Better World Books tries to do good by doing business

At the typical for-profit company, philanthropy is a side benefit of creating value for shareholders while serving customers.

But at Alpharetta-based Better World Books, the missions of giving back and making money are intertwined.

The privately-held eight-year-old company describes itself as a for-profit social enterprise, and executives  like to talk as much about the contributions the firm makes to literary initiatives around the world as they do about earnings.

Lately, there have been plenty of both. Revenues for the fiscal year ended June 30 hit $55 million, up from $20 million in 2008, and the company has turned a profit the last two years, executives said.

Better World also announced recently that it topped $10 million raised for literacy  worldwide, including $5.5 million for 80 literacy and education non-profits and $4.5 million for libraries nationwide.

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 'Love & Hip Hop' star arrested at daughter's metro Atlanta middle
  2. 2 Companies use 1851 law to deny liability in duck boat tragedy that kil
  3. 3 Tech wants to keep Johnson. That might not be an option

The money comes from online sales of used books collected at college campus book drives, from libraries and from thrift stores. Executives say Better World gives about 7 percent of its net revenue to its literacy partners.

In addition, it has donated 5 million books that couldn't be sold to non-profits such as Feed the Children and Books for Africa. The rest are recycled.

New chief executive Andrew Perlmutter calls the company's business model, "using capitalism as the tool to do all this good. The more successful we are as a business," he adds,  "the more good we can do."

Perlmutter's job now is to grow a business that was founded by a group of Notre Dame graduates as part of a school business competition.

The founders, two of whom are still with the company, recognized the value of used textbooks in the resale market. They also saw a social and environmental benefit to the business:  they could use some of the revenue to  help promote literacy while also keeping millions of books from the scrap heap.

Although the company was started in Indiana, its headquarters was moved to metro Atlanta where  David Murphy, the company's first CEO,  lives.

The advancement of the Internet and the launch of BetterWorldBooks.com have boosted  brand recognition and sales.

Over time, the company has added staff (it now employs 400, including 45 in Alpharetta), increased its warehouse capacity (it has a 250,000 square foot building in Indiana), and expanded its ways of selling and acquiring books.  It now takes donated books at drop boxes as well as from its traditional sources.

Vice president of marketing John Ujda calls Better World "a pretty sophisticated logistics and analytics company."

It has to be. Better World expects to take in 35  million books of all kinds this year, and estimates it will sell about 30 percent of them. It offers about 8 million titles online and also sells through Amazon and other third-party sites.

Pat Plonski, executive director of Books for Africa in St. Paul, Minn., said his organization has received $2.3 million from Better World since 2003, in addition to 1.5 million books which have been shipped to 24 countries.

"They're a for-profit entity," Plonski said, "but they're operating in a philanthropic manner. "

Better World is registered as a B corporation, a new and still not widely used designation for a business that has its service mission spelled out in its articles of incorporation.

B Lab, a non-profit organization that certifies that B companies are operating according to the classification's standards, said Better World is one of the most active businesses of its type.

New CEO Perlmutter, a veteran entrepreneur and corporate executive vows to scale the business.

"We have a model that works extremely well," he said. "We have to leverage it so we can do more and more good."

More from AJC