SPCK AGM 2009 – Salient Points

Matt Wardman writes.

On this blog we have attempted to keep up with a dozen or more different strands, and have communicated formally or informally with everyone from bullied staff to suppliers left high and dry to the USDAW Union to the Church of England Pensions’ Board.

More than 12 months on, some of the tectonic plates in the SPCK-SSG saga have shifted, some staff have received compensation after a long legal battle, and the Bookshop Chain is nearly (except for Durham Cathedral Bookshop. Bah!) under the control of trustworthy management in the shape of the Charity Commission Interim Manager of the SSG Charity. Painful decisions will continue, but the management can now be relied upon to follow the law of the land, and a set of honest principles.

The saga will continue for a long time to come, as debt recovery action takes place (I hope), assets are recovered, the Messrs Brewer are (we hope) brought to what justice is possible, and some new initiatives and bookshops continue to emerge from the rubble of the destroyed SPCK chain.

Following the SPCK Annual General Meeting on October 1st, these are some joint reflections drawing out some of the more salient figures from the Accounts and Annual Report.

SPCK Annual General Meeting 2009

The performance of SPCK in its current format of publishing and mission still holds relevance and concerns for former bookshops staff, and the publication of the latest Annual Report at http://www.spck.org.uk/about_spck/spck_2009_rept_accts.pdf gives cause for question.

Former bookshop staff still have a loyalty to the Christian mission of SPCK as it affects the wider Christian world through its publishing programme and world wide literature initiatives; feel worried about the fate of the bookshop premises once owned by SPCK which were funded by the giving and the support of thousands of Christians for nearly 200 years; and apprehensive about the shortfall in the pension fund which affects existing SPCK pensioners and those yet to receive their pensions.

Those with financial expertise and insight can read the Accounts and draw conclusions but key paragraphs in the Annual Report are as follows:-

From the Chairman’s Overview

“First, we experienced a large drop in the valuation of our investments; and second, we suffered from the outcome of a revaluation of a pension fund.”

From the Financial Review

“The Society recorded a net surplus , before exceptional items and gains and losses, of £294,000 (2008: surplus of £751,0000. Exceptional items in this time of economic downturn include an increased provision of £3,832,000 for funding a revised larger deficit in pension funding relating to a now-closed scheme, which was identified after a revaluation of funds by the Church of England Pensions Board. In addition, there was a large non-cash cost in the form of a net loss on the revaluation of investment assets of £3,111,000 (2008: net loss of £1,318,000). The net movement in funds for the year was a deficit of £6,648,000 (2008: deficit of £674,000).”

Further on investments

“The investment in William Leech (Investments) Limited has been used as security to guarantee the Society’s liability for additional pension contributions to the Church of England Defined Benefits Scheme”. Presumably because of stock market performance, the ordinary shares in William Leech, at market value fell from £4,640,000 in 2008 to £3,521,000 in 2009.

Sales

Sales income from Publishing in 2009 was £1,733,000 – in 2008 £1,834,000. The budget figure for 2010 implies a further fall.

Freehold Properties

The freehold properties housing the former SPCK Bookshops are no longer quoted assets.

Commentary

The Christian book trade is said to be in a fragile state at present, and the loss of 23 SPCK Bookshops can have been no help to publishers especially coinciding with a Recession. One hears worrying rumours about the future of Biblica/STL and the Wesley Owen shops. If SPCK did not survive, not only would the future of Christian mission and publishing be harmed, but also the pensions of former staff would be jeopardised and the William Leech Foundation, a generous charitable donor, harmed.

The pensions of former staff are held by the C of E pensions board, so if SPCK itself suffered really serious trouble, those funds are safe.

Finally, things may change (again) as the economy recovers from the current recession – perhaps particularly for investments held by the pension fund.

Wrapping Up

If SPCK wish to respond to any comments here, we are happy to publish a statement or commentary.

