I invited SPCK to respond to my post, Hard Questions for SPCK. The following statement has been issued jointly by Simon Kingston, General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer, and the Rt Revd Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, Chairman of the SPCK Governing Body. Simon and the Bishop served as trustees with SSG when the shops were transferred from SPCK to SSG but resigned from SSG in October 2007.
Thanks to both Simon and the Bishop for taking the time to issue this response. Please note that due to their ongoing commitments, as reflected in this statement, neither Simon nor the Bishop are free to engage in any discussions that may arise from it.
Before the transfer of the bookshops in October 2006, the Bookshops had been losing considerable sums of money for a number of years, and SPCK could no longer afford such continuing losses. To give an idea of the level, the loss made by the bookshops in the year ending April 2006 was over £800,000. SPCK had been selling its historical capital year on year to keep them going, and could no longer afford to do so.
A possible deal with Wesley Owen had attracted much adverse comment and publicity, largely on the grounds of breadth of stockholding, and had fallen through.
We had sent out two requests for help for the shops, with a disappointing result. Though we might have found other partners to take over one or two of the shops, it was clear that there would have to be many closures. This we hoped to avoid.
At the time of transfer, public concern centred on the question of theological breadth of stock. SPCK’s agreement with Saint Stephen the Great (SSG) sought to address this by spelling it out. SSG said that they were happy to agree formally to maintain a multi-denominational stockholding and also the stocking of books taking both sides of controversial issues.
They said that they intended not only to keep open all twenty-three shops, but to invest in improving them, and even to expand the chain.
Prior to the transfer, the Society had certainly been through a due diligence procedure. SPCK and our agents had made investigations about Saint Stephen the Great and its [then] principals, on both sides of the Atlantic. There were no staff problems or employment issues that we picked up either ourselves, or through our contacts and agents.
It is true that one of our trustees was strongly opposed. It is quite untrue, though, that the chairman reprimanded him for what he said at the annual meeting or that he was asked to resign. He walked out during the subsequent Governing Body discussion. The vote was unanimous.
None of the trustees thought it an ideal solution, but it did seem to be better than the alternative. SSG had agreed to maintain a breadth, to keep all the shops open, and to keep staff on the same terms, under TUPE regulations, with the same pension rights. They were looking to invest in new shelving and outfitting of shops.
At first, SSG employed a UK-based British management team overseeing the shops in addition to the shop-based staff. These, some of whom were former SPCK employees, seemed an added level of continuity. Sadly, they have now all left and have apparently not been replaced (other than by the SSG Trustees themselves or US-based employees).
With hindsight, we would have done something else. Yet the large-scale closures that would have been necessary would undoubtedly have attracted much negative publicity and caused upset to those working in the shops concerned. As we have made clear, it was simply not possible to keep the shops going any longer.
We have been greatly upset by what has happened. We have been actively trying to do something about it, and are engaged in legal activity on a number of fronts about which it is not currently possible to say much. This and working with other interested parties and individuals has taken up a great deal of Simon Kingston’s time over the last year and continues to do so.
The Trustee body continue to have the shops as an item at every meeting, and spend a deal of time discussing what is best to do. A great deal has gone on (and continues today) which is not public knowledge. It is simply not true that we have ignored the situation. And with legal issues outstanding, we simply cannot wade in with public pronouncements. Indeed, some public comments (including, frankly, one or two contributions to the various blogs) serve to make matters worse rather than better.
SPCK and its trustees are truly saddened by the situation. We made a decision in good faith, and it has not turned out well. We are really sorry at the turn of events. But breast-beating makes nothing better. We are doing what we can on a continuing basis, and this may take another year or more before it has run its course.
The next few weeks will see two of the former SPCK shops in formal re-launches under new ownership. Let us all hope that other sites also find happier times once more.
Simon Kingston, SPCK General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer
The Rt Revd Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, Chairman of the SPCK Governing Body
12 August 2008