Monthly Archives: August 2008

Reflections on a Campaign so far, and SSG Not Bankrupt

Reposted and Updated from the Wardman Wire.

Breaking News

stand-up-spck-up-button

SSG Bankruptcy Case Dismissed in Houston

The application to make the UK charity Society of Saint Stephen the Great bankrupt at the United States Bankruptcy Court Southern District of Texas in Houston has been Dismissed with Prejudice, which means the Judge didn’t think a lot of the application, and they cannot refile. Score one for Randy Williams, the Trustee for Bankruptcy, and Due Process.

More detail:

Implications of Dismissal for Mr Brewer

Unity has a look at some implications of the decision in a post this morning Dismissed with Prejudice (summarised):

So what does this means for Brewer and his creditors.

First and foremost, if I’m correct in my understanding of the legal end of things in this country then SSG’s outstanding liabilities rest with the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, which was and still is an unincorporated body.

Second, and this will depend very much on what the full written judgement states, Brewer’s application for bankrupcy includes what, on the face of it, appears to be manifestly false information. The company name he gave on the paperwork, SSG LLC, does not exist … and the judge was minded to take a particularly dim view of the application being made using false information then Brewer could be staring down the barrel of a charge of perjury.

Finally, for now, let’s not forget that Brewer is a lawyer and that he did his own paperwork, even to the extent of trying to score a retainer out of the whole gig. In my experience, the kind of professional associations that regulate the legal profession tend to take something of a dim view of lawyers who file false information in casess in which they have a direct personal interest. It’s unethical and just the kind of thing that can easily result, if you are a lawyer, in your licence to practice being suspended, if not removed entirely.

Brewer, to put it mildly, may well be right up shit creek and rapidly running out of paddles – and that’s before the Charity Commision and/or the UK’s Companies Investigation Bureau get started on him.

Read it all (new window)

The Last Month

It is a little over a month since Cease and Desist notices were sent to a series of bloggers.

I want to look back on what has been achieved – in both concrete terms and “soft” terms.

You can get up to speed by reading my “Introductory Guide“, or the list of people posting in support, or even the Press Room:

Dave Walker is a cartoonist who runs a popular website, which includes the blogs We Blog Cartoons, Cartoon Church and The Cartoon Blog.

On the morning of July 22nd 2008 he received a cease and desist letter threatening legal action unless he removed 75 posts from his Cartoon Church blog by lunchtime – i.e., half a day’s notice.

These 75 posts had reported the developing situation over a 2 year period in a UK book chain called SPCK, which had been taken over by a company run by Mark Brewer. Dave Walker’s was the main published source reporting the situation, asking questions about the management of the chain, and highlighting the treatment of the employees.

So, what has happened?

Public Interest

There have been several hundred articles written about the mismanagement of the SPCK shops, which Here are Blogpulse Graphs for “J Mark Brewer” and “SPCK“. Note that the first Cease and Desist notices were sent around the 20th of July.

20080827-blogpulse-spck

20080827-blogpulse-j-mark-brewer

Some Specifics

Things that have happened in the last month.

Continue reading

SSG Bankruptcy Case Dismissed

Thanks to rigorist for this update, posted August 29, 2008 at 12:11 am:

I just checked the US court system’s PACER service this afternoon (it is still afternoon on this side of the Atlantic). The bankrupcty case was dismissed at today’s hearing on the trustee’s motion.

The actual docket entry is as follows:

“Courtroom Minutes. Time Hearing Held: 11:00 am. Appearances: Mark Brewer for debtor; Randy Williams for Trustee. (Related document(s): 24 Chapter 7 Trustee’s Motion to Dismiss Case). Ellen Hickman present. Mr. Williams addressed the Court regarding the motion to dismiss. Arguments were heard by opposing parties. The Court announced its findings and dismissed the case with prejudice. (rsmi) (Entered: 08/28/2008)”

A written order with more explanation may follow, but as of right now, the bankruptcy case is dismissed.

– Phil Groom

From the Bookseller – Brewer defends SSG liquidation

From The Bookseller online:

Brewer defends SSG liquidation

Mark Brewer, head of the Christian bookshop chain St Stephen the Great, has explained his decision to file for protection from creditors in the US. In email correspondence with The Bookseller, Brewer said that “abysmal” Christmas sales last year meant that “by late spring, the chain was plainly insolvent”. Brewer said that he did not have enough money to file for insolvency in the UK.

