Blame directors who never understood what they had for Wedgwood’s sad demise

The remains of Royal Doulton's Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

The remains of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

When I started work as a cub reporter 20 years ago, the industrial landscape of the Potteries was unrecognisable to the panorama which greets our bleary eyes on a cold Tuesday in March 2009.

Trentham Superpit, or Hem Heath Colliery as was, still employed more than 2,000 miners.

More than 300 people worked at the rolling mill that was once the mighty, glowing Shelton Bar steelworks where my great-grandfather had been a foreman.

An estimated 18,000 workers were employed at potbanks in Burslem alone – including 2,500 at Royal Doulton.

And Wedgwood, nestling proudly amid the lush fields of Barlaston, was the jewel in the crown of the pottery industry.

I reported on the closure of Trentham Superpit in 1993. I talked to the families and businesses affected by the decision. I saw the tears and heard the fears.

Those interviews have stayed with me.

For the first time, I properly appreciated the enormity of the challenges facing North Staffordshire’s economy and the tragic human cost of the decline of our traditional industries.

Similarly, I well remember being on The Sentinel’s newsdesk in 2000 when Shelton Bar closed down – bringing to an end 159 years of steel production on the site.

Certainly, I recall the sadness I felt one day in April four years ago when workers at Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory clocked off for the last time.

I had always had a soft spot for Doulton because it was where my mum served her apprenticeship as a lithographer in the ’60s.

Now I read of the creditors’ meetings involving former employees of Wedgwood. These were people I interviewed at Barlaston for the company’s own newsletter in the early ’90s. People who talked of their pride at working for a world-renowned brand and spoke fondly of the camaraderie they enjoyed on the factory floor.

While the friendships doubtless remain, there wasn’t much pride this week. There was bitterness and resentment – and justifiably so.

Former workers were leaving the creditors’ meetings in a state of shock. Many are set to be short-changed to the tune of several thousand pounds in terms of their redundancy packages.

Take Bob Wilshaw, aged 58, of Abbey Hulton, who had worked for the Wedgwood group for 42 years.

Let me repeat that: 42 years.

Mr Wilshaw had expected to receive around £23,000 in settlement – yet he is likely to end up with just £10,000. Not much to show for a lifetime of service.

Staggering, isn’t it, how the questionable management of a company, a sheer lack of foresight and rush to embrace outsourcing can bring a global name to its knees in a few, short years?

It wasn’t so long ago that Wedgwood, in comparison to the basket case that was Royal Doulton, was being held up as a model business – an innovator and a beacon of hope.

Who could forget the Duchess of York promoting her own ‘Sarah’s Garden’ range to the Americans.

Of course, she soon bailed out when the storm clouds began to gather. What a shame Wedgwood’s management couldn’t read the runes as well as Fergie, eh?

I’m not naïve. I know the pottery industry was haemorrhaging jobs left, right and centre long before I knocked out my first story on a PC.

But I can’t help but feel that senior managers could have – and should have – done more to stave off the complete disintegration of the industry which placed this city on the world map.

Now we have the comforting thought of new owners KPS, the American private equity firm, underlining the fact that it is 85 per cent cheaper to produce pottery ware in the Far East and reportedly planning to “aggressively grow the hell out of…” (the Wedgwood brand). Charming.

Do they know we make fine bone china round here? Do the new owners realise that buyers aren’t daft and that, sooner rather than later, they will realise that the quaint old English quality backstamp that was Wedgwood ain’t quite what it used to be?

Of course they do. The truth is, they don’t care so long as they squeeze the pips out of the brand for their shareholders.

As Wedgwood crumbles, I have listened to ex-potters who have spoken eloquently of their frustrations with the role their union has played in recent years which, in their opinion, was akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned.

Whatever the truth, I doubt whether or not Doulton’s former chief executive Wayne Nutbeen or former Waterford Wedgwood majority stakeholder Sir Anthony O’Reilly are sitting there this evening worrying about how they will pay their mortgages or what employment options are open to a man in his late fifties like Bob Wilshaw.

More’s the pity.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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