Georges Aoun moved from France to the US to work for Bertelsmann’s new online bookstore, BOL.com, less than a year ago. But within a few months he found himself re-locating to London as the managing director of BOL.com in the UK.
In a nimble about-face, Bertelsmann decided there was not enough room in the US market for itself, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. “So we bought 50 per cent of Barnes & Noble instead,” adds Aoun.
Aoun, who is 28 and single, is well-suited to such an itinerant life-style. He was born in BogotÃ¡, Colombia, where his parents were diplomats, so his early schooling was varied and he speaks several languages.
He might not have children yet, but BOL.com, born on March 3, is his baby and he is keen to emphasise its nationality. “I may be the French md of a German company, but BOL.com in the UK is British, based on our British companies. So, in the same way that the British public think of AOL, not America On Line, we want to be thought of as BOL dot com, not Bertelsmann On Line.”
His strategy has been methodical and painstaking. First, he has concentrated on developing the site itself and its systems. Aoun feels this is the key to taking on Amazon.com in the UK. “It sets a very high standard in delivery time, choice and discounts. So we have to add to that.”
With Bertelsmann’s long established publishing and distribution experience throughout Europe, he believes it has an advantage in the UK by being able to offer a wider choice, better service, and a richer online experience. “We want to let the buyer browse through books guided by suggestions from us, rather as they would do in a bookshop.”
The second element of his strategy has been to boost its Web presence, something his competitor, Amazon.com, has in abundance. He has set about establishing alliances with vigour. Already BOL.com is the featured book channel on Lycos, CompuServe, AOL and Doubleclick. At the end of last month it became the exclusive bookseller for the UK’s leading ISP, Freeserve. Last week BOL.com announced a partnership with EMAP Online which will make it the specialist book channel for five EMAP sites.
“We are signing new agreements almost weekly now,” beams Aoun. This week’s signing is the Press Association. Since Monday, visitors have had the option to follow up a news story by buying relevant books.
The third element will start in a few weeks time when BOL.com launches an aggressive off-line campaign. It will feature in print media throughout the UK, and use posters in transport sites to attract commuters.
After that, Aoun will probably pause to think about creature comforts. “At least we’ve got chairs and tables now!” he jokes as we survey the dingy surroundings of the company’s temporary home on the top floor of the Book Club Associates (a Bertelsmann company) building in London’s Newman Street.
“Maybe in a few months’ time we’ll have some London offices of our own.”
Born 1971, BogotÃ¡.
Educated mainly in France.
Graduated from L’Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in 1993 with degrees in history and engineering.
Joined French ISP, Havas Online in 1995.
Became business development director at Havas in 1997.
Joined Bertelsmann in June 1998.