Brothers Mark and Phil Brewer, who run the chain, told suppliers in June that SSG had filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code. Houston Bankruptcy Court later converted this to Chapter 7, leaving the business in liquidation.

SSG was registered at Companies House in the UK, but Brewer said that the management of the company and its accounting support were based in Houston, Texas.

“This made bankruptcy in the US a viable alternative to a UK insolvency, and given the dollar-pound exchange rate, US bankruptcy was dramatically less expensive,” he said. “Candidly, the charity simply did not have the funds to institute an insolvency proceeding in England.”

In June, the trustee for the Chapter 7 liquidation, Randy W Williams filed a motion to dismiss the case. He said, “On its face, there is nothing to liquidate and nothing available to fund an investigation in the UK”. Brewer admitted that “due to the relatively small number of assets, the trustee did not feel that liquidation was worth his while”. The motion to dismiss is due to be ruled on in Houston today (Thursday, 28th August).

It is unclear what, if any, monies creditors will receive. Brewer declined to discuss what would happen to companies such as Marston or STL, which are owed money. He maintained that “this was a matter for the bankruptcy court”.

The Brewers took control of the former SPCK bookshops in October 2006, and closed at least six shops before the insolvency. Mark Brewer said that he “unintentionally” alienated staff with a new buying policy, which included a discontinuation of selling the Koran and an increase in the number of Orthodox materials sold. “[Staff] actively worked to prevent implementation of anything to do with change until the chain’s finances were too far gone for any change to have worked,” he said.

“I certainly share fault for this, mainly because I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff.”

Some of the chain is continuing to trade. The Brewers have registered the shops under a new trading company, ENC Shop Management, which is listed at Companies House.

(Reproduced here by permission)

Yet when the Carlisle shop closed Mark Brewer stated that all the shops were making a profit. Also notice that it is the staff’s fault for not obeying the demands from above. If people had just laid down and done what the Brewers wanted everything would be fine. But no mention is made of the unpaid bills to suppliers, unpaid rent or other financial mismanagement. I am too angry for words at the moment.

– Phelim McIntyre (Edited by Phil Groom)

Brewer and Pritchard PC: The Things They Say

With Principal Partner J Mark Brewer having joined forces with his brother, Philip, to successfully decimate the former SPCK Bookshops in pursuit of their vision for Orthodox Mission, I thought it would be useful to reflect on what, exactly, this “Professional Corporation” from Houston, Texas, believes in.

A Google search for the company reveals some interesting snippets:

  1. Welcome to Brewer & Pritchard, P.C.

    Disclaimer: Please be advised that Brewer & Pritchard, P.C. has not agreed to represent you or render legal advice to you by virtue of your having visited 
    http://www.bplaw.com/ – 19k – Cached – Similar pages
  2. Welcome to Brewer & Pritchard, P.C.

    The attorneys at Brewer & Pritchard are aware that efficient staffing and direct accountability produce cost-effective results. Respect for clients’ budgets 
    http://www.bplaw.com/index.cfm?menuitemid=145 – 18k – Cached – Similar pages
    More results from www.bplaw.com »

The first, I have to say, came as an immense relief: knowing that Brewer & Pritchard had not agreed to offer me their services was the best news I’d come across for some considerable time, and I’d like to go on public record as thanking them for that. A considerable saving on outrageous legal fees, I believe…

The second: I truly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let’s run through that again: “The attorneys at Brewer & Pritchard are aware that efficient staffing and direct accountability produce cost-effective results. Respect for clients’ budgets…This, then, is no doubt the strategy that lies at the heart of the Brewers’ business practices here in the UK:

  • Efficient staffing
  • Direct accountability
  • Respect for clients’ budgets

Rather than comment directly myself on the subject of “efficient staffing”, I quote from Usdaw’s statement dated 24 June 2008:

Shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, has submitted 15 employment tribunal claims against the Brewers, US-based brothers who have taken over a chain of UK bookshops and were seeking to impose a new contract on staff, drastically reducing their contractual rights…

Following the change of ownership, a new contract was drawn up increasing the working week from 37.5 to 40 hours with no additional pay, turning all part-time staff into casual staff with no guaranteed hours every week and taking away all rights to company sick pay.

Now, virtually all Usdaw members have been dismissed with no notice, some by email, and have received little or no information about what this means for their rights and their pay.

Er, yes… efficient staffing indeed.

