Tag Archives: Saint Stephen the Great

And so it ends? SSG “Dissolved 27/04/2010”

Phil Groom writes:

A lot of our traffic these days seems to come from people running searches for the phrase “proposal to strike off” for which we have the dubious honour of occupying Google’s top result slot in recognition of my post SSG at Companies House: “Status: Active – Proposal to Strike off”, posted back in January 2009.

I decided to check where things had got to with that proposal and discovered that the status for Saint Stephen the Great, Company No. 06110519, is now “Dissolved 27/04/2010” — which happens to be in the future as I write: evidently the new Dr Who is more powerful than we thought (aside: can’t help thinking the Brewers and SSG are rather like Dr Who’s Stone Angels: they only move when you blink). Screenshot of the record taken today, 25/04/2010:

Screenshot 25/04/2010: Companies House: Saint Stephen the Great: Dissolved 27/04/2010

Screenshot 25/04/2010, Companies House - Saint Stephen the Great, Status, Dissolved 27/04/2010

Of course, as my question mark in the title implies, the story hasn’t ended yet: the trading company may have been dissolved but SSGCT, the Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, still exists under the auspices of the Charity Commission, as per my last post, and there are still plenty of other loose ends and unanswered questions, but I’ll leave those for another post…

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.

Response to Durham Cathedral expulsion of Shop Lessee from Durham Cathedral Shop

Cross post from the Wardman Wire

Background (source)

In October 2006 the former SPCK Bookshops and their associated websites were entrusted by SPCK to the Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), under the control of Messrs Philip and Mark Brewer. Unfortunately shops and staff alike suffered in the transition to new ownership, leading to staff departures, branch closures and uncertainty over opening times for those that remain.

In November 2007 SPCK withdrew SSG’s licence to trade under the SPCK name but throughout 2008 the name was still in use over most of the remaining shops and as of Spring 2009 was still being used in Durham Cathedral Bookshop.

Reports emerging during June 2008 indicated a deepening crisis: SSG filed for bankruptcy in the USA whilst ownership and control of the shops was transferred to a new company — also registered to the Brewers — called ‘ENC Management Company’. The Durham and Chichester shops appear to have been reconstituted as independent trading companies but remain under the Brewers’ personal control.

In July 2008, Mark Brewer attempted to silence reporting on this affair by issuing ‘Cease and Desist’ warnings and threats of legal action against several reporters including Dave Walker, Phil Groom and Clem Jackson of Christian Marketplace magazine. This backfired spectacularly, leading to an explosion of reporting and reposting of Dave Walker’s material across the blogosphere.

On 28th August 2008, however, the bankruptcy filing was dismissed with prejudice by the Texas Bankruptcy Courts and was described by the judge as having been submitted in bad faith: that is, as ‘done for a wrong or improper purpose.’ (The Bookseller, 5 September 2008, Issue No. 5348, p.6). Shortly after this — on 24th September 2008 — the Brewers sold the Exeter shop for £507,000 in violation of a covenant; it is now trading as a jewellery and gift store.

Many of the shop workers who were forced out of their jobs by the Brewers are being supported through Employment Tribunals by Usdaw: these actions are ongoing.

Response to the Specific Situation at Durham Cathedral Bookshop

We welcome the statement today from the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral that notice has been served on the current operators and occupiers of Durham Cathedral Shop requiring them to vacate the premises on 30th April 2010. Bearing in mind that a petiton of almost 400 signatures was submitted to the Dean and Chapter in Autumn 2008, we would have preferred action to have been taken far sooner.

The Durham Cathedral Bookshop has been the flagship shop in the chain, supplying much of the turnover and most of the profit, which has enabled the whole chain to stay afloat for the last three years.

Therefore this action – subject to any legal challenges or actions issued by J Mark and Phil Brewer through their management company – will, we hope, be the beginning of the end of the saga of serious mismanagement of the SPCK Bookshop chain from October 2006 to the present.

We are concerned that the time window until April 2010 will give the Brewers an opportunity to manipulate the business further for their personal benefit.

The Durham Shop continues to use the SPCK logo and materials, permission for which were withdrawn a long time ago, to trade with incorrect Employers’ Liability Insurance, and to ignore obligations in the shop lease to stock a wide range of books. It has been a stain on the reputation of Durham Cathedral.

