Live & Learn: Heather Reisman

The book maven and philanthropist talks about literacy, morality and the impact on publishing of the digital age.

Born Aug. 28, 1948, in Montreal • Book maven • Philanthropist • Political operator • Grandmother

The first book I remember is The Little Engine That Could.

I’ve always been passionate about reading. I joined a book-of-the-month club with my allowance at 11. I still have all my childhood books. But I didn’t know I was going to end up in the business.

My first job was working in my mom’s high-end Montreal boutique. I learned everyone starts at the bottom doing junior jobs. I started out folding clothes. That reinforced what Mom always said, which was, “If you are going to do something, do it well.” I also learned that my paycheque didn’t go far in my mother’s store.

After university, I worked as a caseworker. I felt then, and still do, that it is important to treat everyone with the same level of respect. A CEO should not get one bit more deference than the most junior employee.

Opportunities for women are better today than when I started. But challenges still exist. Some organizations are still run by men who don’t see women as equals. And certain work is less conducive to people who have big family responsibilities. Take my husband’s private-equity career. When a big deal is being done, the job is inflexible for months on end. That is difficult for men who value very balanced time, but generally speaking, it is more of a problem for women.

I don’t wing it. My management style is one part discipline and one part intuition.

Cott was my first opportunity to run a line business. I had been consulting for about 15 years before joining the soft-drink company. I loved actually doing the things that consultants tell you to do. I also learned I needed a product that I could be truly passionate about. While I enjoyed my responsibilities at Cott, I didn’t actually care if more soft drinks were sold in the world.

Founding Indigo was part destiny, part serendipity. I left Cott because I wasn’t really happy, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. This marked the low point of my career. And that’s when a friend on the board of Borders called. The U.S. book chain wanted to enter Canada and needed Canadian partners. That venture didn’t happen, but the experience made something click. I didn’t know the book business well, but I knew I loved the product.

Indigo has a policy created on Day 1. To the best of our knowledge, we will not sell child pornography or material with detailed instructions on how to build weapons of mass destruction. And we will not sell any material that has as its sole intent the incitement of society toward the annihilation of any group. We will sell anything else.

Electronic books will have less of an impact on publishing than digital media had on music distribution. People will always want to have traditional libraries. I can’t imagine not being surrounded by my books.

I don’t believe anyone has ever specifically used a moral compass to decide where to place a plant. Economic decisions and opportunity have driven globalization. But I do believe a new paradigm of values is emerging. It rejects sweatshops. It is about fair trade and building family-friendly and environmentally friendly organizations. I think caring capitalism and sustainability will prevail. I know I sound optimistic, but why not?

I spend about 5% of my time working on Indigo’s Love of Reading Foundation. But our mission, which is to help every child reach full potential, is in everything I think about all the time. The fact is, 38% of Canadians are functionally illiterate. That’s tragic. The lack of library resources in this country still shocks me.

There is unequivocal research that confirms the correlation between early literacy, a passion for reading and the general well-being of societies. How shocking is it then that schools had the equivalent of three new books per child in libraries 30 years ago and today they have less than a third of a book?

I’ll only serve on a board if I passionately believe in the company’s CEO. That’s the only way I can do the work required.

I got into politics as a young Liberal. But frankly, I no longer care so much for party politics.

A perfect Saturday night is babysitting my grandchildren.

My best advice comes from my husband. Generally, my mistakes are my own.