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the lunch

Brad Martin, President & CEO, Penguin Random House CanadaRachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Of all the challenges facing Brad Martin, the president and chief executive officer of Penguin Random House Canada, the most pressing is what to do with all his books. He sounds genuinely perplexed, and more than a little pained, when discussing the future of the "at least 2,500" volumes that line the shelves, two rows deep, in his soon-to-be-vacated office.

"I'm just a book addict," he says matter-of-factly, near the end of a leisurely two-hour lunch earlier this spring. Working in the publishing industry, he adds, has "aided and abetted my addiction."

This month, Mr. Martin and his entire staff begin uprooting from three separate offices scattered around Toronto and converging in a tower near the corner of Front Street and Blue Jays Way. (The first employees moved into the new offices last Monday.) There, for the first time since the merger of Random House and Penguin in 2012, the company's staff will work, and publish, under one roof.

Our lunch takes place at the Chase, in downtown Toronto. Seated at a table with a gorgeous view of the city's financial district, many of whose executives seemed to pack the pricey restaurant, the curly-haired Mr. Martin – sporting a decidedly unbookish charcoal suit, a grey and purple pocket square peeking out of the jacket's breast pocket, over a checkered white-and-purple shirt – makes it clear this is not his usual lunch spot.

"It's not as if I come here all the time," he says, offering suggestions as I peruse the menu. "They have very good French fries, if you like French fries." (Regretfully, I forget to order the fries.)

It's a far cry from his childhood, mostly spent on a farm near Baden, Ont., a small town between Kitchener and Stratford. Mr. Martin's father was a dairy farmer, with a herd of purebred Holsteins 150-strong, while his mother, after raising four kids, worked for a local photographer and then for a dentist in nearby New Hamburg. Like many in the community, his was a Mennonite family – they didn't drink, smoke or dance, and his parents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch – but, although deeply religious, were progressive, too; his father's father, he says, was the first in the community to own a tractor.

Mr. Martin was a voracious reader from an early age. "I was one of those kids that always had a book with them at the dinner table." He took guitar lessons through the local Ontario Conservatory of Music, which happened to be a few blocks from the Kitchener Public Library. "So every Saturday I would go and take out anywhere from four to six books, and then wait in Goudie's department store for at least an hour-and-a-half for my mother," passing the time reading.

As the eldest, Mr. Martin says there was "implicit" pressure from his father to take over the farm, something that held little appeal. "It's a 365-day-a-year job," he says, after ordering a sprout salad. "I couldn't get my head around doing that. I'd seen how hard he'd had to work." His mother wanted him to do more in life – she was the reason, he says, he got a scholarship to St. Andrew's College, the prestigious all-boys boarding school in Aurora, Ont., which he attended from 1970 until 1972. Still, Mr. Martin's father figured his son would at least attend university at nearby Waterloo or Wilfrid Laurier.

"I said my idea of the university experience is not getting up at 5:30 in the morning to milk 70 cows," he says. (His parents, who are still alive, eventually sold the farm.)

Mr. Martin attended McGill, studying political science and economics, spent a year of travelling and a year working in Alberta, then returned to Ontario and enrolled in grad school at the University of Toronto.

While studying in Toronto, Mr. Martin got a job working in the old fish market across from St. Lawrence Market; upstairs was an oyster bar called Coasters, and he'd often drop by before, during, or after his shift. "It was a publisher's hangout," he says.

One of the people he met was John Neale, then a sales manager at McClelland & Stewart, who was looking to hire a sales rep. He hired Mr. Martin in 1981; he was 25 years old.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant, but it wasn't difficult at all," he says of that first job, selling the company's titles to bookstores. That may be partly because of the strength of that first fall list: Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm; Conn Smythe and Scott Young's If You Can't Beat 'Em In The Alley; the second volume of Peter Newman's The Canadian Establishment, The Acquisitors; Pierre Berton's Flames Across the Border.

Between bites of black cod, he gives a rundown of the next two decades. He left McClelland & Stewart in 1984 to work at Penguin as a sales rep, rising to vice-president of sales and marketing in 1989, and then, in 1996, president. The following year Pearson, Penguin's former parent company, bought Putnam and, in what he characterizes as a reverse management restructuring, in which all the Putnam execs got the plum Penguin jobs, he was let go.

By this time, his old colleague John Neale was running Bantam Doubleday Dell, and Mr. Neale hired Mr. Martin as vice-president and director of sales and marketing. The day he started, Mr. Martin walked into Mr. Neale's office and was informed that Bertelsmann, their parent company, had just bought Random House, then America's second-largest commercial publisher. He rose to become president and CEO of Random House of Canada in 2007.