The records of the attempted Bankruptcy revealed that large sums of money had “gone missing”. We have documented how sums in excess of $700,000 had been removed from the finances of the Durham Cathedral Bookshop under questionable circumstances to other businesses and charities controlled by the Brewers. Other monies from the Bookshop Chain had been spent in unusual ways for a charity, including the maintenance of an aeroplane owned by Phil Brewer, who was responsible for management of the Durham Cathedral Shop.

The mismanagement of the Durham Cathedral Bookshop, and the whole former-SPCK chain, requires proper investigation and resolution.

Matt Wardman, mattwardman AT gmail DOT com
Phil Groom, groom DOT phil AT gmail DOT com

Notes

For more information about the history of the SPCK saga, check these links:

  1. Durham Cathedral Shop Finances and questionable Saint Stephen the Great payments
  2. Durham Cathedral Shop Adverts and Anagrams: Third Space Books = Crooks Ship A Debt
  3. The SPCK/SSG Newsblog: https://spckssg.wordpress.com/
  4. My original article back in December 2007, including an interview with Mark Brewer and others.
  5. An introduction to the Dave Walker case (legal threats).
  6. A recent visit to Durham Cathedral Bookshop.
  7. Pursuing the Brewers: Contacts and Facts.
  8. Questions for J Mark Brewer: SPCK Bookshops Asset Stripping. Ministry of Truth cross-post.

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Adjacent to the Grade II church of Saint Stephen the Great…

Phil Groom writes:

Is the whole SSG enterprise now set to become one big network of B&Bs run from Bountiful? Locations at Poole, Lincoln and Truro, apparently. With a name change to make it a tad more Brit friendly, naturally; and the coincidence of locations could, of course, be nothing more than that…

Google Search: Cloister of St George | Cloister of St George

Let’s hope someone’s consulted the rest of the neighbours…
Cloister of St George at Poole (Screenshot, 11/3/2009)

Cloister of St George at Poole (Screenshot, 11/3/2009)

Twas’ Christmas Eve in Saint Stephen the Great’s Bookshop: Christmas Cartoon by Mousey

Twas’ Christmas Eve in the Bookshop…

q-cartoon-spck-christmas-carol

… and all was not (yet) well.

Cartoon: Mousey

“This Town ain’t big enough for the both of us” said Gerald the Sheep

Matt Wardman writes:

It is 8 months since Phil Groom started the SPCK/SSG News Blog to help scrutinise the rundown of the former-SPCK chain of Bookshops.

Our cartoonists have kindly contributed a cartoon or two to remind everyone that it is the end of the year, and we’re still here. Here’s Gerald the Sheep back in town:

q-cartoon-spck-gerald-the-sheep-brewer-wolf

(By the way, there is a big “printable” version of the cartoon here).

This is how Phil stated the problem back in April:

What, exactly, do we mean by the designation ‘Christian’ when we refer to bookshops or publishers? Is it simply that we trade in products that relate to the Christian faith — are we simply a subset of other businesses and commercial enterprises? Or is there — should there be — something more distinctive than that? A sense of mission, perhaps? A sense of mission that goes beyond questions of finance, profit and loss, that makes us determined — somehow — to continue trading no matter what the odds stacked against us?

Or is it something about our business practices? Honesty and integrity, compassion and humility — a willingness to put others first: an emphasis on service, on service that goes beyond the call of duty to offer our customers, our co-workers — whether employees or employers — the best that we possibly can? Treating others with respect, as better than ourselves…

I ask these questions not out of idle curiosity but out of deep concern as I watch the debacle of the SPCK/SSG bookshops deepen, a once excellent chain brought to ruin (latest reports listed below)… and as I see Christian divisions of secular publishing houses increasingly dominating our marketplace. Lorna Roe, responding to my ‘Bibles and Bookmarks‘ post, puts the question about publishers bluntly:

There are a lot of ‘Christian’ publishers out there who try and cash in on the huge popularity of that one most important book, the Bible. Blatant materialism.

So, to get to the crux of the issue: is being Christian about what we (say we) believe or about how we behave? I put it to you that what we believe only matters insofar as it affects the way we behave. Jesus himself warned us about wolves in sheep’s clothing: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-20).