On the topic of “direct accountability”, it’s equally encouraging to know that Philip Brewer holds himself directly accountable for the activities of his branch management team and likes to send them jolly memos to build up their confidence as they serve the company. His most recent memo that we know of was, of course, reported here earlier this week, Philip Brewer says, “Immediately post this…”, and an earlier one was kindly shared with us by Ruth Gledhill in May last year.

Then there’s the little question of “Respect for clients’ budgets…” — one might hope that would, perhaps, include such things as not charging your clients the kind of fees that bring them to the point where you yourself declare them bankrupt. But I suppose that’s OK if you’re on the Board of your client’s company: then it’s just an innocent little internal transfer, isn’t it? Mark, we know you’re an expert on all things legal: could you outline the USA legal position on this for us please? Here in the UK the word “fraud” comes to mind, and I’m sure that couldn’t possibly be right…

So let’s continue to take what encouragement we can from the knowledge that Brewer and Pritchard PC have not agreed to render us their legal services: thank you, gentlemen.

Finally, let’s make it very, very clear that the Brewer approach to Orthodox Mission and bookshop management is most definitely NOT representative of the wider Orthodox community. In particular, Steve, at Khanya Blog, has made a point of distancing himself from the Brewers’ disreputable behaviour:

Avoiding mistakes in mission is especially well worth reading, articulating an intelligent strategy on how a more orthodox Orthodox group might have gone about establishing themselves here in the UK via a chain of Christian bookshops. Steve, should you ever wish to pursue this further, I for one would welcome your involvement in the UK Christian bookselling scene… I believe there’s a Cathedral Bookshop somewhere in northern England which needs of someone sensible to run it…
– Phil Groom

Motion to Dismiss: August 28th 2008?

Thanks to Colin Alsbury for this observation:

At http://www.txs.uscourts.gov/schedules/A671thu1ceo.htm I note that the Honorable Marvin Isgur of UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT Southern District of Texas will be hearing Motion to Dismiss in respect of the case of St Stephen the Great LLC at 11.00am on 8/28/2008 … we watch with interest!

Since these things are “subject to change at any time”, figured we’d better have a screenshot for posterity:

Hearings Calendar for The Honorable Marvin Isgur, 8/28/2008

US Bankruptcy Court, Southern District Of Texas: Hearings Calendar for The Honorable Marvin Isgur, 8/28/2008

Now let’s hope and pray it gets the dismissal it deserves and is sent back to the UK for proper consideration… (can’t help thinking there’s an irony there somewhere: I want the bankruptcy case returned to the UK — I want the guys who called for it back in the USA… but preferably after they’ve faced British justice).

– Phil Groom

Shame and Disgrace: St Stephen the Great, Cambridge

I was in Cambridge yesterday, 26 August 2008. This is what I found: this is what J Mark Brewer and Philip Brewer have left behind for the residents of that city:

Empty Shelves and a Shop To Let Notice

Cambridge, 26 August 2008: Empty Shelves and a Shop To Let Notice

Pile of rubbish seen through the window

Cambridge, 26 August 2008: Pile of rubbish seen through the window

A fine legacy indeed. Thank you, Messrs Brewer, for taking such good care of the shops SPCK entrusted to you. Thank you, gentlemen, for tidying up the garbage you left behind.

What, I wonder, did you do with the stock? Transfer it to the ENC Management Company, perhaps? Or to one of your other companies? Was it paid for? Was it your property?

Please do tell us.

Thank you.

Philip Brewer says, “Immediately post this…”

August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer, p.1
August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer, p.2

All Shops Memo: August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer

“Immediately post this and make sure all personnel have read its contents…”

So says the closing paragraph of the latest All Shops Memo (larger copy below) from the desk of his excellency, Mr Philip Brewer, and it’s my pleasure to comply, although I confess to being a little late: the memo is dated August 16, 2008. Sorry about that, Philip: if you’d like to get the next one to me a little more promptly I’ll be happy to assist.

If it hadn’t been confirmed by two independent sources, I’d be inclined to view it as a spoof, it’s that surreal: but from my own experience of Brewer style communiqués, I’d say there’s little room for doubt about its authenticity — and this memo takes us beyond the realms of Basil Fawlty into the murkier world of Reginald Perrin. Do you remember Reginald throwing off his clothes and swimming away into the sea? I do hope you and Mark will follow that example soon, Philip… preferably one way: I’m sure the good people of Houston, Texas, will give you the welcome home you so richly deserve.

