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Empowering management

As John Wiley & Sons celebrates its bicentennial (click here to read more), Peter Wiley gives an insight into the family's role in setting the corporate governance agenda.

FiB: How would you describe your role in the business today?

PW: As chairman of the board I am the leader of the board of directors that represents all the shareholders. I'm in charge of governance, but I do not manage the business. I don't make decisions about who's hired or fired, I don't make decisions about the direction of our publishing programme, and I don't scope out possible acquisitions.

As a family controlled group in a publicly traded company, it is a job we all take very seriously.  This is not a board of full of cronies, it's someone in my family.

We've put a lot of emphasis on governance and the family's role in governance over the last 20 years. Specifically, we've used the opportunity to lead on governance to help fashion a board that can direct the company in a very effective way.  

Beyond that I feel the need to be present. I try to get out there as much as I can and spend time with people outside of the company. I've been on the board for 24 years, I grew up with this thing, but I always feel like I'm in a learning mode.  

Could you give us an insight into the relationship that you have as a family member with the non-family management?

It follows on from what I was saying about governance. We changed from having a family chairman and CEO, my father, to a situation where you had a family chairman, and a non-family CEO.  They had a good working relationship as they grew up together in the business, and they both worked together on corporate governance.

In my generation, my brother, my sister and myself didn't feel we would make an appropriate CEO, so we decided we should focus on governance and getting the best professional managers that we could. This did not preclude working in the business, but we felt we needed to make a clear distinction between governance and management.

So, your father ran the business but you now have a completely different, non-management role. On a personal level, how do you feel about that?

I feel very comfortable about it and I feel that the managers like the situation too because they know that none of us are looking over their shoulders and second-guessing them. There's excellent communication between us and senior management – they know what our agenda is and we understand what our role. I think it must be a very empowering thing for managers to feel like they're getting the support that they need and the input they need but they're being allowed to do their job.  

You mention that one of Wiley's most treasured legacies is the "unique culture". What exactly is this culture, and how would you describe it?

It's hard to put your finger on it, but Wiley is a business of creative people. Every year we publish thousands of unique products and the capabilities and creativity of the people who work here require an environment that's supportive, friendly and open.

What we've witnessed over the last 30-40 years is the trading of publishing companies between both publishers and financial investors as assets, which doesn't really work for creative people.  

Because we are a family-controlled group and we are independent, we have the opportunity to create an environment in which people can really exercise their creative energies and be supported and sustained while doing it.  

Can you envisage a time – and are you happy to envisage a time – when the family will not be involved in the business?

I think it's responsible behaviour to think of all the alternatives and to think through what you would do if my family control might not be able to continue. But our focus is on planning the next generation. I think about all the contingencies, but right now our emphasis is planning with Jessie, my son, who is now playing a leadership role. We bring together those members who are old enough to be involved in discussions about what we're doing, talking with them about how we got involved, the dos and don'ts of our own experiences, how they might be involved, and what their responsibilities are. I'm dealing with a group of people who have supported my family for generations and that means I have a huge responsibility to get things right.

It is a challenge and one of the components besides getting people involved and having them understand their responsibilities is planning for the eventuality of differences of opinion about ownership.  So we've set up a limited liability corporation with a buy-back feature so that in the next generation where there are seven cousins, if there is somebody who wants to cash in, the family will be able to sustain itself as an owner through a buy-back. We've been very fortunate in that our ownership, for strange reasons, has actually become concentrated over time.

Click here to read Peter Wiley's views on the family business reaching the year 200.

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