In that light, what does what we’ve seen to date of the behaviour of the Brewer brothers tell us? What we’ve seen of the their attitude towards their staff; towards their suppliers; towards SPCK… of their disingenuity in their correspondence here, denying the reality of shop closures? Can we, with any sense of integrity, continue to refer to their shops as ‘Christian’?

I am in a quandary: on the one hand I want to support those SPCK booksellers who have somehow survived the storms thus far and are still working in their shops; on the other, I find myself wanting to expunge every record of the SPCK/SSG Bookshops from the UK Christian Bookshops Directory. The designation ‘Christian’ is sullied and brought into disrepute by the Brewers’ behaviour.

Would Jesus recognise them as having anything to do with him?

What would you do?

Lord have mercy…

Petition to Chichester Diocese about Chichester Christian Bookshop: Questions Answered

Matt Wardman writes:

Steve, a commenter on Friday’s “Chichester Petition” made the following point.

This petition is a disgrace, how dare the people who arranged it, and the people who have signed it prefer to see the shop CLOSED rather than continue as it is. The Bishop and Diocese have shown no inertest in taking over the shop or even care what is happening to the staff. It does not matter how many ex-staff sign this petition nothing will be done, if the powers that be, in the diocese decide not to take on, as the Bishop and Diocese have done sod all to solve the situation since the Brewers took over the shop I can’t see them doing so now. I have shopped in this Christian outlet for many years purchasing items for myself and as a churchwarden for my church. If I worked in this shop I would be so upset that our Christian community in Chichester and Diocese could and would treat fellow Christians so badly, by planning and hoping they lose there jobs. The Brewers are not ideal but is the Diocese any better!

Personally, I welcome trenchant criticism, as it indicates interest and gives an opportunity for detailed debate. Let me give first right of reply to Phelim Macintyre, who used to be the Assistant Manager of the Chichester Shop, and was profiled in the Chichester Observer there in April 2007 last year.

In response to Steve – you may remember me from the Chichester shop. I was the assistant manager there and left after having a nervous breakdown caused by the treatment I received from Mark and Phil Brewer. I have signed the petition because I do not want the mismanagement and abuse of staff that has happened over the last two years to continue. I agree that the Diocese have shown a complete lack of any concern, especially the Bishop, but the complete disregard of employee rights, rights of the suppliers and health and safety law by Mark and Phil Brewer can not be allowed to continue. The petition is not to cause the staff to loose their jobs – it is to put pressure on the Diocese to act rather than continue their attiude of see no evil/hear no evil.

I outlined the evidence of financial and other misconduct, especially in the case of the Chichester shop:

The Diocese are the only body in a position to really do something directly, unless regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Health dept get involved over the condition of the building. Certainly there are questions on aspects of the Diocesan Stewardship, such as whether the legally required Quinquiennial Inspection of the building has taken place (no one I know can remember that it did, but I am open to correction). However, I’d also say that with respect the Diocese probably are a damn site better than the current managers: whatever you say the Chichester Diocese do not cause their staff to have nervous breakdowns and wait more than a year for their wages.

Nor do Chichester Diocese cause 20-25% of ex-staff to go through Industrial Tribunals to obtain unpaid wages of perhaps $30k while taking $500k out of the organisation themselves in the previous 12 month period.

Nor do Chichester Diocese leave the Palm Sunday crosses charity “African Palms” hanging at the same time with $30k unpaid debts (an entire year’s turnover) that should have gone to support Masasi Diocese in Africa, as the Brewers have done in 2008.

I’ll be publishing an article on Monday showing that between March 11th this year when a new company was set up to operate the bookshop , and early June when J Mark Brewer attempted to fraudulently (as stated by the “Trustee in Bankruptcy to the South Texas Bankruptcy Court “) attempted to make the previous operating Organisation (Society of Saint Stephen the Great)  bankrupt, $35,000 was taken out of the Chichester Shop and materialised as an unpaid debt in the Bankruptcy Documents of SSGCT. That is $35k that the Chichester Bookshop may never see again.

No disrepect to you Steve, but there’s a lot of history here that I’d recommend you read. Nobody here is fighting this campaign because we want to do so or enjoy it.  Some of us have been the targets of intensive bullying ourselves.

One of our objectives is to begin to create a network in Chichester with the potential to create a new facility once the Brewers have gone. I accept that it won’t be easy, but there are at least 3 or 4 places where it has already been done.

