"Very regrettable but necessary" is how James Daunt, managing director of the U.K.'s largest bookstore chain Waterstones, described to BookBrunch the loss of a about 66 Waterstones managers. The reorganization is part of the process to speed change at the chain.
The MD is at pains to stress that the losses are part of a consultation which is still ongoing, though mostly done, and that the departures are not a judgment on individuals. Inevitably, he said, Waterstones had lost some people it would have preferred to have kept, but they did not wish to go through the process of reapplying for their jobs. However, it's important to remember that the job description of "manager" has changed and the role may not therefore suit every individual who currently occupies that position.
"Fundamentally the changes are about how you spend your day, and that's been slightly forgotten in some of the reporting. The old responsibilities were around operating process, which was the compliant retailing model that I inherited. We're now asking managers to be pro-active, old-school booksellers. They now just need to run interesting shops, and running a bookshop in Hampstead is different to running one in Kettering."
Daunt stressed: "We needed to evaluate managers, to see who was good at it and who wasn't so good at it - and that's no fault of theirs." The MD emphasised the care and attention that is being taken to ensure everything is fair, that the right people end up with the right jobs. Initially, regional managers asses all the managers on their patch and their assessment is then followed by "an entirely independent assessment with a third party and with our own people".
Daunt acknowledged that consultation is "a demanding, horrible process. It is a very regrettable but very necessary part of becoming a better bookseller." Consultation is "not a fig leaf. We need to understand individual situations". Some who previously occupied management positions may happily be redeployed to a new position elsewhere within Waterstones.
Asked if the aim of having staff reapply for jobs was merely a way of rehiring them on a lower salary - a sadly frequent occurrence in both the private and public sectors - Daunt replied "absolutely not!"
As to morale, reported by one shop-floor bookseller to whom BookBrunch spoke to be "way down", Daunt said: "There are shops with extra-high morale and shops with low morale, shops that are extra-better, and shops that are not better. That all correlates. Morale is important and we have shops where it's not as good as it ought to be…. As we move into having new blood, morale will improve."
Naturally, those stores where sales are up, perhaps also given a boost by a refit, are seeing a corresponding increase in morale. "Think about how the business is changing - radically and fundamentally. We need to change and there are people who embrace the change, and the shops that embrace it are doing well. The way our best managers have stepped up to keep everything going and invigorate their teams has been astonishing - and that's not done by a company whose morale has plummeted. People have done an astonishingly good job. We're running a better business all the time. We've had a good and solid run of sales. Things are getting better and we're running better bookshops.
"I hate what we've gone through and it's a difficult time for Waterstones. But we can't wait, we need to drive the improvements faster. We're now a relatively lean operation with fewer people in our head office." There are also, Daunt acknowledged, fewer people in the branches. There had been "more than we could afford" and often more than were necessary, even to run the sort of bookshop that Waterstones once again aspires to be.
Yes, he acknowledged, there is a good number of casual staff, though the overall percentage is down. "You can get good casual staff but the more experienced staff you have the better you are as a bookseller. We have fabulous Saturday staff but they are less experienced."
Daunt agreed that "when you tell a manager they're not good enough, they of course want to poke your eyes out. But it's not their fault - they are being asked to do something different and it requires a different skillset. It's a difficult time. There's no celebration in this - it's not simply about bringing staff numbers down. And if anyone thinks Waterstones didn't need to change, well…" he trailed off.
Whatever the pain, anecdotal evidence suggests, that store by store, Waterstones is recovering. That is not to say there won't be closures as leases come to an end but there are also openings - Dorking, for example, next week.
One senior and respected sales director to whom BookBrunch spoke acknowledged the "fragility" that inevitably follows any reorganisation, as people attempt to come to terms with the new reality. "However, the acid fact is that Waterstones has to change. I think it is now definitely moving in the right direction and Daunt has quality people in place."