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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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Jack Covert has retired as the founder and president of 800-CEO-READ.
Jack Covert has retired as the founder and president of 800-CEO-READ.

From Dirty Jack to Covert, CEO

The exact moment I met Jack Covert, who retired this past weekend as the founder/president of 800-CEO-READ, is lost to history, but I know that moment came at the beginning of my eight-year tenure at Schwartz Bookshops.

800-CEO-READ began in 1984 as the business books division of Schwartz and Jack made it a big-ticket item for the dearly departed Milwaukee independent bookseller. Later, when the full frontal assault on the shops was made by Barnes & Noble and, later, when Borders came to town and Amazon became king -- forcing Schwartz to scrape by as it was compelled to offer excessively deep discounts on bestsellers and other books just to compete -- Covert's acumen in selling large quantities of books to corporations would keep the shops afloat for years. 

No less than Seth Godin recently wrote this:

"Jack Covert is one of the most important people in my little village of book publishing, a single individual outside the normal circles of New York, someone who cares and does something about it. Jack Covert relentlessly sees possibility when other people are ready to shrug their shoulders and walk away."

When anyone in the industry has had a question about the business of business books, Jack is the person they've called.

One of the enduring images of my years at Schwartz is seeing Jack, with his telephone headset on, playing solitaire on his desktop computer and making deals on the phone. But don't let the computer card game fool you into thinking Jack was mailing it in. Not for a second.

No, Jack's a killer salesman and a smart manager. He assembled a great team around him and those folks helped create the division's success. But he didn't merely delegate -- he was there and he was engaged and working hard, right alongside that team.

"A table, a chair, a phone, and a Rolodex. David (Schwartz) hired Jack, put him in front of a phone, and told him to start a business," remembers Carol Grossmeyer, Schwartz's widow, who is still a partner in 800-CEO-READ.

"Jack didn’t know a thing about business books or publishing, but drew on some kind of innate idea of business he had and ultimately became who he is today -- a great, self-made businessman."

At some point, likely early on, I also learned about how Jack honed the art of the sale. It was at his Dirty Jack's Record Rack, a vinyl emporium on the East Side of Milwaukee that remains legendary among local music geeks.

Long after his hair turned white and he ditched the "Dirty" for a suit, Jack was still on the cutting edge of music, often suggesting new bands and lending me CDs. And he was curious to know what I was listening to, also. I like to think we're kindred spirits that way. While most people stop seeking out and enjoying new music once they've collected a diploma, Jack and I are have remained fans, as eager to hear a great record by a new band as a familiar one by an established artist.

And, if you ask me, that's been the secret to Jack's success. He's never thought the game was won, that everything good had already been done. He was always interested -- nay, eager -- to find out what was coming next.

I know that Jack is only "retiring" in a certain sense of the word. Because, really, Jack will never really kick back and coast. Not his style.

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