include Robert Redford, Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Joyce Carol Oates and Sylvia Plath. Scholastic received about 175,000 entries last year.

“The participation in the arts and writing program in a sense rivals the company itself in its impact on the arts in American high schools,” Robinson says.

The company also operates a social networking website, “You Are What You Read,” where visitors can identify their five favorite books.

The books Robinson finds most inspiring offer some insight into his executive vision. “I’d have to include King Henry V, Act III, William Shakespeare, ‘once more into the breach,’ ” he says. “I would also throw in War and Peace [Leo Tolstoy]; A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man [James Joyce], which is one of my all-time favorites; and the New and Old Testaments. In terms of business, I’d pick the Peter Drucker books. No one has touched him in being fundamentally sound about business, although Jim Collins comes close. Drucker’s basic principle—What value are you adding?—is such a great basic question, and inspiring to me. The collective impact of his books has inspired me at Scholastic to ask what are we here for and why are we here?”