Caveat: Deirdre Foley has brought Clerys opprobrium on her own head

Natrium’s sackings with no provision for redundancy pay were heartless and cynical

Former Clerys employee John Crowe describes meeting investor Deirdre Foley in court. Video: Colm Keena

 

Maurice Bracken, who worked for Clerys for more than 30 years before the staff were turfed out when the building was sold last June, tells an interesting story about the weeks immediately prior to its closure.

In hindsight, his anecdote reveals much about the moral stink around the whole transaction. Bracken worked upstairs in an office at Clerys, where he looked after payroll and other financial issues.

In the lead-up to the closure, before staff were aware of their impending fate, he was asked to help compile an up-to-date financial report that included details such as all employees’ length of service, holiday entitlements owed, etc.

As he totted up the figures before he was unceremoniously sacked along with the rest of the workers, Bracken had no idea that he was, in effect, being asked to help dig his own grave.

The information he compiled would come in useful in helping to calculate some of Clerys’ liabilities when the operating company was liquidated a short time later.

Breathtaking cynicism

Bracken was being made to assess entitlements that he and his colleagues would never receive. He didn’t know this at the time, but others involved in planning the upcoming transaction clearly did know. The cynicism of the whole thing was breathtaking.

People close to Deirdre Foley’s Natrium consortium, which bought the business for €29 million before flipping it to the insolvency practitioners who closed it, have always argued that criticism of the Clerys closure was “over the top”.

She was at it again in the Sunday Business Post last weekend, two days after revealing Natrium’s plans to redevelop the site. Foley was quoted by the SBP as saying that “on a human level” it is always difficult to see a business such as Clerys closing with the loss of jobs, but it was “inevitable” that it happened.

As part of an ongoing action related to the seizure of documents by labour inspectors investigating the closure, she also recently told the High Court the negative publicity she gets over Clerys is “unmerited and distressing”.

What Foley has clearly failed to grasp is that the public anger is borne not simply out of the fact that Clerys was closed down. It was the way it was closed down.

Businesses close and people lose their jobs every day in this State without much of an outcry. Commercial failure is an accepted fact of business life among workers and the press.

Shoddy and arrogant

But “on a human level” a transaction that leads to the sacking of hundreds of workers in one of the State’s best-known retailers after decades of service with zero notice and zero provision for redundancy payments was shoddy, arrogant and heartless.

It was also hopelessly naive from a publicity point of view.

The people who took the decisions that led to the closure of Clerys in such a cynical manner, leaving taxpayers on the hook for €2 million in statutory redundancy, totally miscalculated the depth of public and political reaction.

If the storm of publicity that followed was “unmerited and distressing”, well, then, it was entirely self-inflicted.

The closure should have been handled better. Much better.

Foley has been known in the past to quite enjoy her reputation in Irish business circles as a tough operator. Insiders say she was initially phlegmatic about all the Clerys publicity.

Cheyne Capital Management, the UK hedge fund that backs Natrium, was much more queasy about the political criticism and was happy to let Foley become the lightning rod for public anger.

Would all the people involved conduct the entire transaction differently if they knew what was to follow? Who knows?

But one thing is for sure: thanks to the botched nature of the closure, there will now be massive public and media scrutiny of the planning application by Foley’s consortium to the city council to redevelop the Clerys site.

FOOTNOTES

Ray Gordon, the high-profile public relations adviser whose clients include the National Asset Management Agency and the Irish Stock Exchange, has parted ways with Topaz, the State’s largest network of filling stations which was sold this year by Denis O’Brien to Canadian giant Alimentation Couche-Tard.

Gordon has helped Topaz craft its “story”, as corporate PR types generally like to try and do, for more than 10 years. But it sounds like there wasn’t a particularly happy ending this time round, if industry rumours are anything to go by.

The parting on bank holiday Monday was immediately preceded by a wide-ranging interview given to the Sunday Business Post last weekend by Topaz chief executive Niall Anderton.

Normally, a journalist would have to drive a bus over the external corporate PR adviser to get to the chief executive of such a high-profile company.

But the word is that Gordon MRM, his PR firm, was not involved in setting up Anderton’s meeting with the newspaper. The following day, the business relationship between Gordon and Topaz ended.

Gordon would not comment in detail on client business when contacted this week. He insisted, however, that he had resigned from advising Topaz on Monday “on a point of principle”.

Topaz is currently running a tendering process for a new corporate and consumer PR adviser, and Gordon MRM has also withdrawn from that process. It would have faced stiff competition to hold on to the contract.

Topaz, meanwhile, is steaming ahead with its plan to integrate into Couche-Tard’s global network of filling stations.

What appears to be moving more slowly, however, is its internal jungle drums. When The Irish Times called on Thursday to speak to a media representative about the split with Gordon MRM, we were advised by front desk to speak to. . . Gordon MRM.

Constantin Gurdgiev, the high-profile, Russian-born Trinity College economist, has left Ireland for the sunny climes of California.

If Morgan Kelly of UCD is the so-called “Roy Keane of Irish economics”, Gurdgiev is its Igor Netto. He built his profile in the early years of the crash as a serious-minded commentator with a withering disdain for the endless policy fudges of the Irish and European political establishments.

A former editor of Business & Finance and currently an investment consultant to several companies, Gurdgiev has landed a professorship with Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California.

He moved over to the US with his family this week, although he will return to Dublin for periods during autumn and spring to teach courses at TCD.

The pub business lost one of its gentlemen last weekend, with the untimely death of Porterhouse co-founder Oliver Hughes at the age of 55. A former criminal barrister, he co-founded the craft beers group in the late 1980s and never looked back.

A canny marketer with a knack for free publicity, one of Hughes’s earliest wheezes was to launch a craft beer called Weiser Buddy, which predictably riled one of its better-known mainstream rivals.

He will be sorely missed.

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