Blackwell's to close head office, as power shifts to staff

Blackwell is shutting its Oxford head office, putting 25 jobs at risk of redundancy, and devolving more power to its individual stores. Under a new ownership structure modelled on the John Lewis Partnership all staff will become eligible for shares in the company. The business is also expected to return to profit in its next financial year.

The Oxford HQ, Beaver House, will close and staff will enter a consultation period. The intention is to move as much as possible of its functions down to the stores, while some essential admin staff will remain in a unit in the Oxford area. Gareth Hardy remains head of buying; currently 85% of buying is through stores.

"Both moves are about reinforcing ownership, responsibility and sharing success in our individual bookshop teams; one is devolving authority and functions, and the other is giving them the ownership of the business, and the sharing of rewards," commented non-executive chairman Trevor Goul-Wheeker.

Under the arrangement life president Toby Blackwell, last represenative of the founding Blackwell family, is giving away his ownership shares to the employees. Blackwell said he had been inspired by the success of the John Lewis Partnership, set up by John Spedan Lewis in 1928. Blackwell said: "I believe that every single one of our people is important, and can, if respected and encouraged, contribute ideas to make Blackwell’s more efficient and innovative."

Blackwell shares are split into two classes, A and B. The controlling A shares (which are worth no money but have all the voting rights) are all owned by Toby, and after his death they will fall under the control of a voting trust controlled by two of his long-term associates, Steven Jeffcott, a tax specialist and lawyer Greg Stonefield. Blackwell outlined this structure in The Bookseller last May. The current change concerns the B shares, the wealth shares, which Blackwell is giving to the Employee Partnership. The move will take several months to implement but should be complete by December.

For the year ending June 2009 the business lost £9.4m on a turnover of £74.2m; full profitability is predicted for 2011/12. "We’ve had a good year last year [year ending June 2010]" said Goul-Weeker, "trading is improving."

The retailer has 77 shops, 37 bookshops and 40 temporary academic stores that operate at the beginning of each academic term on campuses. Staff amount in total to 949.