There are long-term leaders in business, and then, there is Leonard Riggio.
In 1971, before Barnes & Noble was something of an American institution, it was a struggling bookstore in Manhattan. Then, Riggio bought it and, over the course of 45 years, built Barnes & Noble into a powerhouse. Ultimately, he watched it decline into something less than a powerhouse in recent years.
And now, Riggio’s term is over for real. The founder and executive chairman of Barnes & Noble has announced that, as of September, he is officially saying goodbye.
And, to think, he’s only doing it 35 years later than he intended.
“I had never planned to be a business person for life,” he said. “I had always wanted to do something different after I’d been in business for a while and made some money.”
As Riggio is leaving, the future of the chain he built remains uncertain. In the last six years, B&N has closed 80 stores. In the last 10 years, it has seen its stock price fall from $45 a share to just $12.42 as of this week. The firm is also on its third CEO, Ron Boire, in six years.
The Nook — B&N’s failed attempted entrance into the digital book market — was a very costly error.
“We’re great booksellers; we know how to do that,’’ Riggio said. “We weren’t constituted to be a technology company.”
But Riggio, as he prepares to leave, says that the Nook is a thing of the past and that the company is leaning into its next re-pivot and he is optimistic.
“The company’s in a very good position,” he said. “We’ll continue to be the best bookseller we can be.”
Riggio, who will keep a seat on the board, said he has no plans to sell his stock. With 17.5 percent, he is the firm’s largest shareholder.
“Our bookstores were designed to be welcoming as opposed to intimidating,” Riggio said. “These weren’t elitist places. You could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit down and read a book for as long as you like, use the restroom. These were innovations that we had that no one thought was possible.”
“They would say, ‘You’re homogenizing bookselling,’ which was ridiculous because we were carrying 5,000 to 10,000 more titles than would be in a typical bookstore,” Riggio said.
Barnes & Noble now faces two challenges, and it is hard to say which one is bigger. It has to find a way to sell books in the post-Amazon world, and that has turned out to be a massive challenge. It also has to figure out a way to do it without the leadership of the man who has been The Leader for almost as long as there has been a B&N to lead.
But, for his part, Riggio is done and says he is happy to be done.
“I don’t want to run any more businesses,” he said. “I have a great idea for a sock store, but I’m not going to do it. I’m done making money.”