Empathising with the Enemy

Phil Groom writes:

I have no enemies: only friends I haven’t won over yet.

I don’t know who first said those words: probably someone with their back to the wall, facing a firing squad; but it strikes me as an incredibly enlightened attitude, possibly as wise as Jesus’ “Love your enemies” — something akin to Paul’s “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Whatever you make of that, I personally would prefer to have the Brewers as friends rather than enemies — but without a sea-change in their attitudes, I can’t see much hope for that anytime soon. My reason for raising this, however, is that in private conversation and from the odd comment here & there I keep running into people who are beginning to feel sorry for the Brewers.

I can relate to that: for anyone new to the story, looking in from the outside, it might well look as though we’re dealing with a pair of well-meaning but ultimately incompetent enthusiasts — two guys with a heart for mission who simply got in too deep with a team of recalcitrant staff. That’s certainly the impression J Mark Brewer seems to want to give us:

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.”

From The Bookseller, 28/08/2008

But is that true? The statement that staff “actively worked to prevent implementation of anything to do with change” is a serious allegation, and one that on the basis of my own experience simply doesn’t hold water. On the contrary, staff were well aware that changes were needed and wanted to see the shops thrive: let’s face it, it was their livelihoods that were at stake. The Brewers, on the other hand, having been gifted the entire chain, had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

What they did, however, was throw that opportunity away by treating staff with contempt, taking away local buying powers and attempting to implement a centralised buying policy without doing the necessary research into their customers’ interests. I’m not against central buying per se: it clearly has its place in a well thought out business strategy; but I have seen no evidence of such a strategy from the Brewers. What we have, instead, is a series of bizarre head office memos lambasting the staff for perceived failures in their duties. The first of these to make it into public records did so via Ruth Gledhill’s now well known blog post, If you go down to an SPCK bookshop today. Here’s a brief excerpt that sets the tone:

Additionally, there should be no square centimeter that is within our shops (anywhere) or on the space outside our shops (sidewalks, etc.) that is not ALWAYS tidy and spotless.  I do not  care if the windows were washed ten seconds ago, if they are dirty again, then they need immediate attention.  If the shop floor was vacuumed (Hoover’d, Henry’d, etc) 30 seconds earlier, if there is dust or dirt on the floor, then it is the responsibility of the shop manager to ensure that this is promptly remedied.  Again, this does not matter if the manager is on or off duty. Failure here means a failure to properly manage.

“I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff,” says Mark Brewer. Hardly surprising if that’s the way you go about it…

The next memo, less well known, was left anonymously in a response to Ruth’s post on 22/06/2007. I cite it in full here:

Dear Shop managers and assistants.

Greetings. After a great three days in Swanwick, I feel very confident and gratified at your participation.

I congratulate you on a marvelous time.

Effective immediately:

Due to the installation of BACS and BATCH for our accounting and payments, and due to the nature of the installation of Booksolve.net, there is an immediate BAN on all purchases by all the shops for any reason without my specific approval. No purchases made by you effective today onwards will be honored or paid for by Saint Stephen the Great. This ban is expected to be removed when these issues are fully dealt with, and then only on an extremely limited basis. 

Customer orders will only be allowed on the following basis:

If the customer agrees to the carrying charges (where applicable), and pays for the order in advance.

(This ban is confidential and shall not be read or posted in any way. Any violations of this, or any discussion of this with any one outside the management team will be considered gross misconduct. Should this need to be discussed, please direct them to me only. Area managers are free to discuss this with your shop managers and if necessary, you may discuss them with me or their behalf.) 

Again, I thank you for your team work and your diligence in our joint efforts to raise funds for our work and Charity, Saint Stephen the Great Trust.

Phil Brewer,
President, Saint Stephen the Great/SPCK Bookshops
Philip W Brewer
US 520-906-6866
UK (0)79-62646035

Dear Managers and assistants

Thank you all for the many queries I have received about central purchasing. I am pleased to see that you all want to join me in making this work. For the most part I am trying to deal with all of these and get back to you. However, I simply do not have the time today to sit and answer all of these emails and telephone messages. All I can do is request that you read through the original email and if you need further clarification please cc Mr Phil Brewer or Ms Kirsty Smith as they will be able to deal with it if I can not do so first. 

