The Roots of Book Depot
October 14, 2016
Celebrating 30 Years of Book Depot
During my 12 years at Book Depot, I’ve often been asked how the company got started and how long we’ve been in business. My answer is usually something along the lines of: Book Depot has taken many shapes and forms (and names) over the years, but the roots really go back to the year 1985 and the entrepreneurial vision of John Hultink, our company’s founder.
John is one of five brothers who, together with his parents, immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands shortly after World War II, seeking a better life across the Atlantic. Like many immigrant families, those early years were not easy. The language was completely foreign, but work had to be done regardless and children had to be provided for. And yet it’s the immigrant experience that had a pivotal influence on the roots of our company. Sheer determination, a strong work ethic, disciplined financial management, and deep faith in God were the foundations for a young man who had the courage to go into business for himself.
John’s passion for books and his entrepreneurial drive began well before 1985, going back to the early 1970s when he founded a small publishing company that translated Dutch books into English. These books appealed to many immigrant families across Canada who wanted their children to have the same experiences they had grown to know and love as children.
John also developed a passion for real estate early on in his career (from all those years of playing Monopoly) and worked with a developer in his younger years buying and selling real estate during the turbulent ’70s and ’80s. John’s keen eye for real estate deals, combined with his passion for books, laid the solid foundation for what is Book Depot today. Owning rather than leasing valuable real estate has always been important to the success of our company.
In the spring of 1985 John purchased an old winery in the small town of Jordan, Ontario. Ninety percent of the 100,000 square feet was leased out, but a portion was used to sort, store, pick, and ship orders. That same year, John began dabbling in bargain books and operated book fairs for schools, providing them with a fundraising channel. Brother Ben joined the business early on and helped manage the warehouse, while brother Gerrit joined in 1988 to build the wholesale part of the business.
Eventually the building in Jordan was sold to a developer and became an upscale restaurant and inn (Inn on the Twenty) along with multiple boutique retail stores. After outgrowing this location and a few subsidiary locations, the company moved to 340 Welland Avenue in St. Catharines (106,000 square feet) in 1994 and the company name became Book Depot. With the move to Welland Avenue, Jason Hultink joined the business full time that same year after graduating with a Bachelors in Business.
Throughout the 1990s the company operated many temporary stores in the Greater Toronto Area, especially during the fourth quarter of each year, opening up as many as 50 locations. Opening that many stores in such a short period of time was obviously challenging and a logistical nightmare. One that wasn’t always entirely successful. There had to be a better way than opening that many temporary locations in such a short period of time, and that better way ultimately turned out to be the internet.
In 1997 Bill Van Vliet joined the business after having successfully launched Book Depot’s first retail website (bookexpress.com), the same year that Jeff Bezos went public with Amazon.com (interesting fact: $1,000 invested in 1997 with Amazon’s IPO would be worth $236,635 today!). Bill’s background was in Electronics Engineering and Computer Science, having worked in the IT industry for 12 years before joining Book Depot. In 1997 Book Depot launched bookdepot.com, the first B2B website in the bargain book industry, and continues to set the standard by which other websites are measured.
Once again, with his passion for real estate and a vision to grow the business, John Hultink spearheaded an effort to purchase 67 Front St. North in Thorold, Ontario, a huge industrial building on 14 acres of land. After approximately 12 months of retrofitting and renovations that included the removal of 300 tractor trailer loads of scrap steel in 2003, the company relocated its head office and distribution center to this renovated paper mill, which today has over 450,000 square feet of usable space. As a result of this expansion and the growth of the online business, the company shipped over ten million units annually for the first time in 2005. With the move of the wholesale division of the company to Thorold, the location at Welland Avenue was converted into a gigantic retail store.
In May 2005, Wilf Wikkerink joined the business after spending nine years at Legacy Entertainment as a Partner and the Operations Director. Wilf, together with Terry Perusini (President), built and successfully sold in 2001 one of the industry’s leading budget music companies to a UK-based company.
With a desire to grow the business and improve operational efficiencies, Wilf directed a couple of strategic acquisitions and a move towards automating the warehouse. In 2009, the company acquired a 50% interest in TB Clarke Book Bargains in Sydney, Australia, a bargain book wholesaler who serviced the Australian and Southeast Asian market. In April 2010 Book Depot acquired 28% of the share capital of Make Believe Ideas, a growing children’s publisher in Berkhamsted, UK.
September 2010 marked the beginning of Phase 1 of a two-year multi-million dollar automation project that significantly improved efficiencies within the warehouse and dramatically upgraded our ability to process orders quicker and more accurately. With the completion of Phase 2 in December 2011, the company now had over one mile of conveyor, a 33,000-square-foot, three-level mezzanine, 20 packing lanes for our wholesale business, and automated packaging for our direct-to-consumer customers. The 18-month project was a challenging undertaking that placed a lot of stress on the business, but it also laid a stronger foundation for the future growth of the business and prepared us for the expansion in 2016.
In 2013 we added Very Narrow Aisle (VNA) racking in 25,000 square feet of our warehouse, which allowed us to efficiently store 3,050 pallets in a very small space. Regrettably, 2013 also saw the closure of TB Clarke Book Bargains in Sydney, Australia, bringing to an end our investment in that market.
That same year, however, witnessed the excitement of rebranding our direct-to-consumer banner under the name Book Outlet (bookoutlet.com) after having operated as Book Closeouts (and earlier as Book Express) for the better part of 15 years. As part of the rebranding, our 40,000-square-foot retail store (bookoutlet.ca/store) in St. Catharines underwent a significant renovation. A grand reopening held in September 2013 celebrated the occasion (watch video). Later that same year in December, Book Depot purchased the intellectual property of Toots Books, a publisher with a unique line of 3D tactile books. Today the company operates the brand under the banner Ruckus Books and is primarily involved in custom publishing.
March 2015 marked the divestiture of the share capital of Make Believe Ideas to Scholastic, the world’s leading children’s publisher (read press release). Wilf Wikkerink has continued on in his role as a director of the company and enjoys working with Joanna Bicknell, the passionate founder, creative dynamo, and Managing Director of Make Believe Ideas. Joanna continues to expand the company by developing product that pushes the boundaries of creativity.
In the summer of 2015, Book Depot made the bold decision to approve an additional capital expenditure of several million dollars for a Bombay Sorter from Eurosort (watch the sorter in action). Additional conveyors were added to integrate the new sorter and two robotic arms used for stacking totes. A first in the bargain book industry, the sorter enables us to sort more books, process them quicker, and assist us in providing our customers with an even better selection of titles that are more relevant than ever.
What’s in store for Book Depot in the next 30 years? With a certainty that the printed book has a long life ahead of it, we look forward to continued innovation and growth in our business. We are confident in the future of books and the book industry, but ultimately our trust and our faith lie not in the things we possess, but in our Heavenly Father who guides and directs us.