Organiser of the Business Book Club, Jacques Velleman. Picture: SUPPLIED
Organiser of the Business Book Club, Jacques Velleman. Picture: SUPPLIED

At most book clubs, regular members meet to socialise, exchange some news, have a drink and maybe discuss some literature. You know all the faces and it’s a battle to recruit anyone new.

At the Business Book Club there’s a vastly different vibe. The book itself is the main focus, the author is there in person, and 80% of the members are different every time.

Its organiser, Jacques Velleman, has put the book back into book clubs, making education the central focus. Every month he interviews a different local author about their work, their writing and their business advice. Events are held mostly in Johannesburg and occasionally in Cape Town, switching to different venues to give different people fair access. They attract all colours, ages and genders, united by a love of learning.

“The audience is different all the time — there’s no consistency in demographics, the only consistency is that it’s people who love books,” Velleman says.

The meetings are free, but you’re asked to donate a business book for a library in an underprivileged area so its information can be spread.

“We stand for the distribution of knowledge and the events are the opportunity to promote that,” Velleman says. “A book is knowledge on paper, and if we can get that knowledge to the right people it helps to uplift our communities through education.”

A session featuring Bonang Mohale, the former CEO of Business Leadership SA, talking about his book Lift As You Rise drew more than 60 people. Other speakers have included investigative journalist Mandy Wiener and author Alex de Bruyn, whose book Escaping the Amazon is about deserting from the French Foreign Legion.

The events have to be fun as well as educational, and after the interview you can ask the author questions and network with likeminded people, and pay it forward by giving a book.
Jacques Velleman

“Not all the books I’ve done have been business,” Velleman says.

“We search for authors with books that would be interesting to our community. The events have to be fun as well as educational, and after the interview you can ask the author questions and network with like-minded people, and pay it forward by giving a book.”

In his day job Velleman is the founder of Centred, a consultancy that helps small and medium-sized businesses face the future. Centred is affiliated to Leadership Management International in Brussels, and Velleman was recently named the 2019 Africa-Australia facilitator of the year.

“The companies I typically work with are family businesses that turn over about R3-million-R4-million a year,” he says. “That’s where the economy still is and where job opportunities are. If they grow, our economy grows.”

Companies usually call him when they need to change their culture, have high staff turnover, the salespeople aren’t succeeding, turnover and revenue are declining, or they can’t differentiate themselves properly.

“Those are the key triggers for my conversation with the CEO,” Velleman says. “Every business has people issues — if you appoint people you have issues. So I help people be the best version of themselves and give CEOs direction in how to take their business to the next level.”

The Business Book Club ties in with the need to create a pipeline of young people with big dreams and entrepreneurial ideas. It also builds on Velleman’s his childhood when his mother took him to the library every week to inculcate a love of reading.

Launching the club in 2017 was easier than expected, he says.

“I knew it had to be a crowd-puller, so I wrote to Gareth Cliff and he said absolutely, he’s in. I interviewed him about his book and more than 40 people came, and it was an extremely intellectual conversation.”

Now that people know the club exits, most donations come when they’re downsizing to a smaller home or someone has died and left a book collection. So far more than 4,000 books have been donated, but the bottleneck is finding suitable libraries. Signature Library in Soweto is currently the only beneficiary, with due diligence being conducted on others in Diepsloot and Tembisa. The reason is surprising and a little disturbing.

“We can’t just put our books in any library because in our country you really run the risk of them being used for doorstops, table legs, chairs or fire starters,” Velleman says. “That’s what books get used for in a library that’s not properly managed. You’re working with people whose basic needs aren’t provided for, and if they want to get warm and there’s a book are you going to read it or are you going to use it to get warm?”

Signature library is attached to a school but opens to the community on weekends, and the club has given it almost 1,000 books. Once more libraries are approved in the next few weeks, the club will take authors there and hold events to raise awareness of the benefits of reading, Velleman says. The donations are all high quality because people don’t dump trash in their collection tubs.

“We get the most amazing books — business books, storybooks, arts and culture, sport and health. The books they donate are a reflection of the top-class quality of our community because they’re CEOs, leaders, executives or up-and-coming people who want to progress.”

The aim now is to expand by sourcing more books for more libraries. An app is also being developed to track donations and let libraries publish a database of their stock so people can see what’s available and request it. The app could also let libraries or individuals request specific books from the club.

“Imagine if we could go to the people who attend our club and say these are the books needed by the libraries we support, can anyone donate them?” Velleman says.

Ideally, they could set up a system where books could be delivered to a Spar supermarket or other drop-off points in disadvantaged communities that don’t even have a library, he believes.

For details of upcoming events, see https://thebusinessbookclub.org