Originally from Ireland, Grattan Kirk, who was appointed CEO of Exclusive Books in 2018, says, “I never really intended to stay in South Africa for more than two years and I’ve been here for 30 so far.” He says he didn’t plan to stay long term but just fell in love with the country.
When asked what got him to this point in his career, he jokes, “I think maybe the luck of the Irish.” His outlook on life is positive.
“My parents taught me to enjoy life to the fullest and seek out positive energy,” he smiles. But he admits he never skimped on hard work. “My father taught me to work hard and play hard.”
Grattan comes from a commercial and financial background, being a chartered accountant by profession, and has many years of retail experience under his belt.
However it was not in his plan to be the CEO of a chain of bookstores.
He admits it’s partly because he was in “the right place at the right time”. “I’ve had many positive mentors and support during my career,” he says. “Colleagues have also been a great source of strength for me.”
Exclusive Books is South Africa’s largest book chain, with stores dotted throughout the country. It’s a relaxing experience wandering among the shelves in the beautiful environment of an Exclusive Books store. “Our bookstores are stunning,” Grattan marvels.
“Our customers love coming to our stores. They can relax in comfortable chairs, they can sit at a table and work, or just chill, reading books.”
What sets the chain apart in today’s competitive retail environment is its extensive range of books that goes beyond well-known titles, Grattan explains. The top 100 books only make up 20–25% of sales.
Grattan describes the sales mix as “an indie, customer-specific book range”, with a focus on individual customer preferences.
“We have an extensive range of books procured by very knowledgeable and experienced booksellers for the customers at their shops,” he says. “Each store has the ability to procure its own books for their specific customer needs.”
The biggest challenge, Grattan concedes, is “introducing new readers”. “How do we get more people reading books?” The other test is being confronted with the move to ereaders and ebooks. “When you talk books, people say you’re going to get trumped by online reading,” he says.
But he is optimistic as the statistics say otherwise. Several studies – and raw sales figures – have shown that physical book purchases are increasing, as ereader sales decline.
A 2016 Nielsen survey showed that ebook sales declined by 4% in the UK that year, even though the total number of books purchased increased by 2%.
“We’ve seen quite a nice growth in physical books and a reduction in ereaders,” Grattan confirms. “More recently, globally, book sales have grown by nearly 3% and ereaders are down by 10%.”
“I think people are getting back to physical books. People realise that a physical book is something you can put on a shelf, refer to at a later date, and recall the moment when you read it and what you learned from it. It is more difficult to do that with an ereader.”
It’s the challenges that Grattan loves about his job. “Every day is a little different from the previous,” he says, adding it’s also the people – both staff and customers – who bring him to work every day.”
“I love the people I work with. We beat challenges with the energetic, committed and hardworking people here,” he says. “As for our customers, I get compliments from them about our business every single day.”
“We have a fabulous team. They’re knowledgeable and experienced; they have a can-do positive attitude and an abundance of energy.”
“We have a fabulous team,” he continues. “They’re knowledgeable and experienced; they have a can-do attitude and an abundance of energy. We support, look after and take care of one another. That is the culture we have. This is home and we are a family.”
“The people who work in this industry are not in it for the money,” he explains. “Booksellers are cultured, well-read and really interested in books. It’s not about commerciality. They love books and like to communicate that. Publishers are the same. They want people to take something out of a book that they didn’t have before reading it.”
While he admits his shareholders measure success by financial returns, his personal measure of success is about leaving a legacy. “Creating something better than it was when I got here and leaving our teams with something positive every day. That’s how I measure success. The returns will come,” he says.
What are you reading at the moment?
“Tina Turner’s My Love Story and another book that I’ve really enjoyed is Shane Warne’s No Spin. My preferred books are autobiographies.”
What is your productivity philosophy?
“Productivity is not getting distracted from the big issues and sidetracked by irrelevant things. I manage my productivity with to-do lists and a diary.”
What’s your biggest achievement?
“My biggest achievement is my family. I am blessed with three amazing children. Two of them are at university now and one of them is still in school.”