Once again Philip has treated us to a splendid example from the Brewer School of How Not to Manage Your Staff, entirely in keeping with the memo Ruth Gledhill kindly shared with us in May last year: the essential message to branch managers seems to be, I Do Not Trust You To Manage Your Shop So Do Exactly As I Say Or Else. Very encouraging if you do have the misfortune to be on Brewer’s management team, I’m sure. Sorry, not on the team: in his line of sight for target practice, perhaps? But it’s not just Mr Brewer’s attitude towards his staff that’s problematical; it’s the things he’s telling his staff to do.

Let’s look at some excerpts:

4. On all purchases of 10 GBP or more, offer a 2 GBP discount if a donation of 1 GBP or more is made. They must also fill out a gift aid form.

Interesting fundraising method… offer a discount in exchange for a donation and insist on a gift aid form. That’s not a request: “They must also fill out a gift aid form.” Does HMRC know that’s how you’re doing your fundraising, Philip? Is coercing gift aid from your customers in exchange for a discount an approved technique? Have you cleared it with the Charity Commissioners? I presume you have heard of the Charity Commissioners? Don’t worry if not: copy of your memo’s going in the post to them.

Then there’s the question of cashing up at the end of the week:

11. Be sure to keep the collection box on the counter by the till for those persons who wish to make a donation with their spare change. This should be emptied and counted Saturday evenings and added to the take for the day.

Most shops I know tend to collect change for other charitable causes, not to add them to their own takings… really can’t help wondering how this works for those shops such as Durham and Chichester which are officially not part of the St Stephen the Great group… come to think of it, that’s all the shops now, isn’t it, being run by the Everyone’s Nightmare Continues Management Company? It is St Stephen the Great you’re collecting for, isn’t it? That is what the little note at the end of the memo implies, isn’t it? But didn’t SSG file for bankruptcy? What name are you banking your takings under, Philip? Fascinating…

Since the points in the memo don’t seem to follow a logical sequence, we now jump back to:

5. Be sure that in all inquiries for books that you do not have in the shop, that you offer to order the item for the customer and have it delivered to their home. To accomplish this, log on to our site, http://www.thirdspacebooks.com, and process their order. To set up their password, use the last four of their phone number and their initials. Example would be 8524pwb. When completed, please tell the person that we have hired Amazon to ship their order and that if there are any problems, there will be a return label for them to deal with it. Also tell them that they can continue to order from thirdspacebooks for all book needs, not just religious, and that it supports charity.

So you’ve “hired Amazon” have you, Philip? That, sir, is not being economical with the truth: it’s a blatant lie, made all the worse by instructing your staff to mislead your customers by propagating it. What you have done is sign up as an Amazon affiliate then frame your affiliate storefront within a thirdspacebooks.com page; and lest there should be any doubt, here’s the Third Space Books Amazon Storefront URL for anyone who’d like to check: http://astore.amazon.co.uk/sb08-21 … and no, I’m not providing a link: the last thing I’d want to do is encourage anyone to make a purchase through it.

But it’s not just the fact that you’re instructing your staff to lie to your customers that’s disturbing — it’s the sequence in which you’re setting them up: “process their order,” you say. In other words, take their name, address, credit/debit card details and use those details to set up an account on a third party website using a simple password formula that even a child could crack. Then, when complete, having comprehensively breached every possible protocol of customer confidentiality and trust — not to mention the Data Protection Act — spin them the lie about hiring Amazon.

Is this standard Brewer and Pritchard approved practice, Philip? Or did you dream it up yourself?

Finally, we turn to the memo’s opening paragraph: a ban on any flyers or leaflets that have not been specifically permitted by Philip Brewer himself. Not sure how best to help you with that one, Philip, but perhaps I can encourage visitors to the shops to print out copies of the Durham petition and place them in strategic locations around the shops when staff aren’t looking? Put them in places where staff won’t spot them and therefore can’t be held accountable (tucking them discreetly away inside the covers of the books, for instance) … on reflection, though, I guess that’s unlikely to work: with so few books on the shelves these days it’s probably only a five minute job to whizz through them all at the end of the day… 

As for policing the shop, maybe it’s time to call in the Police for a formal investigation…

August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer, p.1
August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer, p.2

All Shops Memo: August 16 2008. From the desk of Philip Brewer