STL UK puts up the ‘For Sale’ sign: who will buy?

IBS-STL UK Announces Plans to Sell Operations

IBS-STL UK Announces Plans to Sell Operations

Phil Groom writes:

In a press release issued earlier today, STL UK, the UK and Europe’s major distributor of Christian books and related products, have announced that their business is being put up for sale by their USA owners, Biblica. This decision comes in the wake of ongoing cashflow and stock movement difficulties faced by the organisation since an unsuccessful IT systems upgrade in October last year: combined with the current economic climate, the financial stress has become unsustainable.

This represents the biggest shake up in the Christian book trade for well over a decade, the SPCK/SSG debacle not withstanding, and not only puts STL’s 490 employees at risk of losing their jobs but also risks seriously undermining those hundreds of Christian retailers and suppliers who have become dependent upon STL for their supply chain.

I personally believe that this development does not need to be a disaster and at the weekend I put forward what I have called A Modest Proposal to Save STL UK. There are thousands of people whose livelihoods are likely to be disrupted if STL’s future is not secured: all the employees at Authentic Media and Paternoster Publishing; everyone at STL Distribution; all those working for Wesley Owen; and all the retailers and suppliers I’ve already mentioned. But if we stand together, between us I believe that we could stage a trade buy-out and take over the business as a shared ownership company.

But there is no reason why others — churches and other Christian organisations — couldn’t get involved. We have the means, if we have the will.

If you believe the idea of such a buy-out has merit, please spread the word amongst your friends and churches; if you have any other suggestions for a way forward, please speak out; and please pray for all those whose livelihoods are now under threat.

The UK Christian book trade and the church itself failed when SPCK hit hard times back in 2006. Many people’s lives were ruined and many are still picking up the pieces. It would be a tragedy beyond belief to see that failure repeated with Wesley Owen and its associated companies.

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22 responses to “STL UK puts up the ‘For Sale’ sign: who will buy?

  1. There was an interview about this on ITV news this morning. My thoughts are with the 490 staff. I hope that STL has learned from the SPCK how NOT to pass on a chain of bookshops.

  2. Valiant for Truth

    Although there are many staff involved, the SPCK/SSG bloggers must feel for the former SPCK staff who went through the mill within the past three years, managed to obtain a job with WEsley Owen, only to have the carpet dragged from under their feet yet again.

  3. And I guess that is why we should be blogging over on UKCBD where we can express our support for the Wesley Owen booksellers. It looks like that would be the blog they would be reading or should be reading. We know what it was like on Cartoon Church. SPCK bookshop staff took heart from messages of support.

  4. Thanks Phelim. I hope that the bloggers who look in here will go straight to UKCBD. Sometimes it’s difficult to move to a different place. This has been a “comfort zone” for some of us. Right now we need to offer some comfort to our fellow booksellers. IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

  5. Valiant for Truth

    Much discussion on UKCBD blog about the role of the Church in helping, and this was a theme earlier in the SPCK saga. Of the SPCK former shops, the Brewers were thrown out of the Cardiff shop by the URC Church and they re-opened the shop; the Historic Churches Trust threw them out in Norwich, and Steve Foyster managed a resurrection; Sheffield Cathedral locked them out of their premises but sadly no re-birth there; Chichester Diocese asked the Interim Managers to close that shop so they could instigate a new future in the Church there. The Brewers are still in Durham Cathedral – why? With Wesley Owen, are any of the shops in church property, or are they all in commercially rented properties, with high rental costs? That could be a fundamental difference in whether or not the Church can help.

  6. Pingback: New Ways of Being Bookshop « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog

  7. Pingback: STL UK Crisis: Reports roundup and further reflections « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog

  8. Valiant for Truth

    Further to the round up as posted in the link above, fantastic if the Church in Willsden is coming out asking for support for its local shop, but why in 2006 when the SPCK/Wesley Owen merger deal fell through and SPCK stated it might have to close its shops, did no-one state something similar about the SPCK shops? If individual shops could have been sold, then SPCK would not have looked for a buyer for all 23 (as Biblica would like for all the Wesley Owen shops now) and this blog would not exist because the Brewers would not have comme on to the scene!

