Telling the truth about SME life today

Drugs, theft and violence blighted the last few years of my business

In our glory years, I believed us to have amazing staff relations. We were expanding fast, working hard, high on energy and hitting the pub a lot.

But my?door, always open to the staff, brought sob stories (some genuine) of financial hardship and endless requests for free loans. I had na ve notions about how much of a team we all were, believing there to be no employer/employee divide.

The party atmosphere helped. Combine that party reputation with one of an easily suckered boss, and we soon attracted a the wrong crowd and there was plenty of wrong crowd locally to be had.

At the start of the recession, money started to dry. Crazy expansion slowed. Free loans and high tolerance had to stop. It was time to look for measured performance and accountability. The love affair with the staff ended very fast and as staff troubles grew, so the quality of staff we attracted got worse.

Education prepares its perceived failures for manual labour. You get to pick from the less able, those with social problems and the rebels. This is within a culture where technology has added a desire for instant gratification to add to the existing sense of entitlement. Many do not wish to work, while the best are looking for the way out.

In the heavily unionised town, it was us against them. Engagement or promotion was seen as a betrayal of your peer group. Aligning yourself with management was the worst possible sin.

Unsurprisingly, when people don’t really want to work and the companies are promoted by the local culture as the enemy, employee engagement is minimal and other problems grow.

I was soon pulled into a bewildering vortex of fighting staff, ex-staff and the unions. Suddenly we had a massive drug issue and the local dealers proved reluctant to relinquish such a good market. That was a continual fight, along with the charm of Monday/Tuesday shouting and screaming comedowns.

Absenteeism and low output were huge issues and stealing was rife. It was hard to keep hand tools in the building for more than a few days. Petrol was reported to be being syphoned out of the vans by shop floor staff as well as drivers. We made a 63 per cent saving in costs when one department changed staff, but the police offered little or no support throughout.

I had the odd bit of violence aimed at me over the years and learned early to stand my ground when furniture came flying through the air at my head. Old school managers took trouble-makers out the back and dealt with violence off record. But managers now are left with HR laws and disciplinary procedures. Often, these processes made staff relations much worse, failing to address the real problems and generating huge resentment. Because we had those processes nailed to stop any union backlash, people started assuming that they would be sacked and walked out when we had no intention of doing so a total waste.

We were then left more powerless by the huge skills shortage in the furniture industry. Since traditional reproduction furniture shops died in the 80s and 90s, so too have the’skill sets of making and of finishing furniture. Many of the old school cabinet makers could not adapt to our fast ways of making, and were resentful at their craftsmanship being pressured into set times. While I had sympathy for how they felt, viable commercialism was essential. It then became a case where training internally was easier.

The existing staff taught new recruits and the shop floor very quickly realised the power of knowledge and ensured training was minimal. Specification sheets were deliberately sabotaged and correct knowledge kept elsewhere, while new trainees failed to progress and became bored. But with skilled staff unavailable on the market, we repeatedly had to retain, or far worse re-employ, the troublemakers with skills. The shop floor became its own form of closed shop, run by those with the knowledge.

The few good people who joined were quickly annihilated by the pressure of trying to do the work of six, and the exhaustion of inevitable defeat. The high turnover made self-perpetuated, with the good people leaving from stress and exhaustion making those few left behind who cared yet again under more pressure.

It was a total stalemate for years. The extreme increase in the last few weeks, of low output, massive absenteeism and critical errors made us question if it was deliberate. Few seemed worried by the obvious fact that if we didn?t make much furniture, we would not stay in business. We had plenty of work on, and we could have survived but we simply did not have the staff coming in to do it.

Have a look at some of Jan Cavelle’s other columns:

I hope you find my insolvency columns useful in your business journey a little honesty and perspective never hurt anyone. I?m touching on exit planning, succession, forming a management team, problems of a supply chain and the compensation culture. If you’d like to read my previous entries, please click here.


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