Baker & Taylor was founded as a book bindery and publisher the same year the U.S. elected Andrew Jackson its seventh president. (President Joe Biden is our 46th.) The company began distributing books by horse-drawn carriage and has survived the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Spanish flu and Covid-19 pandemics. It welcomed the advent of the telephone, the automobile, and the internet.

How rare to have a company whose soul has seen such events, that [all along] has been telling the stories that ought to be told,” says president and CEO Amandeep Kochar. [A company] that makes sure every American, every student, every immigrant, has resources—in public libraries, schools, and colleges—they’re able to find themselves, to utilize [those resources] to empower their own growth.”

Today, Baker & Taylor is the leading supplier of content, software, and services to public and academic U.S. libraries. The independent Charlotte, North Carolina–based company is well known for customizable collections and tools that empower their partners to serve the specific needs of their communities to the best of their abilities. A separate publisher services division provides small and midsize publishers with sales, manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution support.

“Ours is a very difficult industry,” says Kochar, who joined the company in 2014 as executive vice president and general manager before acquiring it in a divestiture by Follett in November 2021. As rewarding as it is soulfully, commercially it can be very challenging.  Generation over generation, literacy, attention span, and the veneration of long-form literature has been reducing. Consumer behavior is changing, and this is continuing to change the consumption of content—not just [the] type of content, but the format of content as well.”

In a swiftly changing industry, Baker & Taylor has become an agile colossus focused on creating value for the diverse markets it serves. Connecting more than 5,000 libraries with the quality content that will best serve their communities from more than 5,000 publishing partners requires constant innovation, navigation of macroeconomic and sociopolitical headwinds, and a willingness to meet people where they are.

I travel 100 days a year,” Kochar says. I’m either with our publishing partners or our customers, schools, libraries, and colleges—anyone in the ecosystem. The only way to have a finger on the pulse of their needs is to be in front of them, virtually or in person, and have a simple conversation: How can we help? In our current time, everyone needs help, everyone is asked to do more with less. And there are more and more people who can use these resources we provide to turn their lives around.”

Among the many tools Baker & Taylor has developed in response to the question How can we help? is ePopUp Library, a program piloted in partnership with the systems the company serves, from Broward County, Florida, to Spokane, Washington. ePopUp Library is one of the first programs in the U.S. to offer full access to a library’s electronic collection via smartphone, iPad, or e-reader. That means a patron can call up any book, magazine, or newspaper they wish to read, wherever they may be: in an airport lounge, in a barbershop, or poolside at a child’s swimming lesson. The program became a lifeline in the era of Covid-19, when access to physical libraries was in flux.

“Covid-19 was not kind to anyone in business—unless you were a video conference player or a vaccine manufacturer,” Kochar says.

“As they say, dark times are the filter to show who your true friends are,” he continues. “That’s what I really appreciate about our industry: A lot of people reached out to share their experiences through these challenging times, many of whom had been through their own challenges, and many offered economic and time-related flexibility. Customers who depend on our systems to get their work done, to receive books to serve their community, have been extraordinarily generous and supportive. Our commitment remains not to let them down.”

What it takes to continue creating value for both ends of the continuum—libraries and publishers—is excellent communication. Kochar likens Baker & Taylor’s position to the thin neck between the two bulbs of an hourglass: The company is in the perfect location to communicate its customers’ desires to suppliers and its suppliers’ challenges to its customers. Successfully brokering these exchanges requires empathy, grit, and kindness, he says. “Spend your day at work with grit. And make sure you find moments of kindness in reaching out to a customer, saying ‘thank you for your grace.’”

Another essential ingredient to Baker & Taylor’s long-lived success? Humility. When asked how the company plans to celebrate its bicentennial—and ensure another 200 years of successful operations—Kochar reorients the conversation by focusing on the privilege, honor, and responsibility of leading the enterprise today. His concern rests on the triple bottom line: an economic concept that impels business leaders to consider people, the planet, and profits to be of equal importance in operations.

My vision is to create a company that fears hubris and actively works to prevent it,” he says. Coming back to the idea of 200 years—in 2028 we will celebrate a few things: We will celebrate not 200 years of Baker & Taylors existence but the grit and kindness of the past people in leadership. We will celebrate the innovation of our partners. We will celebrate the life-changing work that our customers do. And we will celebrate diverse stories that courageous people have written and dared to tell.”

Editor at large Megan Labrise hosts the Fully Booked podcast.