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 the 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.
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.
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.
It should and could have 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.
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