I wish to re-emphasise the following points.

* No buying without approval – This means that if you need to get something in stock other than a customer order or account order please email this to Phil and myself for approval. There is always the time!
* Process all customer and account orders – get payment in advance including delivery where applicable
* do not tell anyone about our new buying procedures. This does not and will not cause any problems. If you think that someone needs a call about this then let m,e know and I will do it.

This should cover the main things for mow. Let me know if not.

Please speak to your manager about central purchasing. This must work and I want us all to be involved.

Thank you


Again, I have no problem with the concept of a central buying policy, if it is intelligently implemented. Here, however, it was introduced as a blunt instrument, without warning or discussion, followed up by fobbing off those who raised questions with, “I simply do not have the time today to sit and answer all of these emails and telephone messages” followed contradictorily by, “please email this to Phil and myself for approval. There is always the time!” … all further exacerbated by the arrogant insistence that not telling anyone about the new buying procedures would not cause any problems. And quite what “the installation of BACS and BATCH” has to do with imposing a ban on shops processing their own orders passes me by completely…

But I’ll allow another of Ruth’s respondents, Pax Vobiscum, who also comments here fairly frequently, to summarise how things went downhill from there, comment dated 12/10/2007 — my emphasis at the end:

SSG were right, the bookshops did need a radical shake up – the business model being used was not versatile enough to deal with shifting customer buying habits. The shops had been chronically underfunded for years because SPCK as a charity simply didn’t have the money for investment. At the takeover by SSG staff were hugely demoralised after a year of aborted deals and threats of imminent closure.

What assets the shops had lay chiefly in those staff who were often to be found working evenings and days-off resourcing conferences and church events. Many of the most knowledgeable, dedicated and highly regarded booksellers in the Christian trade worked for SPCK. The shops also carried some of the deepest and most widely ranging theological stock in the country. SSG rightly picked up on the low staff morale, which often manifested itself in poor front-of-house management – messy displays, untidy shop-floors and sometimes ambivalent interaction with customers. And they saw that inadequate stock control was causing the breadth to be confused with volume and was costing far too much.

Then they threw it all away, as you have seen, with a series of unsubtle memos (and much more) which created a climate of fear and distrust among a stressed, but still dedicated staff network. There was no possibility for open and honest debate. Any staff member who stood up and used the weight of their experience to point out some of the deficiencies in the new strategies was, by implication at least, accused of disloyalty and in several cases their positions made so uncomfortable that they left their jobs. The initially correct attention to tidiness became nigh on an obsession at the cost of the more urgent reform of stock control. Which has led to the situation where the shops have been banned from buying any stock, but no workable central-purchasing system has been put in place. They have had virtually no new stock in the last two months and have completely missed out on all new titles during the key academic seasons and the start of the run up to Christmas.

At the managers’ conference in June SSG admitted that they didn’t believe they could afford to have experienced managers in the shops and they felt that they did not need their knowledge and skills. 

“I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff,” says Mark Brewer. The truth of the matter, I think, is far less subtle: senior staff — indeed, all paid staff — were put in impossible positions with dubious contracts on offer in what is difficult to read as anything other than a deliberate attempt to alienate them, forcing them out to make way for “missionary” volunteers…

11 responses to “Empathising with the Enemy

  1. I had to re-read that bit about the shop windows and 10 seconds just to make sure i’d reasd it right- a frankly bizarre instruction! And this whole case proves that if you lose the support of the staff you lose the business…

  2. I dunno, Phil. I can’t feel too sorry for them yet. Here’s what I’ve gleaned over a few years of life experience:

    1) If you’re going to take over the operation of a business, you’d better find out how that particular business works. Doesn’t matter if it’s a grocer’s, a sporting goods store, or a bookshop chain. If it’s to succeed, management needs specialized knowledge.

    2) If you’re going to travel to a foreign country, and especially if you’re planning to do business there, you’d better acquaint yourself with the laws and customs of that country. Whether it’s complex issues like pensions and taxes or simple things like when people are accustomed to taking their lunch breaks or days off, any prudent business person would take the time to acquire this knowledge. Larger companies now hold orientations for their staff who travel. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.

