The Japanese word ikigai means having a sense of purpose, a meaningful reason to live. And while that reason might involve the pursuit of personal success or happiness, more often it’s about a sense of fulfillment, having a positive effect on the community. It’s even been suggested that it is the reason for the longevity of life of the people on the Japanese Okinawa Islands. Here, instead of retiring, they continue in jobs they love for as long as they’re able to do so.
It’s also a concept important to President and CEO Aman Kochar of Baker & Taylor, the largest supplier of library content, software and services in the US.
“What draws me to ikigai is that is allows me to operate at the intersection of passion, profession, vocation and mission – of having a job, making a difference in the world and caring for people. It allows me to wake up every day, fully charged because I know we can make a real difference by improving literacy in so many communities,” Aman tells The CEO Magazine.
Baker & Taylor is certainly making a difference, particularly in areas where the town library is the only place many families can access reading materials. The company ships books, DVDs and music, and it supplies world-class technology solutions that allow lending institutions to streamline workflows and improve efficiency.
In total, it has an incredible one million different products, and maintains a physical inventory of around 385,000 books. Additionally, Baker & Taylor boasts more than two million ebooks and audiobooks plus a vast assortment of digital magazines and newspapers through a partnership.
“The company is 193 years old, and the reason it still exists is that it has constantly changed and adapted to the world around it,” Aman says. “When I took over the library division in 2019, the world was already going digital, and libraries were getting into the groove of using software and technology to help them decide what content they should procure for their community.”
In 2016, Baker & Taylor was bought by family-owned Follett Corporation, a leading supplier of books and digital content to schools and colleges. And recently, Follett divested Baker & Taylor, which is now owned by a private investment group led by Aman.
As a result of the transaction, Baker & Taylor is now a standalone company. “Follett’s dedication in shaping the business over the past five years has positioned the company with the foundation needed to continue to lead in the library space,” Aman reveals. “I feel tremendous gratitude to the former parent company for its confidence and decision, which allows me to lead Baker & Taylor into its next chapter.”
The good work that Baker & Taylor does takes place on an enormous scale. And Aman’s technical background meant he instinctively knew how digitalization could transform the way libraries operate.
Aman joined Baker & Taylor to look after its software and educational services. In 2019, he took over as Executive Vice President and General Manager, reporting to the Follett Company Chair, a fifth-generation family member.
“We’re not a company that defines success by making a sale. We partner with our libraries to drive community outcomes.”
“Over the past three years, we’ve been protecting our core business of content distribution, while incubating software and digital products. In doing so, we’ve enhanced the experience of going to a library and helped them evolve their services.”
But Aman is adamant that he doesn’t judge its performance by how much money rolls in. “We’re not a company that defines success by making a sale,” he says. “We partner with our libraries to drive community outcomes. In fact, our internal incentive structure is aligned with the achievement of the libraries in serving their customers better.”
That might mean circulating more books to needy children, attracting greater numbers to events and educational programs, or engaging parents to read to their children; anything that shows the community believes in them.
“So we’re not just about, ‘OK, we made a sale, we’ll see you again next year.’ Instead it’s, ‘OK, so now that we’ve made the sale, how can we work with you to make sure the content is actually used to drive improvements in literacy?’” Aman explains. “Are there fewer people in jail? Is the high school to jail pipeline being broken? Are there fewer cases of bullying? Are there fewer cases of race-based hate crimes? Are there fewer kids unable to read at grade three or four?”
The answers to such questions aren’t always easy to find but, for Aman, that’s not the issue when the desire is to evolve the company into a content technology partner that library managers can rely on for data, intelligence and world-class service.
“My biggest goal for the next few years is a twist on customer satisfaction – it’s about customer outcomes,” he says. “Every decision we make, whether it’s a new product, hiring or strategy discussion, it should consider how it’ll drive community outcomes. It’s a cultural shift, and we’re on a journey that’s going to take a while.
“Whether I’m in a finance, technology, legal or product meeting, the customer must be at the core of what we’re discussing; and not just improving their individual experience, but improving life for their families and neighborhoods as well.”
The transformation of Baker & Taylor has been far-reaching and effective, in no small way due to the culture of positivity Aman has nurtured at every level. He lists one of his favorite books as, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr Seuss, a parable on setting your sights high and believing in yourself.
“My team is the most precious thing to me, so it was important to consider how, other than through financial incentives, I’d maintain high morale,” Aman shares. “Baker & Taylor is structurally unique. We do not subscribe to typical organizational hierarchal constraints. Instead, we see the value in sharing and listening to all our employees’ ideas. Contributions to better our business come from all levels within the company.”
“I believe in servant leadership. That means I’m there to support my team when they need me and will counsel anyone if they’re struggling with something, but I don’t want to be a leader who tells them how to do it.”
When it comes to problem-solving, the ethos is that everyone pitches in to help one another. Aman encourages a sense of “we’re all in this together”, so every department feels that it’s working towards the same goal.
“I believe in servant leadership. That means I’m there to support my team when they need me and will counsel anyone if they’re struggling with something, but I don’t want to be a leader who tells them how to do it,” he says. “They must find their own path. That’s the only way you learn.”
As the company grows and redoubles its efforts to promote literacy, the sense of ikigai remains tangible.
“I see libraries continuing to thrive. They’ve done it for 200 years by adapting when they needed to and that’s what they’ll do in the future,” Aman predicts. “We’ll be there to support them. Being their largest partner makes me very excited about the possibilities to come.”
“Additionally, the company has shown grit. And everyone from our customers to our team members within the organization, including our owners and shareholders, have also shown grit.
“One of the quotes I really like is from the late poet and writer Khalil Gibran, who said: ‘Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.’”