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30 responses to “SPCK AGM 2009 – Salient Points

  1. Valiant for Truth

    Thank you, Matt, for this summing up of the present position (including the bah about continued Brewer occupabcy in Durham), and I hope that in the not too distant future some statement will come from the Charity Commission, as, presumably being a public body, they must report on their activities.

  2. That’s uncomfortable reading for those who support the SPCK. I’ll try really hard not to ever criticize the SPCK again.

    • Is that “try really hard not to ever criticize the SPCK again” tongue-in-cheek? If not, I think it ought to be. Yes, it is uncomfortable reading; but it does not put SPCK above criticism…

  3. The trouble is that over the past couple of decades even those bodies based on Christian ethics have put money (including “What will sell?” first in their agendas and the needs of people (either staff or those in the general public who need their products) second. Thus the SPCK forgot these points when they handed their sales outlets over to SSG:
    1) a product requires a sympathetic outlet geared to sales of its product and mindful of the ethos of the local populace.
    2) thus the outlet needs to be (remain, somehow?) to those who understand the business and the way in which British people think.
    otherwise:
    3) a few years down the line the outlet for sales no longer exists; sales fall off and the entire business is endangered.
    4) meanwhile former staff (human beings) are left with unemployment and disappeared pensions at a time of recession.

    It was Christian books SPCK were selling, wasn`t it? (I hope the use of the past tense is only part of my exasperation – and not prophetic.

  4. SPCK Bookshops were a big marketing asset for the publishing arm, and people in the publishing arm recognise this. The removal of the bookshops will have pushed the books out of sight out of mind for many – Wesley Owen shops do not appeal to the avaerage Anglican SPCK customer. But many SPCK shops were secular booksellers before the rise of Waterstones et al, When the manager I worked under arrived at Chichester in the 70’s the shop was almost exculsivly the type of thing you would find is W H Smiths and any other high street bookshop with a small religious section. They become religious bookshops with the rise of competition.

    I am not so concerned about how SPCK is suffereing in the current climate, show me a company/charity who is not. What concerns me is the comment:
    Freehold Properties

    The freehold properties housing the former SPCK Bookshops are no longer quoted assets.

    Why? What has happened to them. Yes one was sold and a few were given to the Brewers but is that all of them? And what about the rumour that SPCK was paying rent on bookshops? We need to know what has happened to the buildings, and why SPCK has not attempted to claim their properties back.

  5. Phelim, like you I am baffled.

  6. Valiant for Truth

    I have held SPCK in the highest regard for many years but strongly feel they were misled in the move to give (and it was give) their shops to SSG. They did not investigate the organisation taking over the shops as is normal business practice. The Brewers can be very plausible and SPCK were wrongly convinced. However, since then the full immorality and criminality of the Brewers has become evident (and there will be more to come), so why, knowing this, does the Dean & Chapter of Durham in conjunction with the Charity Commission, regardless of next April etc blah, blah, permit part of Durham Cathedral, an Anglican Cathedral and World Heritage Site, to be managed by such people, men who make Ghengis Khan look like a pussy cat?

  7. Phelim McIntyre

    Well said VfT. Yes people were wrongly convinced (though I believe that some just wanted to get rid of the shops and SSG were the easiest option) but now the truth is out about the Brewers grim surely it is being an accessory to the criminal behaviour of the Brewers for certain bodies to allow M and P B to continue as managers? If it is not being an accessory is there an arguement that they are being criminally negligent?

  8. From the SPCK Annual Accounts 2007, on the sidebar of this Blog, I note that stock to the value of £1,619,000 was transferred to SSG from SPCK at the time of the handover in November 2006. So, potential sales with a 100% profit margin. Decent sales continued in the shops from November 2006 to January 2008, so why in June 2008 was Mark Brewer claiming bankruptcy? Where had all the takings from the shops gone if suppliers and others weren’t being paid?

  9. Phelim McIntyre

    Decent sales in the shops? What with?

    Chichester was unable to order stock from Easter 2007 because SSG attempted to bring in central purchasing (stock ordered was sent back to the stockists). Suppliers stopped taking orders and started blacklisting the SSG shops around the same time. By the time Christmas came some shops had no advent stock and were telling people to go elsewhere for Advent candles (I was phoned by some small shops for advice on where to get things). Some suppliers haven’t been paid since January 2007, and I was unable to order stock from them.

