Christian Retailing

Q&A with Scott Macdonald, president & CEO of Zondervan Print Email
Written by Staff   
Monday, 09 May 2011 09:32 AM America/New_York

CHRISTIAN RETAILING: Can you tell us what you were doing post-Lemstone/Parable and pre-Zondervan?

I feel like God has had me on a journey right to this place where I am right now. A lot of my career has been in software, but it’s been in general management in software companies. I’ve had the blessing of having five years in Christian retail. The combination of general management and the knowledge of this space just makes me feel so comfortable in this role at Zondervan. Specifically, I was in general management at a software company for the two years interim. If you think about it, it was that software-industry background which allowed me to get involved at The City by Zondervan. It was the involvement at The City which allowed me to get involved at Zondervan and now be asked to play this role at Zondervan.

What was the name of that company and where was it?

The company was Integral Systems based in Wheaton, Ill. Actually we rebranded that company while I was there to People Strategy. The marketplace now knows it as People Strategy. It was a software solution aimed at small and large companies, and the software in that case was HR and payroll software. I’m not a software coder; I’m a general manager. It was another space that I was able to go into and help figure out.

Let’s move to The City. How did you come to that role and what you were doing with the initiative?

The time I had at Lemstone Christian Stores gave me a great familiarity with the Christian products industry, and therefore a familiarity with Zondervan. I had enormous respect for Zondervan through that relationship—and many relationships within Zondervan as a result of the time at Lemstone. It was senior management’s knowledge of my background in software companies and my background in the Christian products industry that caused them to ask me to come in and act as the interim general manager at The City, which I did for a couple of months, and which undoubtedly would have continued for longer had this opportunity at Zondervan not come up and had they not asked me to step into this role.

What is The City?

The City is best described as a social network that facilitates communication and community primarily for churches. This would be oversimplifying it, but in a sense, it’s a Facebook for churches, where a church can have a face community that all of their members can participate in—for prayer requests, volunteer activity management—all the things that make churches go between Sundays. Small groups can have their own group setting on The City and interact with one another in their small group. The pastor can use The City across the whole church to perhaps say, “Prepare or read this chapter of the book of John; I’m going to preach on it on Sunday,” or “I preached on this chapter in James on Sunday. Here’s some follow-up questions for you to pursue with your small groups.” So it’s a social network aimed at serving the specific needs of churches. Over 600 churches—over 2,000 individuals—are using The City, and it’s on a significant growth curve.

You had this couple of years or so away from the industry prior to returning to Zondervan. How has the industry changed in that time?

I don’t have a great perspective yet on the industry. I’ve been pretty heads down in Grand Rapids for the last couple of months. I think in the important points, Zondervan hasn’t changed at all. Culture, values, mission have not changed. We still aspire to be the leading communications company for Christian resources, and that hasn’t changed. At the foundational level, I think things are very stable. That said, as you know, the environment we live in has changed significantly and continues to change. The pace even at times seems to quicken. The market, in general, is moving to electronic books. There wasn’t an iPad two years ago. That’s new news, and as a publisher, I think we’ve got a great team; we’ve got a great brand. Those things haven’t changed. We’ve got great authors; that hasn’t changed. We do have to learn and adapt and move the business in a way to bring the content of those authors into the market in the way people in the market want to consume that content. That’s changed, but to me, our core business hasn’t changed at all. It’s about achieving our mission and spreading God-inspired content that our authors deliver.

Is your retail background a strength or a benefit?

It’s a significant benefit. We’ve probably said for years now that a little bit more than half of our business is through the CBA channel. That has not changed. It’s a very important and very significant channel for us. It’s very important for me and us to understand how do we work with those retailers and meet the needs of their consumers and help them as their marketplace changes and adapt going forward. 

What can you tell us about your plans for the future?

It’s too early. My plans for the future are simple. We have a great team. We have great authors. We have a great brand. We have a great mission statement. If my plans are any, it’s to continue to re-focus on the core DNA of who Zondervan is and to leverage that DNA to achieve our mission. We’ve got authors like Rick Warren, Karen Kingsbury, Lee Strobel and many others—established authors—(and) we have many new authors coming to market. Ann Voskamp with One Thousand Gifts has just (written) a terrific book for us in the marketplace. We’ve got the NIV update that we’ve released and is getting wonderful acceptance. We’re going to continue to strive to achieve our mission and continue to focus on getting the right authors and getting that content into the market.

You’re following somebody who had something of a brief tenure. Is that a challenge as a new leader? Did that create waves or some internal changes that need to take place as a result?

I don’t think so, no. I don’t want to comment at all on Moe’s tenure and the great contribution she made to the business, but having been in there for two months, I’ve seen two things that are really important. The team’s unbelievable. They know how to run the business. They’re executing well on the business plan. I have every confidence in our ability to execute if we go forward. The second thing I’ve seen is that HarperCollins really gives us the reins and the room to run the business. They know that we understand this market better than they will, and we’ve got lots of latitude to run and build the business in the right way. Both those things are very encouraging to me, and we’re especially encouraging as I was asked to consider taking on this role full time. 

You mentioned you expect to continue to see this strong digital emphasis. Is that going to involve any new initiatives or developments you can talk about at this stage?

I don’t think so. I go right back to: We have great authors and great content. Our job is to get that content into the marketplace in the way the marketplace wants to consume it. To the extent the market moves to digital, we’re already delivering e-books with every frontlist book that we produce today. We’re already beginning to deliver even apps onto handheld devices—iPads and smartphones. We’ve got a great brand in the Berenstain Bears. We’ve got Berenstain Bears apps that we’re delivering on the handheld devices. We already know how to get this content out into the other formats. We’re going to continue to leverage that content into whatever the marketplace needs. 

You said previously the Christian channel remains a focus for you, but in light of the comment about delivering to consumers where they want them and the growing e-book consumption, is there something that you specifically want to say to Christian retailers about how Zondervan can hold those parallel, if not competing, opportunities in tandem?

Sure, there are more e-books today, but I will go back to what I said before. For years now, the CBA channel has held steady at more than 50% of our market. It is the core market. It is key to us. We are committed to (it). That tells me that one way consumers are consuming the product is through physical product they acquire in Christian retail stores. We will absolutely continue to serve that channel as best we can and continue to work closely with that channel to understand how we can serve them as we go forward. 

How did Zondervan fare in the last year? Can you give us an idea in terms of sales, shrinkage, particular areas of growth?

As you know, we don’t talk about specific numbers, but I feel great about our Bible market position. I feel wonderful about the updated NIV we’re bringing into the market. We have a very strong and growing position in kid’s books and kid’s Bibles. We’ve got a continuing strong position in trade books. I mentioned several authors. There are others: Philip Yancey, Terri Blackstock, Ben Carson, Chuck Colson, Max Lucado, John Ortberg—it goes on and on in terms of the names and the brand, and the consumer-recognized names that we’ve got there. We’re going to continue to build on those core products. We are a publisher, and it is those authors and content that we need to acquire, develop and bring to market, and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on. 

Any closing thoughts?

I just would say again how great it is to hear your voice and how much I enjoy being back in this industry. I’m humbled at many levels to be in this position. I’m honored. I trust God will be paving the road ahead of me and of us as we go forward. I couldn’t be more delighted to be in this great company, great brand, great team, great authors. I am so proud to be part of this team—and when I say that, I mean the Zondervan team, I mean the HarperCollins team, I mean the author team, and I mean the industry team. I’m so delighted to be back and be part of those teams, and I’m just so excited about the opportunity ahead of us.