The largest employer in the Humber region has made hundreds of redundancies nationwide amid the coronavirus crisis.
Wren Kitchens, which has already come under fire for keeping manufacturing going – citing need for the products from customers who have already ripped their old set-ups out – has drastically cut back on showroom staff, having closed all 90 UK outlets.
It comes just weeks after it was named ‘Employer of the Year’ by recruiter Indeed, and as it faces up to huge capital expense.
The Barton-based company is replicating its model in the US, with manufacturing and retail being established, while it is also about to cut ground on huge expansion plans at The Nest headquarters.
Owned by one of East Yorkshire’s richest men, Malcolm Healey, the former Hygena head launched Wren from scratch a decade ago.
It now turns over almost half a million pounds, having relocated from Howden to Barton in 2013.
Staff have told how they were assured up until hours before they were fired – many for “underperforming” that the firm’s “family values” would see them looked after.
Employees affected were read a specially prepared script in which they were told: “The reason for your dismissal is due to your performance bearing in mind the needs of the business and the economic situation facing the UK in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Rather than being furloughed like many colleagues on 80 per cent wage, they have been invited to “ reconnect” with the company once the crisis has passed.
Tom Saxon, who worked as a designer at the Christmas-opened Scunthorpe showroom, said he was disgusted at how employees had been treated, saying they had been misled.
He said: “We were assured all through last week that our jobs were safe. Even on Monday, we were told that Wren Kitchens had family values and would look after us and treat us properly.
“Then just as I was finishing my shift – two hours before Boris Johnson announced the lockdown – seven of us were called into the office individually. We were read a statement in an unemotional way and then marched out of the back.
“The statement said it was due to our performance but I had just completed my final week of the training course and was told I was doing great.
“We have no targets and there wasn’t any pressure. I know people who made huge sales last week and were still let go. This is just an excuse used by Wren.
“It’s mind-blowing that such a large employer would do this without any warning. Why wouldn’t they support us for a few weeks until it was clearer what the outlook would be?
“The statement said we could reconnect with Wren once the crisis is over, but there is no chance of doing that. I am absolutely appalled at the way they’ve acted.”
Copies of the script shown to Scunthorpe Live read: “As you will be aware, we review team performance at this time of year.
“In this very challenging period for retailers, it is more important than ever to have a robust, efficient and knowledgable sales team. It is also incumbent on all responsible businesses, irrespective of size, to ensure that they are properly structured for the economic climate the country is likely to face.
“I am sorry to say that following a review of your performance and a re-evaluation of the staffing level needed, the decision has been taken to terminate your employment.
“Prior to reaching this decision, several options were considered but were not able to address our concerns.”
It goes on to say: “The company has not taken this decision lightly and wishes you the very best. Once this extraordinary crisis has passed, we would invite you to reconnect with the company.”
As reported in February, Wren is planning to open a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania this spring. The 252,000 sq ft site in Hanover Township, will encompass state-of-the-art machinery and assembling facilities.
The first international showroom is anticipated to be in Milford, Connecticut, this summer – with several more showroom openings planned throughout the year in the North East.
How that is progressing and whether schedules will slip remains to be seen, with travel currently banned between the UK and US.
At home too, a 910,000 sq ft manufacturing addition was due to start on site at the transformed former Kimberly-Clark nappy plant, supporting a further 1,200 jobs.
There was no immediate response to the strategic plans, but on the redundancies a Wren Kitchens spokesperson said: “In these unprecedented times, it is incumbent on all responsible employers to continually assess team numbers.
“Following the recent government decision to close retail showrooms, a number of staff have had to be temporarily sent home and will be paid in accordance with the government’s furloughed employee scheme.
“Prior to that announcement, the company had already anticipated that there would be a reduction in economic activity due to the coronavirus and had identified team members who were underperforming and taken steps to reduce its headcount accordingly.”
Manufacturing continues at sites in Barton, Howden and Scunthorpe, while non-domestic facing businesses such as Bradbury Group and Cartwright Conversions, and luxury goods providers like Auto-Trail and Swift have downed tools.
There has been confusion over what employers should do, and what is regarded as essential work.
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