Greg Josefowicz

photo by Bill Arsenault

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snacking on pretzel rods kept inside his coat, Greg Josefowicz (KGSM79) makes his first rounds through the corporate office of Borders Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The topic of the morning is the latest book he has read. He mingles among the ranks and enthusiastically displays the highlighting marks he's made throughout the book. Before moving on to chat with the next group of employees, he subtly interjects a new idea, eliciting an excited reaction from the group. One thing they've learned: In their CEO's head, the wheels are always turning.

Borders, founded in 1971, is now the second-largest operator of book superstores and the largest operator of mall-based bookstores in the world. And although Josefowicz generally has much to say when it comes to most topics of conversation, he likes to sum up Borders' appeal in a few words:

"Books...music...what's not to like?"

The company, which posted $3.3 billion in revenues last year, employs about 30,000 people worldwide. Its more than 1,220 stores, including more than 850 outlets under the Waldenbooks name, extend to the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and Puerto Rico.

"Much of what we have done continues to enhance and build upon the momentum that started before I got here," the Chicago native says. "While it feels great to personally accomplish what I have, it's all based upon having a keen appreciation for all the experiences I've had in service [industries]."

When Josefowicz was hired as president and CEO in November 1999, Borders became the second company he worked forever. The first was Jewel-Osco, a Midwestern grocery and drug chain where he began as a 16-year-old bag boy. He left his hometown of Chicago to attend Michigan State University but eventually returned and continued working at Jewel.

At the time Josefowicz's aspirations were far from grandiose. He had a general interest in marketing and eventually wanted to be a buyer for the company. During these early years in the business, he was shy in front of large audiences, says Mike Spinozzi, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Borders and a former co-worker at Jewel. But that didn't keep Josefowicz from ascending the corporate ladder.

As he sought more opportunities for career development, the Managers' Program at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management attracted his interest. In his application he wrote, "Eventually I would like to attain a high management position at Jewel. Although I realize that most of one's ‘promote-ability' is based on performance, I also realize that it is most important to obtain the business skills necessary to enhance one's performance on a broader scale."

With Jewel's financial support, Josefowicz enrolled in Kellogg in 1975. It was a rough road in which he took night classes while continuing to work full time. Although he believes the school made a "great effort" to accommodate the needs of working students, it was difficult to find time to hang out with his peers and Kellogg professors. Josefowicz also received tremendous support from his wife, who would often wait patiently for him to come home from his late classes.

By the time he graduated in 1979, his drive had become clear to those in Kellogg. "As a young person, he had both a direction and passion for his industry, and out of those things came good leadership skills," says Kellogg associate dean Ed Wilson (KGSM84), who had signed Josefowicz's admittance papers. "One of his strengths was always being focused and having something to address."

Advancing in the ranks, Josefowicz gradually achieved — and exceeded — his dream of attaining a high management position at Jewel. In fact he was named president and CEO of the company in 1997.

But even then, he was "not the kind of person you'd think would be CEO of a major company. He would never put on airs," says Jay Kramer, a longtime friend who met Josefowicz when they were both buyers for Jewel.

Josefowicz was known not only for memorizing everyone's name during strolls through the office but also for keeping himself updated on their lives. In one instance Kramer kidded CEO Josefowicz that he probably even knew where a particular loading-dock worker was vacationing.

"Actually, he's going to those dunes in Indiana," Josefowicz replied. Josefowicz received the Illinois Retail Merchants Association's Retailer of the Year award in 1999 for his commitment to the supermarket industry and dedication to the community. He had become such an integral part of Jewel that many co-workers thought he would never leave, says Kramer, currently the director of advertising at Jewel. To their dismay, Josefowicz did leave when Borders offered him the position of president and CEO.

Although he would miss the company that provided him with such a strong foundation for professional growth, Josefowicz saw the Borders offer as an opportunity to branch out.

While some people harbored initial skepticism about how a man who spent 30 years in a regional grocery business could handle an international book chain, most were excited about the new energy Josefowicz would bring to the company.

He says that coming from a different industry allowed him to take "a different, additional perspective on how best to organize or approach the business by in effect stealing the practices."

One management element he brought with him to Borders was "inclusivity," a term often used by his Kellogg professors to mean teamwork.

"One of my biggest strengths is the recognition of the value of shared leadership toward corporate success rather than something that one person can do," he says.

By continuing to exercise his remarkable memory in regular office rounds, Josefowicz soon earned the respect of his colleagues. Jenie Carlen, public relations manager at Borders, remembers a time earlier in her career when the Borders CEO greeted her on the streets of Ann Arbor just before she left the company. When Carlen returned to Borders several months later, Josefowicz commented on their chance encounter, even though he had not known her well before.

"That made a great impression on me," she says. "He's really good at making people feel comfortable."

However, when it comes to business, Josefowicz knows how to keep his employees on the edges of their seats.

