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East Anglia Future 50

The turnaround of Thorpe St Andrew-based Bertram Books

PUBLISHED: 09:53 18 July 2012

Graeme Underhill, left, in Bertram's enormous warehouse with Jason Cherrington and Toby Bourne.  Photo: Bill Smith

Graeme Underhill, left, in Bertram's enormous warehouse with Jason Cherrington and Toby Bourne. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2012

Bertram Books has gone from a chicken shed to a company that now operates in 86 countries around the world. ANNABELLE DICKSON meets its managing director Graeme Underhill.

Just three years ago Bertram Books was on the brink of collapse. Owned by EUK, part of Woolworths, book stocks were depleting fast as it was cash starved by the parent firm’s troubles.

But in the last 12 months the company has got back into its stride. Two acquisitions and steady growth have seen an extra 150 jobs created at the Thorpe St Andrew headquarters which now employs a total of 600 people and the company now operates in 86 countries around the world.

The management team at Bertram Books crack amused smiles as they admit which book is leaving their giant Thorpe St Andrew warehouse the fastest.

Raunchy novel Fifty Shades of Grey has captured the imagination more than anything since the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, they say. It is a nice boost for the UK book wholesale market, which is in decline. But managing director Graeme Underhill sees great growth prospects for the company, both in its international and digital ebook business.

He said: “We have stabilised the business, having had difficult times when it was in administration. Our strategy is to grow sales in this business. We have brought a more commercial focus to the business and we have been prepared to invest.

“We think there are great prospects for this business and even though people might be concerned about the state of the book market – whether it is in decline and under threat from digital – these are big stable markets that we believe we can grow.”

The company has come a long way from where it started in Elsie Bertram’s chicken shed – a picture of which hangs in the boardroom in Thorpe St Andrew – as wholesale distributor for Pan Paperbacks in East Anglia.

Staff are not just packing the latest popular paperbacks into boxes and sending them off to the bookshops. It also supplies public libraries with bar coded and labelled books.

And the chances are, if you are a student or academic using your university library for books and journals, it will be have been supplied in hard copy or digitally by part of the Bertram Books business.

The company bought Europe’s largest supplier of academic books, ebooks and “shelf ready services”, Dawson Books, last year and added to the academic book and journal business with Dutch-based Hootschild earlier this year.

This, Mr Underhill said, was designed to create scale for the business. All the operations and servicing of the Dawson business has been moved to Norwich, creating 60 new Norfolk jobs and leaving just 30 back office staff at its original base at Rushden, in Northamptonshire.

Mr Underhill said: “We see ebooks as a good growth prospect for us and Dawson has got a good ebook platform.”

But how do you make money in a competitive ebook market?

“We are not competing with Kindle or iPad,” said Mr Underhill. “This is a very different model. First of all it is a niche market. We are going out to the academic market and not taking on Apple or Google or Amazon. It also is a credit based system, so the student doesn’t buy the digital book. The university buys credits for the use of that book.”

He said: “We are the market leader and with Dawson books, our market shares are pretty big in the UK, both in digital and in print.”

But with academic institutions and libraries a big part of the business, with government spending cuts, surely there must be concerns?

Mr Underhill said: “It has made business difficult. If you take the public libraries side of things, it has settled down. If you take 18 months ago then it was very depressed, but it has bounced back this year. The local authorities have sorted out their budgets and sorted out where they can make their savings and where they need to spend. The book fund is a very small proportion of their overall budget.”

But it is not just the digital, library and academic field in which the company can see big growth potential. Mr Underhill said there was “massive” opportunity for growth in the international market.

“The UK [book wholesale] market is down 10pc, the stats are showing, but these are still big, stable markets. The international markets are growing – particularly for English language books.”

But he said there were still opportunities to grow the wholesale business, despite the overall market being down.

“This market we have relatively low market share so there are still massive opportunities for this business.”

In a corner of the warehouse books you can see the names of big companies which are supplied by Bertram Books as the internet continues to grow. It dispatches books on behalf of Amazon, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, The Guardian and the Daily Mail.

However, Mr Underhill insisted that independent book shops were also important.

He said: “Independents are less of the overall turnover of this business than they were 10 years ago, but they still represent an important part of this business.

“There are fewer of them, there is no doubt about it, but our job is to make sure we support them in the best possible way. The survival of the independent bookshop on the high street is important, not just for this business but for the country and the availability of books. They have been in decline, but it has stabilised and you do continue to see the closures of bookshops exceeding new openings.”

So what about the future of the company? Having already made two successful acquisitions, will that strategy continue? Mr Underhill said if the right business came along with the right characteristics and products there were opportunities.

For more on Fifty Shades of Grey, the raunchy book which is causing a stir in Norwich, read Stacia Briggs later this week.

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