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  • Writer's picturePeter Smith

WEDNESDAY 27th OCTOBER 1999 - Goodbye Cheadle (and the Envelopes)

I don't sleep very well or deeply with the expectation of the day ahead, so it is not too much of a shock when the alarm clock goes off at 5a.m. I am on the road before six; essential if I am to get through Birmingham before the worst of the traffic. The journey is very easy, and I am at our distribution centre and envelope factory (the SDC) by ten. The centre manager, B, has just made it back from the dentist in time.

I take the management team into the meeting room to tell them first. There are six of them, with about 200 years service between them. I am very nervous, much more so than I expected. To make it easier for myself, I firstly just read out the official letter which HR and I drafted, explaining the decision to close Cheadle and the "what happens next" process. Then I get into a less scripted discussion, emphasising that the closure is no reflection of their performance. It is just that the market has moved on.

10 years ago a stationery supplier worked on perhaps a 2- 3 day order/delivery cycle,

so putting in an intermediate warehouse could improve service to the end customer. The SDC offered next day delivery to branches when no outside supplier could do that. Now, you can send an Internet order to a supplier at 5 p.m. and receive the goods at 9 a.m. the next day. And the justification for manufacturing our own envelopes seems slim, to say the least.

They take it reasonably well. I imagine they have mixed feelings. With that length of service, there is real loyalty and hence disappointment, and a feeling that their efforts have not been appreciated. On the other hand, that must be tempered with the realisation that the older guys will be getting about two years salary as a pay off, along with the opportunity to take a decent early pension.

After about half an hour's discussion with them, we get all the staff, about 70 of them, together in the canteen. We switch off the cold drinks machine so I 'm not competing with a nice buzzing refrigerator noise! Strangely, I am less nervous than I was with the managers, perhaps because with this size of audience it feels less personal. It is also more like being on stage, which I always enjoyed in my highly successful (third spear carrier usually) amateur dramatics days. Again, I read the letter, and then talk generally, including some detail on the respective details and merits of the voluntary and compulsory redundancy schemes. The audience listens intently until I come to a halt and invite questions.

A large, tattooed forklift truck driver in the front row sticks his hand up. "Yeah. I've got a question". I prepare myself for the worst.

"Where do I sign?"

There is laughter and a huge release of tension. The mood quickly becomes one of almost hilarity, particularly when I stumble over the technical differences between voluntary departure, compulsory redundancy and voluntary compulsory redundancy! (I joke not.) I am very surprised by this levity, but I guess it is the feeling of release and certainty after a long period of doubt over their future; they have been half expecting this for months.

But also, I suspect about a third of them are actually very pleased- they want redundancy, either to retire, or just a nice cash sum to pay off the mortgage or travel the world. A third are probably fairly neutral. They may have some foreboding about the future, but may be reasonably confident about their ability to find another job, and will have a few thousand in terms of pay off. I suspect a third are upset, but in a large meeting like this they will tend to be quiet.

Sure enough, as we file out of the canteen, a guy in his early thirties collars me. "Thanks a lot mate, my wife is disabled and can't work, I've got two kids and a mortgage. What am I supposed to do now?"

There's nothing I can say but sorry - which of course I am, although this is the absolutely right decision and we all have to accept that in a capitalist society, these things happen. That theoretical position doesn't make me feel very good though. B and I then have to photocopy the details of the redundancy packages, as prepared by HR. This runs to twenty pages for each of the eighty-odd staff, so it takes us a full hour on the one fairly slow photocopier. There's no-one else to do it, but this mundane task feels like penance somehow and makes me feel less guilty.

At lunchtime the UNIFI (the staff union) representative comes in to talk with the staff. We have a brief chat first; he is very pleasant and obviously knows his stuff. We discuss TUPE, which I am sure does not apply here. But I get the impression UNIFI are overwhelmed at the moment; the scale of the Head Office cuts, and what is beginning to happen elsewhere in the Group, has just swamped them. To be very cynical, I suspect the bigger picture in terms of what is going on across the Group will make it easier to get Cheadle through without too much fuss. If we had announced this in more normal times, it would have been much higher profile that it is now, and we may have had more problems with staff or unions.

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