In 2008, Charlie Rubash took a part-time job at the bookstore at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Although he’d had some previous work experience in the food industry, he didn’t feel he was embarking on a career path at the time, but he found he quickly liked the work. “The store was a fast-paced environment, and I was working with students who were about my same age; you built friendships and saw your customers through every semester of life at college,” he recalls. As he learned more about the workings of the store and its central role on the campus, Rubash began to see the possibilities of a career with Barnes & Noble College, and it was then that he was introduced to the Bestseller Management Development Program.
“We developed the program because we always want to be ‘building our bench.’ We want to take the talent that exists within our organization and then develop it so employees can grow within our company,” explains Pam Bonnell, Director of Learning & Development for Barnes & Noble College. Typically, she describes employees like Rubash who come into the company, perhaps as seasonal workers, deciding that they want to build a career with the organization and are brought into the Bestseller Program on a management development track.
Eugene Kearson, another participant in the program, joined Barnes & Noble College in his freshman year at the University of Central Florida. “It was a great learning opportunity and the chance to gain an insight into the company you work for,” he says. “Perhaps the best thing about the program is that everyone comes out of it with something different. I was drawn toward merchandise, others who appreciated a more structured work flow, gravitated towards operations like the textbook department,” he points out.
The individual store managers play a pivotal role in the Bestseller Program as they’re best placed to recognize potential in their employees, but it’s up to the individuals themselves to voice an interest in what they feel passionate about, and what areas of development they feel holds the most potential for their skills. “I took the program at my own pace, and, working with Jay Hartfield, my store manager, we worked together through every aspect of the store,” Rubash explains. “It really opened my eyes to everything that goes on — from general merchandise and financials to the inner workings of store operations like the café, textbook program or managing people,” he adds. In addition to learning the business end of Barnes & Noble College, the program also encourages personal development, as Kearson points out. “It really helped me with my organizational and management skills, and I found my personality became more outgoing as I became involved in projects like tradeshows and community outreach for the store,” he says.
Today, both candidates of the program are a testament to its success. Rubash moved from his first store to St Petersburg College, before taking a corporate position at the company’s home office managing the TA2 Project, a textbook management program, and helping stores transition to the new software platform. Kearson, meanwhile, originally intended to be a store manager, but also came to the company’s New Jersey home office when he applied for a position as Store Transition Coordinator last fall. “Now that I’m on this side of it, I really understand the role from both the corporate and the store perspective,” he says. It’s the kind of success that doesn’t surprise Bonnell. “They already understood and valued our culture, knew where they want to be, and have built strong relationships with each step of the process,” she says.
Barnes & Noble College’s attention to developing talent might seem at odds in the wider retail environment not always noted for empowering its employees. “Some retailers have perhaps found a way to save payroll to work around that,” Bonnell agrees, “but customers, and especially our demographic, appreciate those one-on-one conversations with our employees, so we can truly understand what they need and offer them all the options we’re able to provide. We pride ourselves on great customer service — and you can’t do that without great employees.”