WILLOUGHBY: Richard Howorth not content to stand on sidelines

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Published: March 14,2014

I love books. I have been collecting books since I was in college. As a book lover, I was excited to have the opportunity to interview Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, Howorth has also been an effective leader in his industry and his community. His leadership resume includes serving as president and chairman of the American Booksellers Association, two terms as mayor of Oxford and in 2011, President Obama appointed him to the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Richard Howorth

Richard Howorth

Howorth, a graduate of Ole Miss, opened Square Books in 1979, Off Square Books in 1992, and Square Books Jr in 2003. In the face of tumultuous change in the world of bookselling, Howorth has managed to navigate the shifts and emerge as a leader in the world of independent books stores. Publisher’s Weekly named Square Books as 2013 Bookstore of the Year.

What strikes me about Howorth’s life of leadership is his passion and willingness to serve.

Howorth shared, “I am very passionate about and keenly interested in the book industry.” This passion led him to join the American Booksellers Association when he first opened his store. He began to serve on committees and was later elected to the board of directors, which led to his being president and chairman. During his years of service in the ABA, the bookselling industry was in a state of massive change. He noted, “I was able to participate in many dynamic events and important decisions — and saw every kind of boardroom behavior you can think of.” He learned a tremendous amount serving in the ABA including both what to do and not to do as a leader.

In the late 1990s, he saw the city of Oxford undergoing some major changes, and felt compelled to get involved. Howorth said, “There were times when I felt our city board was not making decisions well. I began to think I could make a positive difference in our town’s direction.” Rather than watch from the sidelines, Howorth decided to run for mayor and won in 2001. Interestingly, he shared that he never asked anyone to vote for him. Instead, he asked hundreds of people in one-on-one conversations what their concerns and ideas for Oxford were. He emphasized, “Listening is a great (and usually acquired) skill for leaders and can be complicated and time-consuming, requiring patience. But it is the most important thing leaders do.” I could not agree with Howorth more on this point. I believe that asking great questions and truly listening is invaluable as a leader.

For future leaders, Howorth had additional wise counsel. “Try following before you lead. I am somewhat suspicious of people who start out very young in politics or leadership. I can’t imagine trying to be a leader without first having come to some life experience that both informs and compels one to lead.” Howorth distills his leadership philosophy down to servant leadership. He said, “I believe that a leader’s authority is gained only through the empowerment of those he leads. There are other leadership philosophies, certainly, but I think that empowering others is the quickest, easiest, and most effective way to accomplish the things that matter.” Howorth has certainly dedicated his time and resources to things that matter. I appreciate leaders like Howorth who not only have passionate ideas, but they also have the willingness to “roll up their sleeves” and get involved making a difference.

 Up Close With … Richard Howorth

Title: Owner, Square Books, Off Square Books and Square Books Jr
Favorite Books: ”Too many to mention, but I am a big fan of all our great Mississippi writers. Among the classics, I’m partial to Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Middlemarch by George Eliot and a bunch of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.  But Shakespeare still stands tallest.”
First Job: ”My first job was as a warehouse worker for Pettis Cigar Co. in Oxford, a distributor of candy, tobacco, and miscellaneous supplies.”
Proudest Moment as a Leader: “I am proud of the way I was able to work through some real challenges with the Board of Aldermen when I was mayor to join together to advance the city of Oxford. At our first board meeting in 2001, I told the aldermen and the public that I realized that I had been opposed to the city and to most of the aldermen on this board but that as far as I was concerned this was history, and henceforward I would do all I could to help the aldermen to be well informed, help them make good decisions, support their decisions, gain their trust, and serve them. “
Hobbies/Interests: “I follow sports, read and enjoy good movies.”

Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.

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