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Back in Black: Seforim Sale Yields Profit

 After years of financial instability and notorious mismanagement, the Yeshiva University Seforim Sale, America’s largest sale of Jewish texts, has made a remarkable turnaround. This year’s event yielded substantial profits, hopefully an indicator of better times ahead for YU and its financial solvency.

While the numbers have not been finalized yet, according to the Sale’s staff, this year’s estimated profits are in the $46,000 range, but may be even higher once finalized.  This stands in stark contrast to last year’s $57,000 dollar loss, and is even more significant when taking into account this year’s $104,000 decrease in revenue, down to $732,000.

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After years of deficits, the YU administration and the Seforim Sale staff took several measures to adjust the Sale’s financial management and business structure. The Seforim Sale has traditionally been a strictly student-run endeavor and much of the Sale’s financial woes have been attributed to student ineptitude, due to poor organization and a lack of business experience. Those past failings made considerable teamwork with Yeshiva’s faculty necessary to ensure the Sale’s financial stability for this year and years to come.

Spearheading this effort were student members of the Seforim Sale’s management, specifically CFO Nathaniel Kukurudz (YC ’16), as well as members of YU’s administration and faculty, most notably Syms Professor Leonard Fuld, who served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors this past year.

The first step was to improve the student management’s education. A special class was established to “study small, entrepreneurial businesses with the goal of providing advice and recommendations on how to improve overall operations, marketing, accounting and management,” said Fuld, the class’s creator and instructor. Students selected to take the class were encouraged to actively participate in the Sale, although it was not mandatory. In addition to enhancing the student’s technical knowledge and workplace skills, expert lecturers were brought in to address specific issues related to the running of an operation like the Seforim Sale. One of the goals of the class was meant to address the inexperience of the Sale’s management.

Although enthusiastic about the sale and sincere in their attempts to generate its success, the student management generally lacked the business knowledge necessary for running the Sale. Typically, student managers of the Sale had minimal prior experience in the field of business, mostly limited to internships. Even Kukurudz, an Economics major, whose prior experiences included serving as Advertising and Managing Editor of his high school newspaper, as well as serving as the accounting intern at last year’s sale, acknowledged that his previous experiences were “starkly different” from actually managing business and financial affairs of the Seforim Sale.

Professor Fuld, who holds both a CPA and an MBA, has 33 combined years in the tax divisions of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Schlumberger Ltd and Citigroup and served as VP of Tax for NYSE international conglomerate Griffon Corporation for most of the past four years. In addition to creating and teaching the class, Professor Fuld played an integral role in the oversight of the Seforim Sale’s management and its finances. Although all final decisions were deferred to the Sale’s staff, Professor Fuld was responsible for establishing broad policies and objectives for the Seforim Sale, supporting and reviewing the performance of its senior staff and approving the year’s annual budget. Perhaps most importantly, Fuld was responsible to the stakeholders (YU) for the Seforim Sale’s performance, specifically YU’s loan that kept the Seforim Sale’s doors open, and ensuring the availability of adequate financial resources, given the management’s unfavorable history.

Naturally, the student management team was against the notion of substantial administrative oversight and initially saw it as a nuisance. Yet, Fuld noted: “The students were always respectful and open for discussion. I doubt they were thrilled having a faculty member suddenly appear on the scene to provide guidance and input in what they considered to be their own sandbox, but I am certain they understood that we were all working toward the same goals, and at the end of the day, they recognized that the steps we took were made for the good of the Seforim Sale.” Ultimately, Kukurudz reflected positively on supervision: “Indeed, we are grateful for the experience that Professor Fuld brought with him and the advice and changes he helped institute. As well, we are extremely grateful for the great restraint he showed, and for his understanding that the Sale’s managers have the final say. As you can see, this relationship led to great results.”

Kukurudz, along with CEO Gedalia Romanoff and COOs Shalom Zharnest and Talya Lent, was responsible for instituting major changes to the standard operations of the sale, based on suggestions from Professor Fuld and their developing ability for creating a successful business. Several important steps were taken this year in an all out effort to decrease costs and increase profit margins. These efforts were complicated by the desire to not jeopardize the hallmarks of the Seforim Sale, most notably its bargains on a wide variety of popular seforim. As part of maintaining this delicate balance, profit margins on seforim were increased by just a few percentage points, minimally affecting individual consumers yet yielding positive results in the Sale’s aggregate revenues.

With assistance from the YU Procurement Office, leasing contracts for shelves and tables for the Sale were renegotiated. The management of the Sale also arranged to switch credit card providers to get better deals on transfers.

The most volatile issue in regards to cost cutting was certainly student rewards for working the Sale. The reward benefits are given in the form of book credits and the students are considered volunteers. These credits offer ample motivation for students to take time to serve as the ground force, enabling the Sale to run effectively, while keeping to the spirit of the Sale, easy access to Jewish literature and texts for the masses. However, maintaining such volunteer benefits posed a serious threat to the Sale’s financial solvency and had to be revised.

Sale management devoted considerable time to work out this problem without offending the competing interests. In the end, they reduced the overall workforce, adjusted work hours to match customer volume, and cut standard rewards by 22%.  The senior management also volunteered a 30% cut to their own rewards. These reductions resulted in a 40% decrease in overall compensation expenses.

Other steps were taken to ensure properly managed expenses, including making book credits to the volunteers available in installments, limiting student volunteers to one-third of their respective book credits at the beginning of each week of the Sale. This helped to counter the practice of students claiming credits at the beginning of the Sale and then abandoning their posts.

When asked to assess the success of this year’s Seforim Sale, Professor Fuld proudly replied, “I view this year’s Sale as a remarkable success. Aside from fulfilling the expected goals, the final financial results of this year’s Sale were a real home-run that all the participants, students, and faculty can be most proud of, especially in light of the two huge snowstorms that took place during the limited three-week run of the Seforim Sale.”

Sharing similar sentiments, Kukurudz said, “The Sale, and all it represents, has always been extremely valuable to this university. Now, however, it is also financially valuable.” He fervently attributed that success entirely to the student volunteers: “I can’t underscore that enough. Their dedication and commitment is truly amazing. I am lucky to be able to work with such a team.”

  With high hopes for the future, Kukurudz remarked: “The work is not over. A profitable Sale is good for the school, its students, our customers, and the community we serve. We don’t want them to lose out on our service. This success ensures that we will be here for many more years to come.”