    But like Annie I want to know where the money has gone.

  10. Valiant for Truth

    Ooh, Phelim! If they weren’t paying bills from as early as January 2007, only three months after takeover, and we know staff who left weren’t replaced, so the wage bill was decreasing, where was the money going?

  11. Into Brewer’s Bank aka Orthodox Church Mission Fund. The flyer with the sickly yellow colour remember.

  12. Yes Valiant thats what I want to know.

    Jacqui – the one about saving churches from becoming cafes, gyms, flats etc which we were meant to give to each customer? I had managed to put them out of my mind. But them seeing how they let Chichester continue to fall apart and put a flat for rent in the church at Poole then I am sure that churches owned by them would be in good hands – not!

    And don’t forget that M Brewer put his son through theological college using the Orthodox Mission Fund in the US.

  13. Where did the money go? Into Mark Brewer’s back pocket, of course: I seem to remember a certain Texas law firm charging SSG somewhat exorbitant legal fees for their services… hmm… wonder which company that was? Wonder which of their people handled the case??

  14. Valiant for Truth

    Don’t know much about charity law, but SSG was registered in the UK and the Orthodox Mission Fund, who knows, but not in the UK. So is it right for funds given in good faith by individuals in the UK to SSG (mostly through shop purchases not that dreadful appeal) to be transferred to a so called US charity? Have the Charity Commission looked at this?

  15. David Ormondroyd

    The time is now 9.33am and a for sale sighn is going up on the York Shop

    is this happening on any of the other shops or churches?

  16. A VERY BIG THANK YOU David. Looks like Mr Gotham is taking action on the real estate given to the Brewers. Inevitable I suppose.

  17. Valiant for Truth

    Question – when the sale has been accomplished, presumably the money realised goes towards paying Brewer debts and the fees of the Interim Managers, but if there is any money left over, who gets it? We still don’t know whether the freeholds have reverted to SPCK or whether they legally are still in the hands of the Brewers.

  18. Katharine Douglas

    It’s a sad day when the For Sale sign goes up in York, I have very fond memories of the York store: it was my first SPCK shop that I visited on a trade trip many moons ago. Wish I had won the lottery and could buy it …just also thinking of all the former staff on a day like today.

  19. Katharine we all wished we had won the lottery and saved all the bookshops. The Brewers won the SPCK lottery and guess what they did with it?

  20. Katharine Douglas

    Well, they say money isn’t everything, but it would have helped.

  21. Money was and is everything for the Brewers. That is their creed. Pity that the SPCK did the three monkeys.

  22. I can confirm the for sale sign is up at Bradford a local surveyor and valuer Ernest R de Romes has the instruction but they do not have a web site so I do not know the asking price. It seems to put an end to any hope that someone else could have taken over the shop and maintained a Christian presence that has existed in Bradford since 1943 and in all the other centres where the shops were located

  23. I think those shops are all covenanted aren’t they? Bradforddian is the church in Manningham still operating?

  24. Are we sure that the CC has put these up for sale and not the Brewers under a different guise? Can anyone local check?

  25. Valiant for Truth

    Yes, Bradforddian, many of us share you sorrow at the demise of Christian bookshops, especially those formerly run by SPCK. However, it has to be said that when SPCK purchased the properties it was a different era and most of the premises would be far too big today, so someone looking for start up premises should be seeking cheaper to buy/rent, lower council and business taxes, and with better carbon footprints. A former SPCK staffer walked past the Worcester shop yesterday, a shop thoroughly renovated by SPCK not long ago, and it was all closed up with piles of post behind the door, but no “For Sale” sign yet.

  26. I feel pretty sure that the CC are disposing all of the SSG assets. I suppose it’s the free hold properties gifted to the Brewers that are been sold.

  27. Pingback: Freeholds For Sale at York and Bradford: Where Next? « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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