May I suggest that you start by reading the accounts of the Bankruptcy application. Try this:

Motion for Sanctions on Mark Brewer.

This states that – in applying for bankrupcy for the UK Charity Society of St Stephen the Great, J Mark Brewer:

* attempted to perpetrate a Fraud on the Court.
* concealing a fundamental conflict of interest in not declaring that he was representing in a Bankruptcy Court an entity of which he was an officer.
* concealing the true identity of the debtor.

There’s a lot more, all on a level of deceiving the Court in order to avoid taking responsibility for debts. Mark Brewer himself is a Law Firm Principal. The concept of good faith is not even in the same universe, in my opinion.

Try the first 3 downloads on this page:

https://spckssg.wordpress.com/about/downloads/

I have referred to one above. If you haven’t read them it is worth doing so at least once.

While Phil Groom issued a challenge:

It’s not the petition that’s a disgrace: it’s the necessity for it. It’s the Brewers’ outrageous treatment of their staff that’s a disgrace: ask Usdaw if you need further clarification on that point, or any of the people who they’ve driven to despair, who to this day remain unpaid.

Ask the suppliers whose goods, unpaid for, are being sold from this and other former SPCK bookshop shelves: that’s a disgrace, if ever there was one, and it’s a double disgrace that people who call themselves Christians trade in such a way!

You’re a churchwarden: you’re a member of the Church of England in the Chichester Diocese: few people are in a better position than you to make their voice heard in the Diocese and ensure that the Bishop cannot ignore what’s been done, what’s being done, in Diocesan property.

So don’t diss the petition: make it redundant. Get on in there and get proactive — get a group of people and churches together to take control of the shop. You and your church are there on the spot, Steve: your call.

We will do our best to answer any further questions.

Durham Cathedral Bookshop: A Case Study in Dealing with Debt – Philip Brewer Style

Phil Groom writes: Updated 20/11/2008

If you’ve got a longer memory span than a woolly mammoth you’ll remember last month’s post on Dealing with Debt – Philip Brewer Style. It’s all about lateral thinking, and I have before me some very interesting email correspondence between Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company and Philip Brewer dated March 12, 2008, the day after the new company was established on March 11.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions: comments are enabled and welcome. My apologies to those who left comments on the original post, 19/11/2008 — I will contact you individually about reinstatement of those comments, or, if you can remember what you said, please feel free to reinstate them yourselves. Thank you.

Durham’s questions in plain text, Brewer’s responses in blue:

1. What happens to the cheques that will be sent in for ledger accounts made out to St Stephen the Great of which the statements have already been sent. What are they now to have on them as you won’t be able to fit Durham Cathedral Shop Management Co on the cheque. (would Durham Cathedral Shop be enough) I will instruct the bank to take them as per normal. Just deposit them to the new account number I gave you.

2. Do we have to wait until new accounts are opened before we place any more orders for stock or customer orders. Please work with your suppliers as a new entity. Ignore whatever was and whoever was in the past. We are now a new company, with no relationship to the old going forward. So, contact your suppliers, tell them the drill, that you are a new company and that you would like to begin trading. When and if asked about billing, tell them they should process that at vendor-accounts, as you are not aware of how they are paying old invoices, etc. they will need to chase Saint Stephen the Great Trust as they have been doing. We also need to know of who we can say will be our references. What are your recommendations? Also what do we say if the suppliers ask about the invoices that we already owe for ? since we are new, we can’t owe anyone anything yet.

3. Is it okay to contact Booksolve to get the tills and computers changed to Durham Cathedral Shop (do we need to have Management Co on this or will Durham Cathedral Shop do Yes, you may do this. I have already requested they give me a cost for the service to continue. So you are welcome to contact them to make this change. Remember, we are a new company. No need for you to get involved with or diverted with what bills etc are being paid by whom.

Petition Update

As I write the petition to rescue Durham Cathedral Bookshop from the Brewers now stands at 279 signatures. We need another 21 signatures to reach the 300 mark, at which point it will again be presented to the Dean and Chapter.

If you have not signed the petition, please consider doing so.

If you have signed it, thank you. Please consider following it up by:

Ask them: why is the Diocese of Durham allowing a rogue trader to run its Cathedral Bookshop??

Straight Talking from SPCK

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. 

– Phil


 

SPCK LogoBefore 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