Historic Devon business on brink of failure with 400 jobs at risk
Few businesses make it to their 250th birthday and unless Axminster Carpets finds a buyer quickly it could fall short by two years.
The plush tufts produced by the family-run firm have adorned famous British locations from Downing Street to the Brighton Pavilion, and even a royal coronation, but it is in danger of becoming a historical footnote as it stands on the brink of administration with 400 jobs at risk.
Any job losses will have a disproportionate impact, given the 5,000-strong population of the Devon town from which it takes its name. Axminster’s mayor, Andrew Mouldings, who has lived in the town all his life, explained: “I remember as a schoolboy being shown round the factory. It is the fabric of the community. If it was to go it wouldn’t just be the jobs that would be lost, the whole town would be affected.
“Everybody here knows someone who knows someone who works there and every business would be affected. There probably aren’t many businesses that have such a tie to its town.”
Its client list stretches from Windsor to Wetherspoon, but the firm’s workers hope their most important customer – at 10 Downing Street – is listening to their cries for help. Nonetheless, debts of £12m and a pension deficit of £7m, allied to weak demand for its high-quality products, threaten to sever the link between Axminster and the business that has brought the area modest fame.
Axminster Carpets has been woven into the area’s history, with visitors to the town greeted by signs hailing the “home of fine carpets”.
The company is one of the area’s biggest landlords, owning several residential and commercial buildings. It has already given over land to the local football team, bowling club and community centre.
However, its future has been in doubt for some time. The editor of Axminster Today newspaper, Philip Evans, said: “It was common knowledge in Axminster and its surrounds that the town’s most famous manufacturer was struggling to pay its bills. The news shocked all and sundry – but surprised no one.”
Shock was evident on the town’s streets. David Moore, 33, a truck driver, has worked for the company since he was 16. His parents worked for the business, and his grandfather before them. He said: “Living round here it was expected you would sign up and join the company. We would all head to the factory when we left school and be told what jobs were available.”
Founded in 1755, the business died out in 1835 and endured a 100-year hiatus. The following century a Glasgow-born carpet maker, Harry Dutfield, met a local vicar on a train who told him about the town’s rich heritage. He rekindled the business and by 1937 Axminster Carpets was creating the carpet for George VI’s coronation – the largest of its kind at the time.
Dutfield received an MBE in 1997, two years before he died, and the company has since been run by his son, Simon, and then his grandson, Joshua, who is negotiating with administrators and potential buyers.
Harry remains a legend among Axminster townsfolk for putting the area on the map. But they are less impressed with his successors, saying the product has remained exquisite but the management lacks the skills required to adapt to a world dominated by laminated and wooden flooring.
The Community union, which represents workers at the plant, has been urging the government to offer subsidies for the carpet industry. As UK manufacturing declines despite government efforts, it hopes ministers will follow other European countries and intervene in favour of homegrown talent.
Lorraine Gaskell, Community campaign manager, said: “We met Mark Prisk [MP and local government minister] last year to ask for help for the carpet industry and were told a cross-party committee would be set up, but we’re still waiting.”
A petition to save Axminster Carpets has been signed by nearly 1,800 people from as far afield as Australia and Canada. Derek Branker, 46, a carpet weaver and Community branch secretary, is hopeful that a solution can be found.
He said: “I’ve been humbled and left quite emotional by the support we’ve received. Since the announcement that the company was in trouble, we’ve had loads of inquiries and a huge boost in sales.”
A rally in the town last Saturday attracted 200 people, while on the high street this week hundreds of shoppers were signing a petition to save the business. Posters are dotted throughout the town in shops and coffee shops, including the River Cottage café owned by local celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Even the town’s Tesco has started preparing food parcels for workers should the worst happen.
The hope is a buyer can be found, with private equity group Carlyle reported to be interested. The US company bought rival Brintons Carpets in 2011 after the Kidderminster-based firm fell into difficulties.
Axminster filed a note for intention to appoint administrators last week and has until Tuesday to either extend this or file for administration, with Duff & Phelps poised to take over. Workers were paid in advance last week, but any future payments are on hold.
The management declined to comment, saying it was concerned any discussion would impact on negotiations. For the people of Axminster, the hope is the business remains an active part of the town’s history.
The prime minister is still confusing the interests of the City with those of the nation
It sounds like the stuff of satire. On Thursday, RBS, the bank that taxpayers were forced to buy, posted 2012 losses of more than £5bn. That was after paying out more than £600m in bonuses. On the very same day, an EU draft agreement to cap bank bonuses emerged – and the prime minister immediately signalled that Britain would resist.
