Jack Covert | 1944-2021
August 17, 2021
The man who founded and led our company for more than three decades has died. He was loved, and will be missed, but he will not be forgotten, as his example and legacy live on in everything we do.
Jack Covert, founder of Porchlight Book Company, passed away on Friday afternoon, August 13. He died peacefully, surrounded by his family. He was 77 years old.
Jack started the business (previously known as 800-CEO-READ) inside Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in downtown Milwaukee in 1984, when David Schwartz hired him to see if he could grow sales in the business and computer book section of the store. Everything we do as a company today ties back to what Jack did next, and who he was as a person.
Jack often talked about the history of how he built the company as a series of inflection points. The first was when he saw a businessperson come in over their lunch break to buy ten copies of Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence off the shelf. It was then he realized that business books could be sold in bulk (in boxes, as he said) if he could find more people like that. So, instead of waiting for shoppers to show up in the shop, he began to fill the trunk of his car with books and make calls on local businesses and corporate librarians across the state to bring the best new-releases to them—meeting them where they were and making personal relationships as well as book recommendations. He built upon that model by turning his picks of the best new business books into a successful catalog and mail-order business that became national in scale. The second inflection point came when Amazon.com arrived on the scene and the orders coming in through the mail dried up almost overnight, and even corporate libraries began to become a thing of the past. Jack met that challenge—as he always did—by pivoting in the moment to focus on the needs of the people he worked with most. In addition to launching a website of our own, Jack built upon his previous human relationships and experience. One of those experiences was when a business book author came to speak at an event in Milwaukee and told him over dinner how difficult it had been to get books delivered to his other speaking events on the tour. Jack decided then and there that he would buy up every single copy of the book he could find and become the author’s go-to distributor—telling him that whenever and wherever he needed books for the duration of the tour, to just give him a call and he’d make sure the books were where he needed them when he needed them to be there. The author agreed, and Jack brought in hundreds of copies of the book, piling them up in any open space he could find. By the end of the tour, the books were all sold, and our bulk book business was born.
Jack’s love of books wasn’t strictly transactional. He loved biographies, industry narratives, management fables, and was fascinated by leadership stories of all kinds. The lists of new releases in our weekly Books to Watch feature stemmed directly from the lists of new releases he put together for corporate librarians and that was printed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s business section. His “Jack Covert Selects” review series, run in business journals throughout the country for years, was the beginning of us writing book reviews on a regular basis. That coverage has changed as the internet changed the media landscape, but it is yet another example of how he set the foundation for nearly everything we do today. We’re just building upon it and renovating as needed over time.
We learned it all from Jack, but even more importantly, we learned from his example to not remain static—to evolve, innovate, and pivot in response to what our customers need from us, to meet them where they are, and not expect them to come to us. (How many times did he remind us to pick up the phone?) We believe in books, but our business is centered around the services we provide to customers—because that is how Jack oriented the company. It was an ethos he extended to the employees of the company, as well. He told us when he retired in 2014 that what he was most proud of was how the company he built provided a foundation for the lives we’ve all built. If you asked him what numbers he ultimately cared most about, it wasn’t the growth in sales or revenue over the years, but the growth of our families, the number of kids born, houses bought, and other ways we’ve all built and grown in our lives and selves while we’ve been with the company. He met us where we were, as well, and helped us meet the challenge of his high expectations of us.
Jack said in one of our meetings after he retired that if there was one outcome he could have altered, it would be that the company would have reached the level of success it achieved in the years after David Schwartz died in 2004 just a little bit sooner so David could have seen it. The company was doing well at the time, but it really began to spread its wings soon after. Jack wished he could have been able to sit across the table from his best friend one more time, just to be able to say “It worked. Can you believe it? It worked.”
We love you, Jack, and we’ll miss you. We’ll continue telling your story—in words, yes, but also because you are present in everything we do.
Photo by Kat Schleicher
Top photo by Chris Corsmeier, Inc., 1995
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for any recognition or rememberance of Jack be made in the form of a small gift to one of Jack’s two favorite places for donations: Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin or Ding Darling Nature Preserve in Sanibel Island, Florida.