It is a cold December day and Anthony Forbes Watson is ebullient, his mood as bright as the neon green chairs in his office as he invites me in, solicitously gets me water and mops it up when I spill it. He tells me, with well-deserved relish, that Pan Macmillan publish the current top two fiction bestsellers Chris Sansom’s Lamentation and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist as well as Chris Hadfield’s You Are Here: Around the world in 92 minutes, which had that day just sold in a few hours more than 10000 books in an Amazon ‘lightning deal’. The company’s fortunes are equally buoyant: Forbes Watson explains that profits had doubled over the last year in a culmination of a five year turnaround and that the scene is now set for further growth and consolidation. He also reports happily that industry perceptions of Pan Macmillan’s traditionally unfashionable image in the industry are changing at last and becoming more reflective of the company’s publishing and commercial performance.Yet Forbes Watson is certainly not unaware of the challenges his industry faces, which he says are largely due to what happens when a bright and articulate but somewhat inward-looking community collides with the challenge of digital transformation. Warming to his theme, he says this phenomenon is endemic to the creative industries, because traditional performance drivers including subjective cultural taste must be reconciled with the objective measurement of large amounts of online data. Drawing on previous experience working at larger corporates, he characterises the biggest challenge as being how to personalise the stakeholder – customer, author, reader, employee – experience in inhumanly large organisations. Big corporates face huge pressure from the spontaneity and immediacy of online communication and must figure out how to be as engaged, responsive and quick as the markets they serve – no easy feat for large companies (which he defines as being larger than about 200 people). He talks about the critical importance of people as a big part of the solution. Not a new theme, and one used glibly by many, but listening to him, his genuinely-held commitment to the personal development of the people who work for him, and not just to the development of their jobs, is evident.
Allied to this theme of nurturing human scale within organisations, Anthony has a longstanding belief in coaching, stemming at least partly from what he calls the transformational work he did with a coach at a time of real personal challenge. This gave him a self-reliance he didn’t have before, an ability to recognise that wellbeing must come from within rather than being dictated by external events. And while he is full of bouncing energy and quick ideas, he also displays a gentler, thoughtful side which suggests that he is well-grounded and centred. It’s not entirely surprising that he sees himself primarily as family-oriented rather than work-oriented, though he is clearly wholeheartedly committed to the success of Pan Macmillan. He is happy to invest in coaching and development for his staff. He sees it as a ‘statement of confidence in their potential’ and indeed a minimum requirement: ‘if we invest in technology and data, why wouldn’t we do the same with the most important measure of competitive advantage in our business sector, people?’
Despite the fact that Steve Jobs was not renowned for a similar concern for or interest in people, indeed was, ‘by all reports not a very nice bloke’, Forbes Watson cites him as one of the business leaders he most admires. His single-minded vision of creativity-based excellence resonates and he says Jobs’ ability to evoke such compelling personality in the Apple brand was extraordinary. Anthony Forbes Watson is clearly a man with a vision as well and his ability to pursue this at both the big picture, strategic level and the more pragmatic one of the daily nuts and bolts of running a publishing business in an extremely volatile industry is impressive. Next year Pan Macmillan is launching a carbon-neutral sustainability project and if he is involved, odds are it will be a resounding success.
As a parting shot, I put Anthony on the spot by asking him to reveal something about himself. Eventually, his face lighting up, he tells me that he draws, that he recently took a course at the London Atelier of Representational Art and with a mixture of shyness and pride he shows me one of his very good life drawings. I leave the office with a joyful sense of Forbes Watson’s depth, determination, of his clarity and originality of thought, and perhaps unusually for a business leader, his caring. And with a copy of The Miniaturist.