There are of course questions about the detailed design of the bonus cap, although to the citizen on the street the first of these is why it needs to be set as high as 100% of salary, with exceptional provision for double that. Then there are deeper doubts about whether or not internationally footloose financiers can be forced to wear a cap made in Brussels. The most obvious danger is that the restriction on lavish top-ups would be answered by a dramatic increase in basic pay. Certainly, the experience of the bonus tax suggests that this would happen to some extent. To assume things would be different this time, is to assume that the City is becoming more sensitive to shame. That may sound like a naive hope, although with Antony Jenkins’s new regime at Barclays staking its reputation on respect and responsibility, and with so much banking in state hands, with political will there ought now to be scope to challenge the culture. And let’s be clear: for a bank to agree to boost the salary of someone like Bob Diamond several dozen times over – which is what would be required to compensate for the loss of the bonuses he got in his heyday – would not be a decision a publicity-conscious business could take lightly.
All things considered, attempting to do something – as the EU proposes – is surely better than sitting back and doing nothing. Even if the worst happens, and the bankers claw back all their bonuses in increased pay, the reform would at least succeed in pushing their avarice into the open. Whereas bonuses calculated by incomprehensible formulae allow the money men to hide behind the misty idea that they are being paid to perform on some intricate criterion which the rest of us cannot hope to understand, higher salaries would make plain that their vast rewards are in fact automatic with the job; this transparency could catalyse outrage and eventually further change, even if there was little immediate effect.
But it is being far too kind to David Cameron to imagine that his resistance flows from any fear that the measure wouldn’t have immediate effect. Shielded by a Labour party which continues to hug the City too close – “it shouldn’t take the EU to get a grip on bonuses”, the opposition disingenuously carped as it sought to evade revealing that it too was against – the PM is simply continuing with the great British tradition of confusing the interests of the City with those of the nation.
A system to enable a car to drive itself has been shown off at Oxford University, with a hope such technology could eventually cost just £100.
Continued here: Self-driving car given UK test run
Barack Obama laid out a plan to restore growth and rescue the middle class, adopting a tougher approach for his second term
The presidency of Barack Obama has been a lesson in American civics for the rest of the world and perhaps for many Americans themselves. We have learned that the most powerful man in the world is not that powerful. We have learned that he can be frustrated on an almost daily basis, and that even his most heartfelt appeals for help can be, and have been, routinely spurned.
We have grasped that even the most effective rhetoric, words that sway the nation, may not sway a stubborn opposition. We have seen the inheritor of Lincoln’s office, at the very moment when a new and commanding film is reminding Americans of the achievements of one of their greatest presidents, struggling to craft compromises with grudging and ungiving opponents, and often failing to do so.
President Obama’s speeches were at first accorded a special deference, not because he is a gifted orator, although he is, but because they were seen as having a predictive quality. They were, it seemed, about what he was going to do for America and for the rest of us. But as time passed their wishful character became more apparent. The president got a number of important things done in his first term, notably in pulling America back from the brink of economic collapse, but much of his agenda languished. Will it be the same story with the two speeches, the inaugural last month and the state of the union this week, in which he sets out his ambitions for his final term?
He laid out a plan to restore growth and rescue the American middle class, by investing in education and in energy and other infrastructural programmes, and backing innovations in modernising technology. But he did not confine himself to the middle-class plight, also proposing measures, like an increase in the minimum wage, to help the underpaid and unemployed. This is the modestly interventionist programme on which he campaigned and one which he said would not increase “our deficit by a single dime”. Yet it was instantly denounced by Republicans as meaning more “big government” and more spending. In the same vein of renewal and long overdue reform, Obama called on lawmakers to overcome their differences to establish fairer and more realistic rules about immigration, to create a better voting system, to adopt a more active approach to climate change, and to bring in real gun controls. Republicans are open to progress on the first and opposed or ambivalent on all the others.
Obama’s overall strategy is clear: he seeks to crush Republican obstructionism between the hammer of his own renewed resolve and the anvil of a public opinion that he believes is on his side and can be further won over to it in the coming months. His programme is not radical. From a European point of view it looks more like common sense than socialism, even in the diminished meaning of that word today. His hope must be that most Americans will continue to see it that way, and that their views will eventually erode the position of the Republican hardliners in Congress.
