Why Are Executives Jumping Ship At Barnes & Noble's Nook Unit?

Jan 18 2014, 1:05pm CST | by

In the past few months, three key senior executives have left Barnes & Noble’s Nook ebook and digital device division.

Bill Saperstein, Jim Hilt and Jamie Iannone have all jumped ship.

In December, Iannone, the director of digital products, left for Samsclub.com, a division of Wal-Mart, according to the Wall Street Journal. In mid-January, Barnes & Noble announced that Hilt, who was vice president and general manager for global ebooks (essentially running the company’s ebook sales business) will leave the company in February and that Saperstein, who was vice president for digital products hardware engineering, has already left, according to industry publication Publisher’s Lunch.

These executives were all central figures in building Barnes & Noble’s Nook business, which, by all reports, seems to be tanking. The silver lining of the dark cloud that has been recent Nook performance is that the company sold its leftover inventory from the holidays in 2012 when it badly miscalculated demand for its tablets, according to new CEO Michael Huseby. The darkest spot in the cloud is the company’s recent holiday-period performance. Over the nine-week period leading up to 2014, Nook device and ebook sales were down nearly 61% versus the same period last year.

Related: Huseby’s Appointment as Barnes & Noble CEO Signals Renewed Efforts to Sell the Company

There are a few possible reasons that these execs are all leaving now, and I’ve put them in order of how likely I think they are to be relevant:

1. The company is going to be closed or sold. If this were the case, as many have predicted, then likely these executives would lose their jobs anyway. Further, prepping the company they built to be shuttered or shipped may not be their idea of a fun next step in their careers.

2. The company is performing so poorly that they are seeking out greener pastures. Sometimes a business situation can get so hopeless and difficult that the leadership in that situation is compelled to leave.

3. They were forced out because of leadership changes and the company’s performance. Over the summer, William Lynch was removed from his position as CEO and board-member at Barnes & Noble. The Nook business was conceived and built under his leadership with these executives, which he presumably approved of, at least enough to keep them around. Well, he’s no longer around, and the new leadership (Huseby), may not approve of Saperstein, Hilt and Iannone. They may have been forced out or marginalized in a way where they then wanted to leave — either because they just aren’t Huseby’s chosen lieutenants or because of the company’s poor performance

4. Reasons one, two and three together. 

5. It’s a coincidence. People leave companies sometimes, and sometimes the timing looks bad but it’s not for any particular reason that is relevant to the company or the business. I used to be a media reporter for Media Industry Newsletter. This was back in 2006 and 2007, when there were a lot of magazine companies struggling, there was a lot of financial activity, leading to “synergies” (read: layoffs, mostly). I’ve seen this play before, reported on it, and then spoke candidly on background to the executives involved, once they were clear of their companies, and it was never a coincidence. But, it’s possible.

When I contacted Barnes & Noble with a series of questions about the moves, the reasoning and the comapany’s strategy, a company spokesperson sent me the following statement, declining to comment on some of my questions:

I can confirm that Bill Saperstein is no longer with the company. Bill was instrumental in helping us develop our successful brand of Nook devices. We thank him for his many contributions and wish him well in the future. We believe we have a strong management team in place at Nook having recruited significant new talent, including Mahesh Veerina, chief operating officer of Nook Media. The new Nook management team is focused on managing the business efficiently so that it becomes financially strong while at the same time aggressively moving to drive revenue growth.

Jim Hilt will be leaving the company sometime in February. We want to thank Jim for his contributions to the ebook business. With respect to digital content, this team is being led by Doug Carlson, EVP of digital content and marketing. We have no additional personnel announcements at this time.

So, it’s not as if Barnes & Noble is leaving Nook rudderless, according to a company statement. And Estaben Rockett will be joining Nook on Monday as a vice president in the business development unit. He comes from Google’s Motorola Mobility, where he was vice president of software.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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