    3) If you are a lay Christian desirous of doing missionary work, it’s only common sense to submit yourself to the direction of your church’s leadership (bishops and priests in this case) both in your home country and in the country you plan to work in. This is certainly the religious and spiritual equivalent of Item 2. Jesus himself gave careful instructions to his disciples before he sent them off to do missionary work. A lot of those instructions involved their contacts with the locals.

    There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that any of this was done. We therefore have a failing business venture, a lot of maltreated employees, and apparently a lot of co-religionists who are insulted and outraged. There was still time, when things began to go bad for the Brewers, for them to step back, make a realistic assessment, and gather their forces to move along on a better path. They chose not to do that. Instead, they resorted to a lot of clumsy and questionable legal tactics (slapdowns, threats of lawsuits, bogus bankruptcies) in a futile attempt to cover up their many mistakes and to escape the consequences.

    It would be lovely to hear that they’d repented of at least some of this and intended to make amends. I think until that happens it’s probably more important to look after and help the injured.

  3. Ah, yes, the Swanwick conference! As it was at a time of an Apostolic Fast in the Orthodox Church, Phil Brewer had to be off meat etc, so all the shop managers also had to go veggie for three days – no choice, it was decreed. On Day One there was a video link to Mark in Houston with great tales of expansion. On Day Three before departure, a complete U turn, cuts, cuts, cuts. An Orthodox theologian was present to tell the Managers about St Stephen the Great, then was asked by Phil to also give theological lectures which insulted the intelligence of the gathered assembly, some of whom were clergy, and insulted their denominations and belief. The Contract of Employment “negotiations” (forced upon the Brewers under TUPE regulations) resulted in elected Staff Representatives all having to trek to Poole to discuss for several hours. The resulting Contract was hardly changed and illegal under UK law. Next step ACAS who got the legalities sorted, but not the morality as it was still an unfair contract. Central purchasing – a job description for one person to do it all for 23 shops (presumably working 24/7) with so may controls it was worthless. And the treatment of staff … I’ll not go into that as it was cruel and immoral. Misguided, feel sorry for them? NO WAY!

  4. Which conference was it at Swanwick? And can anyone remember which “Orthodox Theologian” addressed the gathering?

    Incidentally, Mr. Brewer has no business requiring non-Orthodox people to observe Orthodox Church fasts. These are voluntary even for the Orthodox – who are invited to fast but not “compelled” to.

  5. I’d feel sorry for Mark and Phil Brewer if I hadn’t worked for them, if people had been paid their wages, if suppliers had been paid their money for goods ordered, if someone hadn’t died, if people had not been made redundant by email………….

  6. The Swanick SPCK Managers conference – a swan song for the managers. June 2007, the last time most of them were able to get together. After several years of this annual conference where normally much work was done, managers were able to give each other much encouragement and many pints of amber nectar were downed, this was a very different affair. No relax from the fear. Paltry food and even worse dinner time conversation. A lay ‘theologian’ with extreme views and no concept of the word ‘dialogue’. A video link that meant Mark Brewer’s words were a step behind his mouth. A last day where managers were gathered into little rooms and brow-beaten into accepting staff cuts or lose their own jobs. Oh, it was both a farce and a tragedy in equal measure.

  7. Empathy? After reading this post? To use my daughter’s words, “OH, I would rather gouge out my own eyes with a rusty spoon.”

  8. Just reading these posts brings it all back, reminds me of so much. Nothing, but NOTHING can be said in mitigation of the Brewer’s behavior, it was horrendous. I wouldn’t treat an animal in the way they treated their staff !!

  9. “Oh, it was both a farce and a tragedy in equal measure.” Pax Vobiscum’s words sum up the whole sorry affair… There will be a summary of the farce and tragedy of the SSG/SPCK situation appearing on my blog soon hopefully…

  10. Have done a farce and tragedy roundup on my blog. By the way [i mentioned this in my blogging], did anyone else ever hear of the plans to put a helipad on top of the salisbury shop?

  11. Pingback: Until that happens: Words of Wisdom from Anne at Atelier Beads « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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