Not many people can say that they’ve been working for the same company for their entire lives. Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton – president, publisher and co-owner of Pelican Publishing Company – wouldn’t have it any other way. As the daughter of the late president Milburn Calhoun, Nettleton is the best person for the job.
“I’ve always been interested in books,” Nettleton enthuses. A sparkle dances in her eyes whenever she talks about this subject. “My parents always had books everywhere. When they moved to New Orleans, they moved more weight in books than furniture.” When they visited Pelican in 1969 and the former owners told them they were going out of business, they decided to buy the company. Calhoun, a full-time physician, became a publisher overnight, while wife Nancy became vice president and brother Jim Calhoun became editor.
Nettleton grew up at Pelican and started her first official job in sales and promotions after graduating from Louisiana State University. “I was always running the conferences, logistics, promoting, getting media and dealing with authors,” she recalls. “I really enjoyed it, so through the years I took on more responsibilities.” Nettleton was promoted to assistant publisher in 2008, where she remained until her father passed away in January.
“Somebody once asked me ‘When is your father going to retire?’ and I said ‘when they carry him out in a box.’ He worked the day before he died,” Nettleton says. Having faced many challenges over the years, Nettleton shares that passion. After the Pelican building burned down in a 1997 fire, she helped get the company back on track. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Nettleton and team answered back with optimism and determination.
“After Katrina, we didn’t let anybody go,” she shares. “We told our employees that if they would come to work and do the work that needed to be done, whether it was what they had been hired to do or not, then we would pay them their regular rate.” Staff members at Pelican have always been treated like family.
Now at the helm of the company, Nettleton is excited about their future. Facing the rise of e-books, she works hard to evolve their business model and stay ahead of the technology curve. But, no matter what changes lay ahead, Nettleton will always stay true to the essence of the industry she loves.
“The basics of wanting to produce good books that people want to read will never change.”
Mentor: My dad. We had to switch from that father-daughter relationship to employer and employee. My mom is my mentor, too, because when my parents bought the company, she was our first salesperson. As a teenager, I saw her expand her comfort zone. I learned that you have to be willing to try different things.
Defining Moment: When I had to decide if I wanted to stay at Pelican and figure out how to work with my father – we frequently disagreed, but we were very much alike. I think all people who work in family companies have to make that decision.
Advice to Young Women: Be comfortable with your own decisions. No one else is going to live with the consequences but you. You cannot judge someone else. You have to decide what’s best for you and move ahead on that tack and realize that it may change.
Goals: To find some more good books! This is a year of transition for myself and for Pelican. My short-term goal is to get my living room and dining room ready and [my husband and I] don’t travel as much as we used to, but we’re hoping to do some.
Favorite Things about What I Do: Every book is a new adventure. You send everything off to the printer and then this great, big 20-foot container comes across the ocean into the parking lot, and there’s that excitement of unloading it and looking at the actual book for the first time.