Gary Hoover | Founder of American Business History Center

Introduction

Success leaves clues.

Finance Strategists sat down with Gary Hoover, founder of American Business History Center. He shared his thoughts on the past, present, and future of the company, as well as the insights he has gained from running the business.

Who is Gary Hoover?

Q:  Who are you and what’s your background?

I am a serial entrepreneur, author, teacher, business historian, and book collector.  

I grew up in a General Motors factory town, Anderson, Indiana.  27,000 people worked for GM in a city of 60,000.  My teachers talked about the leadership and strategies of Kings, Presidents, Generals, and Governors.  But when I asked them about GM and the people who ran it, they had no answers.  I discovered Fortune magazine and its annual list of the 500 biggest American companies, of which GM was the biggest.  I got a subscription and two months later entered the 7th grade.  So I have been studying business since I was 12, for 59 years.

I studied economics at the University of Chicago, where four of my teachers later earned Nobel prizes.  I fell in love with retailing and spent two years picking retail stocks for a big New York bank, Citibank.  Then seven years working for two big department store companies, Federated and May, in Dallas and St. Louis, learning every aspect of retailing so I could start my own retail chain.

In 1982, my friends and I founded Bookstop in Austin, Texas, the first chain of giant book “superstores.”  Barnes & Noble bought the company seven years later for $41.5 million when we had built stores from Miami to San Diego and were among the nation’s largest booksellers.  While the average American bookstore generated around five hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue, our stores averaged three million dollars. During this period I also served on the Board of Directors of another Austin retail startup, Whole Foods Market.

In 1990, my friends and I started a business information publisher which evolved to become Hoovers, Inc., which went public in 1999 and was purchased by Dun & Bradstreet for $117 million in 2003.

I have also had failures, especially a small chain of travel superstores in Texas, TravelFest, on which I lost the money I had made on the other ventures.

The stories of Bookstop and TravelFest are told on the Americanbusinesshistory.org website.

I served as the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin from 2009 to 2010. I have written a few books and travelled to 45 countries and the USA speaking and teaching entrepreneurial thinking.

I live in a small historic railroad town, Flatonia, Texas, with my personal library of about 60,000 books.

Q:  Who has been your biggest influence, and why did they have such a significant effect on you? 

Reading the lives of the great business and other leaders of the past, along with my parents and the many mentors I have had in school and work.  Also my great colleagues at all these businesses.

Nothing teaches you how great leaders think and how businesses succeed and fail better than studying the biographies of the greats and company histories.  It is the best way to learn entrepreneurial thinking.

Q:  Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given your younger self?

Probably nothing more than what my mentors taught me at that time.  Like other entrepreneurs, I am an independent thinker and might well have ignored a lot of advice when young, enthusiastic, and confident.

Business

Q:  What is the American Business History Center? 

In 2019, my friends and I founded a 501(c)3 Non-profit, the American Business History Center.  Most fields of study require an understanding of the history of the field and how we got to where we are today.  You cannot know where you are going and what you are doing unless you know where you came from.  There is so much to be learned from the leaders, successes, and failures from the past.  Yet business schools do not even teach business history, and most businesspeople have little sense of history.  This costs our society billions of dollars, failing to learn the lessons of the past. We aim to change that.

The Center is an online website that publishes a regular free email newsletter, each issue containing a story from business history.  We have also sponsored an essay contest for high school students.  The website Americanbusinesshistory.org contains hundreds of videos, free books, stories, and charts about business and economic history.

I have appeared on behalf of the Center on several History Channel programs, especially The Food That Built America.  In late 2021, we published a book collection of our stories, Bedtime Business Stories: Short Sagas of Business Creation, Success, and Failure, available on Amazon.

Q:  What separates the American Business History Center from its competitors?

We began this venture because no one else was doing anything about business history for the general reader and mass market.  So we have no direct competition.

Q:  What led you to start the American Business History Center? 

See above.

Q:  What has the experience of building the business taught you?

That writing books and publishing a frequent newsletter is a lot of work.  We do extensive research for everything we publish, to ensure historical accuracy and entertaining reading.

  Q:  Where do you see things headed for you and the Center in the next five years?

We will continue to build our newsletter circulation and our website usage, which have both grown very rapidly.  Over time, more people, including students and business leaders, will discover our site, and we will eventually have a tangible impact on the wisdom of the leaders of today and tomorrow.

Please learn more at AmericanBusinessHistory.org.

Published on: May 23, 2022