After 200 years of publishing, John Wiley & Sons really has something to celebrate. Sixth-generation family member Peter Wiley talks to Marc Smith about their brand new book, which commemorates the bicentennial of the Wiley business and family
Reaching the milestone of 200 years is something that only a select few family businesses can lay claim to, but last year US publishing house John Wiley & Sons, achieved just such a feat. The culmination of a year-long celebration was, naturally, the publication of a book detailing two centuries of business and family history.
"It was a major challenge to fit 200 years and seven generations of Wileys into the book," sixth-generation family member and chairman Peter Booth Wiley exclusively tells Families in Business. "As we were writing the book, we were getting ideas along the way – for instance, there's a whole section on the evolution of printing technology – but we reached a point where we said, 'OK, we've got to really control this project because it's getting way too long'."
Published at the end of December 2007 as the culmination of its bicentennial year, Knowledge for Generations: Wiley and the Global Publishing Industry, 1807-2007 documents Wiley's evolution from a humble printing shop to family firm to publicly-traded global corporation. The book examines Wiley's impact on literature, scientific research and education in the global marketplace, in addition to the continuous involvement of the Wiley family and the influence it has had on the company's values and culture. The company is now a public corporation with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. While the Wiley family retains a controlling interest and leadership of its independent board of directors, Peter is a non-executive chairman and does not serve on the company's management team.
As a historian himself (Peter holds a master's degree in history and is the published author of five books), he was particularly pleased by some of the documentation that was unearthed during research for the book. Indeed, there were several stories that he was unaware of. "One story I hadn't heard before regards the long courtship between Wiley and Blackwell [the UK family-owned publisher that Wiley acquired in 2007]," explains Peter. "It started with my father and Richard Blackwell, who had regular meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Witnesses said it was like watching a tennis match, each of them batting the ball back and forth discussing what 'they might do together'. Richard finally turned to my father and said, 'Well, the way to solve this is for Wiley to acquire Blackwell'."
The deal between the two families was built on their sense of a common culture. "Nigel Blackwell, the principal shareholder in Blackwell, felt comfortable selling to us because we shared common values and a way of going about business," explains Peter. "I think it was this connection, allied to the fact that he wasn't comfortable passing along his heritage to a relatively anonymous commercial publisher, that was important."
An honest account
One of the problems that any business has in commissioning a history is that it lays itself open to the claim of deliberately leaving out bad or embarrassing stories. This is doubly so with family businesses, especially when family members are intimately involved in the production of the book. Peter, as one of the book's editors, is particularly vulnerable to this criticism, which is intensified by the press release, which claims that the book "is distinctive in comparison to other corporate histories by providing a candid account of our successes and our shortcomings".
While Peter admits that the family "didn't probe and reveal all of our deepest, darkest secrets," he insists it is as close to a warts-and-all account as you could reasonably expect. "As a historian I felt we had an obligation to do it this way for our colleagues and particularly our younger employees," he says. "I wanted them to have a sense of a company that isn't some perfect, angelic entity that went from triumph to triumph."
By way of example, Peter points to the section of the book that explains when the company experienced a turbulent period in the 1980s. At that time Wiley branched off into corporate training with a forward-looking strategy but without the ability to execute. The profitability of the company flatlined and morale plummeted. "Some people might be surprised by our degree of candour about what was happening at the time," says Peter.
Another problem was the lack of historical documentation about the family's first, second and third generations. "We had to build a case based on the evidence that our authors found, and some of our conclusions are obviously speculative as you'll see when you read closely," he explains.
But the book is not just a family history. "I want to emphasise that this is not a book about 'the heroic Wileys', this is a book about the thousands of people who built this company into a reputable publishing house," says Peter. "Most of them are anonymous and you'll see at the end of the book we have tried to put in as many names and pictures of our colleagues as we could."
Peter says it is with a sense of relief and amazement that he looks back on reaching the 200-year milestone. In addition to the book, the company came up with the idea of a "living history", a website that enables people who have worked for Wiley to tell their own personal stories and add additional pieces of information that the company may have forgotten about.
The bicentennial was further marked by events around the world, befitting Wiley's standing as a truly global business. The company was invited to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, but it is something less glitzy that really stood out for the family.
"A group of Wiley software engineers in Russia decided to take our 200 anniversary banner to the top of the highest mountain in Russia," says Peter. "A photo appeared on our website and some employees in Asia saw it and asked to have the banner sent to Beijing. We had a party and then unfolded it on the Great Wall of China." Not to be outdone, the Russians took another banner and then dived in the Red Sea, where they pinned the banner to a reef.
"The company to me is about the kind of world we want to live in – global collaboration and co-operation, friendly and respectful relations between people, curiosity about each other's lives and cultures," says Peter.
With a turnover today of more than $1.2 billion and a global workforce of 4,500, the firm has come a long way since Peter first started work as a summer intern in 1962. "It's large and complex and I can't know everybody personally but the family who still work in the business – my brother, my sister and my son, Jesse – spend a lot of time being in as many places as we can meeting people, expressing interest in what they're doing and listening carefully to what they say. That's how you find out what is really going on."
It is this unique culture that sets such successful family businesses apart and with the 200th milestone reached the goal now is to make this success work for future generations of Wileys. As Peter says, "it's fine to be self-congratulatory about having this wonderful work environment and the culture, but the challenge is to sustain it."
Web Exclusive: Peter Wiley, sixth generation member of J Wiley & Sons, speaks about his role as chairman of the board, family governance procedures, and planning for a future where the family is no longer involved. Click here to read more.