In 1866, apostle George Q. Cannon began producing literature he hoped would strengthen members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and later opened a pioneer bookstore.
More than a century and a half later, CEO Sheri Dew can't help but wonder what Elder Cannon might think of that company, now called Deseret Book, today.
While it continues to publish books under its traditional, values-based brand, Deseret Book has expanded to include two publishers, two retail chains, a magazine, a national division, an events division, a film distribution division, a music division and a digital division, along with other lifestyle products. It has produced a number of New York Times best-sellers and developed a reputation at trade shows for its clean fiction. It has published the biographies and teachings of every LDS Church president in this dispensation, something no other publisher can claim, said Dew, who is also an executive vice president for Deseret Management Corporation.
"It's remarkable to consider what this organization has done. Its scope is much broader and more ubiquitous than anybody realizes," said Dew, who been with Deseret Book for almost 30 years. "It's come a long way in the last 15 to 20 years in terms of trying to produce products that affect and reach members of the church, but also an audience that is much broader. So I hope George Q. Cannon would be pleased. I would hope he would feel that we’ve built upon his vision. That is a sincere hope that I have, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit."
George Q. Cannon and Sons Company was purchased by the Deseret News in 1901 after the death of Elder Cannon, according to Deseret Book's history. In 1919, the Deseret News Bookstore and the Deseret Sunday School Union bookstore merged and was renamed Deseret Book.
In commemorating Deseret Book's 150th anniversary, Dew and others reflected on defining moments in the company's history and the innovations that have brought it to where it is today.
Publishing "Jesus the Christ," by Elder James E. Talmage (1915) and "A Marvelous Work and Wonder," by Elder LeGrand Richards (1950), as well as other writings by early LDS Church leaders, were significant events early on in Deseret Book's history because they helped establish its foundation as a publisher and retailer, Dew said.
After that, Dew pointed to key events in the last two decades that have shaped the company into what it is now. When she became the president and CEO in 2002, the company was facing massive disruption of every part of its business, Dew said.
"There was a huge challenge to figure out to what this company should look like and how could it not only survive but thrive going forward," Dew said. "I wish I could tell you there was a magic bullet along the way, but we gathered good teams of people and, frankly, we got the help of heaven. Little by little, we started to work our way out of the hole that Deseret Book was in. We started adding other things."
That same year, the company entered into a partnership with Lion House Pantry and launched an events division called Time Out for Women, which brought in an entirely new audience, Dew said.
During this period, the company developed a national publishing arm in Shadow Mountain Publishing, Dew said.
Over the years, the Shadow Mountain and Ensign Peak imprints have carved out their places in the national market, according to Dave Brown, managing director with Shadow Mountain Publishing.
"It's fun to represent these books and the values they uphold in the national marketplace," Brown said. "You can go to a trade show in Orlando or Chicago and talk to somebody whose lifestyle may differ from yours, but who loves and respects many of your same values. This is one way that Deseret Book is representing this community across the globe."
"The launch of the Deseret Bookshelf app now makes anything in the 150-year library available to anyone who has an electronic/digital device," Dew said. "It was very important for our future."
Deseret Book has invested significant resources into upgrading its website and app and rebuilding its digital infrastructure, and it is now beginning to reap the benefits, said Rob Johnson, Deseret Book's director of digital and e-commerce.
"It has been a lot of work, but it has positioned us well to have a good future," Johnson said. "There are good things to come."
In 2004, Deseret Book acquired Excel Entertainment, an independent film distribution company that "feels a deep obligation to not only bring stories of hope to the world, but to promote films with high standards of craftsmanship reflective of a belief in a divine and benevolent creator," according to its website at excelentertainment.com. It was founded by Jeff Simpson, who now serves as president of Deseret Book Company.
Before joining the Deseret Book team four years ago and becoming the product director at Excel Entertainment, Arthur Van Wagenen admitted to not thinking much of Deseret Book and its products. His perspective began to change after meeting Dew and being impressed by her leadership style. Since then, his work to help produce family friendly, compelling and entertaining films has been more meaningful. The test is telling faith-promoting stories in a way that appeals to the wider humanity, Van Wagenen said.
"The best films are a transcendent experience that allows the viewer to step into the shoes of the characters, their lives and experiences, and be carried away by that story," Van Wagenen said. "Faith matters, and Mormonism is unique and distinctive. Our challenge is capture what is distinctive and share it in a universal way."
In 2006, the company acquired a second publisher, Covenant Communications, and Seagull Book. In 2009, it acquired LDS Living Magazine.
In 2010, Deseret Book opened its flagship store on South Temple, across from Temple Square and approximately in the same location as it was in 1920. The new facility came with a new pioneer-style mercantile design, art gallery and food services.
The following year, LDS Church Distribution Service stores began relocating into Deseret Book stores.
"In retrospect, it sounds like that must have been a natural sequence of events, but frankly, it was a struggle every step of the way to figure out, OK, what comes next, and what opportunities could this company be taking advantage of that it currently isn’t?" Dew said.
"But those things, little by little, with a lot of hard work, and honestly, divine help, have helped the company to continue to grow and become more robust so that it’s very much a self-sustaining business entity. Deseret Book is expected to make money, and it does."
Simpson said Deseret Book is much more than a publisher today: it's a product company.
"We are not just a bookstore — we are a lifestyle store," Simpson said. "Books are still a big part of what we do, but over the last decade under Sheri's leadership, movies, music and books make up less than half of our sales. The other half are lifestyle things, like artwork, home decor, statuary and other gifts."
Lessons in leadership
Dew served in the Relief Society General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1997-2002 but admits she didn't see herself as the CEO of a company.
"Surely, nobody has ever been less prepared to be the CEO of a company than I was. I didn’t have an MBA. What I knew how to do was make products," Dew said. "You wouldn’t have thought that the path I was on would have led me to be the president of a company."
What she could fall back on was her experience of writing biographies for LDS Church presidents Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley, who were "both remarkable leaders," she said.
Both men displayed vision, along with respect for people and how to unleash their talents in a unified cause. Dew also drew upon President Hinckley's "remarkable optimism" and recognized that leadership is not about the leader, she said.
"There is no one cookie-cutter approach to leadership, but there are some fundamental principles I learned and that was a real blessing for me," Dew said.
Elder Cannon in the August 1866 edition of "The Juvenile Instructor" wrote:
"Children, if you have read healthy books and papers, your minds will be healthy and vigorous and be stored with useful knowledge. Such is the food which your minds require. On the contrary, if you read papers and books which are not suitable, your minds will be weakened and become sickly."
The statement captures Elder Cannon's original vision and motivation for starting his company — "to spread truth and light," Dew said. Despite its flaws and mistakes over the years, Dew believes the company has survived thanks to heavenly help, the "tremendous" efforts of many, and a continued commitment to Elder Cannon's dream, she said.
"One of the things I am absolutely certain about is that heaven cares about this company. We have been able to accomplish things that we simply didn't have the capacity to accomplish, and couldn't have without the help," Dew said. "I think part of the reason heaven may care is because it is absolutely devoted to spreading light and truth.
"Whether it’s clean entertainment that you can safely let your child read or the words of prophets, seers and revelators, there isn’t another company like Deseret Book anywhere on the planet. There has been a tremendous effort to only publish light and truth and it will go on."