Now, in his current position, overseeing Random House, Doubleday, McClelland & Stewart and Penguin, among other imprints, "he's the CEO of four of the companies he's individually worked for," says Kristin Cochrane, president and publisher of Random House of Canada. "That's a pretty incredible place to be."

Mr. Martin describes himself as a "numbers hound," his favourite part of the job looking at the daily sales reports. His friend and former colleague at Penguin Canada, Kevin Hanson, the publisher of rival Simon & Schuster Canada, says Mr. Martin has "a steel-trap memory for numbers" and a "very good mind for forecasting what a book can and can't do." Ms. Cochrane says Mr. Martin is "very often the smartest person in any publishing room he's in."

Still, he's remained in Canada, choosing not to decamp for the English-language publishing hubs of New York and London and turning down various overseas job offers.

"If you're going to ask me, 'do I regret not going?' – no, I don't think I do. You can never be sure, but I don't think I do. I don't lie awake at night thinking I could have done that. I have a really good job now. And I love my job."

He's now been in the business for 35 years, during which time he's seen the industry experience massive change: the superstore bookstore wars between Lawrence Stevenson's Chapters and Heather Reisman's Indigo, the rise and eventual dominance of Amazon, the institutionalization of discounting books, the collapse of independent bookstores, the surge in digital. Yet, "I take issue with the people who say the publishing industry is dying," he says, on his second glass of wine. "The publishing industry's not dying. It's changing."

The biggest change might have come when the Penguin Random House merger was announced in October, 2012, with Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate, buying a controlling stake in Pearson, owner of Penguin, which Mr. Martin sees as publishing's one true brand – its logo found not just on paperbacks but mugs, T-shirts, posters and more.

"I think it's inevitable that you have a big player like us," he says of the merger. "The market has been demanding all kinds of different things, and it made it difficult for publishers not to consolidate. Scale matters, particularly when you're dealing with these big guys."

While results specific to Penguin Random House Canada are unavailable, according to Bertelsmann's latest annual report, released at the end of March, Penguin Random House increased revenue 25.2 per cent to €3.3-billion ($4.46-billion). Operating EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) was €452-million, up 24.5 per cent over last year.

Since the merger, Mr. Martin has been splitting his time between company offices on Toronto Street and Eglinton Avenue. (The third office, on Sherbourne Street, houses production, design, and foreign rights.)

On June 15, the last of the employees will move into the new office, which will encompass three floors and 57,000 square feet, and feature a "very small boutique bookstore" on the ground floor. It's also open concept, meaning Mr. Martin is losing his office and, therefore, his bookshelves. (When I follow-up a few weeks later, he tells me he's decided to bring the majority of his books to the new office, where they'll take up shelf space in one of the meeting rooms. "I think he's done some thinning, but he's bringing quite a lot of them," Ms. Cochrane muses.)

Mr. Martin is 59. While retirement isn't imminent, a new chapter is on the horizon. His wife, Donna Hayes, the former publisher of Harlequin, left her job at the end of 2013. They recently bought a place in Prince Edward County, a 100-acre farm on the shores of Lake Consecon.

He laughs when I suggest it looks like he'll be a farmer after all.


Brad Martin, President & CEO, Penguin Random House Canada

Age: 59

Place of birth: Kitchener, Ont.

Education: BA, political science and economics, McGill; MA, political economy, University of Toronto

Family: Wife, Donna Hayes; married since 1986

Hobby: "I have a library of 5,000 books at home. … I'm in a quandary now, because I'm well past the number of books in my library that I can reasonably read before I'm dead."

First book: "My dad took me to the library when I was in Grade 3 to get my library card. The first book I took out was The Yellow Feather Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon – The Hardy Boys. That's No. 13, by the way. And that was the first book I read cover to cover."

Favourite book: "People ask me that all the time. I don't have a favourite book or a favourite author. I have authors I read whenever they come out with a new book. Don Winslow, Bernard Cornwell, Philip Kerr … that's the kind of stuff I like to read. But to say that I was going to take a book on a desert island with me? What would I take? I have no idea. You'd almost have to take a book of poems."

Is it a good time to be a Canadian writer? "For those Canadian writers that get published [by Penguin Random House Canada], I think it's going to be great, because we have more resources at our command than we've ever had before. But it's not going to be any easier to get published."

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