After all, something happens to even obdurate politicians when they grasp that citizens are not going to vote for them. After the farce of the Republican presidential selection and the missteps that marked Mitt Romney’s campaign, the more intelligent men and women in the party know they are out of touch with key constituencies such as Hispanics, women, gay people, and many of the young.
They can fix on the objective of wrecking Obama’s second term and then hoping to obfuscate the reasons for it, perhaps repeating their midterm success last time. Or they can trim, offering Obama some support and retaining some themselves. But the remaking of America’s conservative party, captured as it has been by delusional and extreme views, is going to be a long business, if indeed it can be done at all. Obama cannot wait for a better American conservative party to emerge. He tried the bipartisan approach the first time round. This time he is taking a tougher approach. Let us hope it works.
That the president put climate change so high on his second-term agenda surprised many. But action must follow words
President Barack Obama included a call to action on climate change in his inaugural speech on 21 January, surprising those who believed gun violence and immigration reform would take top billing. It’s not the first time he’s talked about the issue, by any means, but few thought he would return to it with such emphasis now.
During his 2008 campaign, he spoke of working for the moment when the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and our planet would begin to heal. During the 2012 election campaign, he was mocked for that statement.
But no one was laughing this fall when waves swept over lower Manhattan and towns up and down the eastern seaboard; nor this summer when much of the US midwest suffered from drought and brave firefighters battled unprecedented fires across the west. Obama spoke in Monday’s inaugural address of our responsibility to “preserve our planet”, recognizing that “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”.
So can we expect the president to take the sort of leadership on the climate that many have hoped for since his 2008 campaign? In particular, will he stand up to the pressure of the fossil fuel lobby?
Here are the top things he can do to turn those intentions into the actions that would be up to the scale of the problem. Many of them can happen without the consent of congressional Republicans.
First, President Obama proposed a national conversation on climate during his first post-2012 election press conference. He should launch that conversation with clear statements about the urgency of the climate science, an explanation of what is at stake, and a call to all Americans to be part of the change.
It’s important that he not dumb this down. We need to know what it means to have experienced record-breaking temperatures, floods, droughts, wild fires, melting ice caps, and extreme storms. When given a full account of a threat, the American people have risen to big challenges in the past. We did it during the second world war when millions enlisted in the military, grew “victory gardens”, recycled, and went to work in factories to aid the war effort. He should call on us to be the next “greatest generation”.
Second, he should drop the “all of the above” approach to energy development. As Bill McKibben of 350.org shows, 80% of the fossil fuel now in the ground must stay there if we are to stabilize an increasingly chaotic climate. That means instead of giving subsidies, tax breaks, and a regulatory pass to fossil fuel companies, these advantages should instead be given to businesses developing renewables and energy efficiency.
Third, he should propose a straightforward tax on carbon. This approach actually has the support of such Republicans as George Shultz, as well as former top aides to Mitt Romney and John McCain. Even ExxonMobile says it could support such a tax. A carbon tax would send the right market signal, nudging our economy toward one that is safe for the planet. The billions of dollars raised by such a tax could help pay down the deficit, pay for investments in the clean energy economy, or be rebated directly to every American.
Finally, Obama should use the regulatory authority he already has. He should put a permanent stop to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport some of the most carbon-intensive, polluting oil on the planet across the American heartland. He should instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to move ahead aggressively with regulation of existing power plants, which account for 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Stepping up to the climate challenge need not compete with the other goals he outlined in his inauguration speech. Building a clean energy economy will produce good jobs that lift more people into the middle class and build a sustainable and widely shared prosperity. Reducing fossil fuel pollutants will improve our health and reduce healthcare costs.
Less reliance on fossil fuels will bolster our security. And we could avoid spending untold sums cleaning up after massive storms and adapting to droughts and rising sea levels.
Obama’s speech shows he has the potential to be not just an historic president but a transformational one. Hopes have been raised and dashed before, though. If there was ever a moment for Barack Obama to take a stand and establish a legacy, this is it.
Eighty percent of Americans agree that inaction on climate change would have serious consequences. The fact that he need not run for re-election frees him from the need to placate the oil and coal lobby. And scientists agree we have only a few years to change directions if we are to avert a climate catastrophe that would dash the hopes of generations to come.
This project is far too big for any one person, even the president of the United States. Our best hope is an inside-outside strategy – one in which the Obama administration reaches out to those who are already on the front lines battling the climate crisis, as well as those who are just now coming to recognize the threat we face. And those on the outside must reciprocate.
Obama says we can lead the way together. People across the country and the globe have been doing so. Now is the time for the president to join them and take the bold actions that will serve generations to come.