    • The big ‘if only’, VfT … I’ve often thought much the same.

      But that said, did SPCK give anyone much of a chance there? Their deal with Wesley Owen fell through and next we heard they’d given the whole thing away, lock, stock & barrel, to the Brewers…

      Heck — if I’d known they were ready to *give* it all away, I’d’ve been there!!

  9. Valiant for Truth

    Yes, one wonders if individuals had approached SPCK to take over a shop whether they’d have been given a freehold building at a peppercorn rent and thousands of pounds worth of stock gratis. Anyway, as said before, let’s hope the SSG fiasco will be a lesson for the Biblica management to beware of Americans bearing gifts.

    • … bearing in mind that Biblica themselves are ‘Americans bearing gifts’ — it could well be argued that it was STL’s merger with IBS back in 2007 and the subsequent flooding of the marketplace with USA pop-evangelical-chick-lit that landed STL/WO in this mess…

  10. Valiant for Truth

    So, why are STL seeking another US buyer? I agree about some of the stock, and too much of it, so that will be no loss. Speaking to a WO manager, staff have not been told as to whether independent bids can be put in for shops. Between the SPCK/WO failed merger and SSG, some individuals put in proposals for SPCK shops but never got a reply. There was a lot of secrecy around so staff had no chance to comment or make a move to buy. I suspect that selling off individual shops costs much more and takes longer than one sale to one big enterprise which is what SPCK went for with disastrous results.

    • I hear they’ve had approaches from prospective buyers all over the world, not just the USA. As far as I know there’s no particular bias towards a USA bid. I guess if they can manage to sell the entire chain they might be able to attempt some sort of ‘restrictive covenant’, for what that would be worth…

  11. Valiant for Truth

    I keep hoping that the Biblica approach will pay off, by being relatively open and public about it, together with appointing a specialist firm to assist. When the SPCK/WO deal fell through, there was an immediate closure threat, then we are trying to sort something out. The staff, suppliers, everyone were in the dark, and behind the scenes just one man appointed to do something. No wonder there was no due diligence and SSG were given several thousand Christmasses at once without being properly checked . Father Christmas doesn’t usually deliver presents to naughty children.

  12. I feel deeply for the staff of Wesley Owen, a dreadful situation….But it seems that their Managers are fighting to save the group
    Shame SPCK didnt do the same…..perhaps the difference between Managers of a Church of England Charity and those of a professional commercial business…. Or am I being unfair?

  13. Annie, Like you I feel deeply for the staff of the Wesley Owen bookshops and I applaud the managers who are trying to save their bookshops.

  14. Annie – many shops had buy out plans to go independent. Chichester and Norwich were two I knew of at the time and others (Leicester and Durham at least) were exploring similar paths. Instead the Brewers came across with honey-coated lies and half truthes that took in not just SPCK but publishers, staff and others. The problem is for the shops that may be resurected out of SPCK (and yes there are possibilities) and Wesley Owen is now we are in a recession, 3 1/2 years ago when SPCK shops were looking for a saviour we were not. Hopefully the SPCK experience will have woken up publishers and the wider church to get behind the various arms of STL/Wesley Owen and save Christian bookselling in the high street.

  15. Nor was online shopping quite so popular as it is now. Even the non religious book church items are now being purchased on-line by churches for much less than they would have paid in the bookshops. Even if new shops arise like phoenixes from the ashes of the publishing crisis, it seems likely that formed customers will have been lost forever to the www.

  16. Valiant for Truth

    But, if a big buyer comes along, beware the legally binding secrecy clause which the Brewers imposed on SPCK, which was shameful. Staff and SPCK Members had to sit through an AGM aware that something was about to happen, but nothing could be said until after the Governing Body meeting later that day. The next morning shop managers were told. They contacted their staff who hit the computers, found the SSGCT website and realised, with horror, the nature of their new employers. Pity the Church, in particular Durham Cathedral who had a few days grace in accordance with the lease to go for get out, didn’t say “NO”!

  17. From where I’m sitting it looks like STL might have learned a few lessons. I don’t know whether or not the Wesley Owen shops are freehold properties. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were gifted to those who know how to run a bookshop.

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