Once, in 1996, Josefowicz and Kramer had a brief discussion about Jewel's upcoming centennial celebration. When Josefowicz asked Kramer for his ideas a week later, Kramer decoded the intentional mystery of their previous conversation and realized that he had been put in charge of planning the event.

"He would have 16 different ideas spinning in different directions at a time, making him a challenge to work with," Kramer says. "He's very impatient — but in a good way — with developing new concepts."

Since coming to Borders, Josefowicz has tried to instill more strategic, analytical visions in his managers, allowing them to feel more creative and accountable. The result has been greater company solidarity.

"Greg is not one who ascribes to the model of ‘a genius and 1,000 helpers,''' Spinozzi says. "He empowers those around him so that we all contribute to his vision and have ownership of it. He's been able to elevate the games of all the players on his team."

Says Josefowicz, "I enjoy the retail environment. I consider it a very open and fair environment and one in which you can succeed if you pay attention to all the signals that the consumer sends you."

In one Borders store in Evanston, the typically wide array of customers — from the suited to the casually clad — stroll around. As upbeat jazz music plays in the background, they sidle up to the bookshelves and saunter to the café or sit on the carpeted floor, where a book could keep them occupied for hours. Upstairs customers gravitate to the music preview stations, part of a campaign launched by Josefowicz that lets customers listen to selections from virtually every CD in the store.

"Stores that are able to afford a great environment and a great variety have been proven to be successful at meeting customer needs better than smaller locations," Josefowicz says. "We're able to offer not only physical product but an experience that goes beyond the mere commerce transaction."

On some evenings the Evanston store's doors stay open partly so that live musicians, announced by fliers plastered on the windows, entice passersby to come inside. On other occasions a local author will be invited to come for a reading or book signing. Events like these illustrate the community relationships Borders attempts to build in all its stores. The result is an atmosphere of which Josefowicz is proud — and one that made him a loyal customer long before he became CEO.

"As I always say, very seldom does a customer come into a bookstore with an attitude ... and if they do have an attitude, it's a very positive one," he says.

Another weapon that Josefowicz considers crucial to business success is old-fashioned customer service, generated in large part by the people behind the counter. "We have an unfair advantage in a way," he says. "The nature of the products we sell appeals a lot to the employees we attract."

While café-mingling, listening to music and shelf-browsing are the typical images associated with Borders, the company has also begun to expand in other ways under Josefowicz's command. Sales on the Internet, for example, brought Borders $27 million in revenues last year; however, the Internet portion of Borders' overall operation also resulted in a loss of $18 million for the same period. A recent alliance with Amazon.com should decrease costs that partly created the loss, Josefowicz says.

Still, the bookstores give the company its foundation. Josefowicz's primary goal remains to bolster the superstores by continually increasing the variety of products offered within each store. And although 50 percent of the U.S. population live in counties with Borders stores, he still yearns to expand by opening new U.S. stores.

This is no surprise, considering the speed at which Josefowicz's mind works. If a Jewel store had a sales problem, for instance, he didn't just visit the location and look at its sales history to find a standard solution, says Kramer. Whatever the situation, Josefowicz found a way to get vital information that extended far beyond that store's confines and that others wouldn't even think of.

"He's never beaten by a challenge," Kramer adds.

Josefowicz almost always knows what he wants. At one Christmas lunch with an advertising agency for Jewel-Osco, he was seated at the far end of a table near people with relatively little decision-making power.

When Kramer apologized for the seating arrangement, Josefowicz said he had actually picked his position because he "wanted to meet some genuine folks."

Although Josefowicz can spout figures and summon business details in half an instant, many people just see him as a normal guy. In fact, he only talks about his prominent job when asked to. "He's not one to dwell on his job or get into a teary dissertation about it," Kramer says.

That down-to-earth nature shows most clearly through his sense of humor, which can be self-effacing at times.

"Someone once said, 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying,'" Josefowicz jokes. "I think I'm fortunate enough to have a pretty good balance in many aspects of life that go beyond work. It requires effort and prioritization, but right now I'm feeling pretty good about everything."

Everything includes his family, which has been a large priority in his life since his days at Kellogg. Says his daughter, Leslie, a Northwestern senior majoring in communications studies and French, "He has worked since I was a little girl but has always made a lot of time for me, whether that means taking me to games or reading to me."

Another thing Josefowicz always makes time for — no surprise here — is reading. His tastes range from early 20th-century fiction to histories to sports literature. He has a special affinity for Ernest Hemingway, with whom he shares a birthday. His passion for the written word and the work he does is one thing that hasn't changed along his journey from bag boy to Borders CEO.

"He's always loved books," Leslie Josefowicz says. "The job's a perfect fit for him."

Jennifer Su (J03) of College Station, Texas, is an editorial intern with Northwestern magazine. She is also founder and editor in chief of mustardseed, a campus-based Christian magazine.

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