450 jobs at risk as battle to save Axminster Carpets begins
More than 400 Westcountry workers face an agonising period of uncertainty after the historic carpet maker where they work yesterday applied to go into administration.
Crisis talks have begun to save the world-renowned Axminster Carpets, which has been synonymous with the Devon town for more than 250 years.
Workers spoke of their shock after being told they must work without pay for ten days while a buyer is sought and fear Axminster could become a "ghost town" if rescue plans fail.
Staff said they heard at a lunchtime meeting by the works committee that the company had "orders galore" but not the money to buy materials to complete the jobs.
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Business leaders said the announcement had sent shock waves through the community and would go down in the town's long history as "Black Wednesday".
The family firm said the decision to go into administration will provide the company and its creditors with a period of grace to explore various rescue options.
Community, the trade union representing workers, said the decision was "not all doom and gloom" and announced it was looking into launching a campaign to save the factory.
Senior political figures expressed sympathy after the "sad and troubling news".
Tim Jones, chairman of the heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said the "market cycle" had gone against the manufacturer but revealed there was still hope that a "white knight" might ride to the firm's rescue.
"This is earthquake territory in terms of the shock on the local area," he added. The firm, which was granted a Royal warrant by the Queen last year, had been trying to break into niche overseas markets.
Workers were put on a four-day week last year but a return to full working had raised hopes the worst was over.
The repercussions of closure will also be felt at a second plant in Buckfastleigh, and by another estimated 50 jobs in the supply chain.
Paul Kaxe, 56, who works as a yarn changer on looms at the factory, which also employs his wife, two step sons, and six other family members, said spirits among the workforce were low.
He claimed workers were being kept in the dark as to the details of the deal to keep the company afloat, warning that Axminster would become "a ghost town" if a rescue plan was not found.
"People are not buying but we have got orders galore – we have been told we have got orders but not the money to buy the materials.
"There are four of us [at the factory] in our household so it is going to be hard – we will just have to try to grin and bear it and hope someone comes in and helps us out so we can keep our jobs.
"Finding work is going to be the next hard thing – there are blokes who have been here 40 years and all they know is weaving but there are no factories making carpets round here so what they are going to do I just don't know.
"If it does happen Axminster could turn into a ghost town – I went on the internet and there is hardly anything in a 25-mile radius but cleaning jobs."
Shane Morgan, chairman of the local chamber of commerce, said the revelation had come as a "massive shock. The knock-on effect on spending power will have a huge impact on the local economy – it will go down as Black Wednesday," he added.
"We were hoping that better news was around the corner but this just shows that no-one is too big to survive in this economic climate."
A notice of intention has been served to appoint Benjamin Wiles, Geoff Bouchier and David Whitehouse of Duff & Phelps as joint administrators.
Representatives working to broker a deal said the problems were complex.
The company's director, Joshua Dutfield, said in a statement: "Trading has been difficult and the management has been working with key suppliers, creditors and the lenders in an attempt to resolve the company's financial difficulties.
"We continue to be committed to working to achieve the best possible outcome for all concerned and most importantly the staff and suppliers."
Lorraine Gaskell, campaign manager for the Community union, said: "This is not the first company to find itself in trouble and won't be the last.
"Plenty have come through this process and this decision is by no means all doom and gloom."
East Devon MP Neil Parish said he was "deeply saddened" by the news.
"Axminster Carpets has a long and proud history and their wares can be found in homes the world over, including Clarence House, the home of the Prince of Wales," he said.
Carpets grace Royal palaces... and British Airways jets
It all started with a Turkish carpet which Devonian Thomas Whitty happened upon in a London showroom in 1754. The cloth manufacturer was fascinated by the way the opulent patterned carpet had been, unlike English carpets of the time, woven in a single piece. "I could not keep it long out of my mind," he wrote.
Back home in Axminster, East Devon, Thomas took advantage of the absence of his workers at the town's fair to experiment on one of his looms. And the first Axminster carpet was created.
Being both durable and beautiful, the hand-knotted Axminster carpets represented a serious challenge in the luxury market to Turkish and Persian imports – and were snapped up by royalty and the aristocracy.
Chatsworth House has an Axminster carpet, as does the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and, closer to home, Saltram House near Plymouth.
The carpets were hand-knotted by an army of workers at the loom. The completion of a carpet was such an epic achievement that it would be accompanied by the bells being rung in the parish church.
The firm prospered and was continued by Thomas Whitty's descendents until the 1830s, when a fire devastated the firm's factory in the town centre. Shortly afterwards, the premises were closed down, and the remaining looms and other equipment sold on to other manufacturers, who continued to make Axminster carpets.
It was a chance meeting of carpet magnate Harry Dutfield and a Devon vicar on a train in 1937 which saw carpet making return to Axminster. On hearing about the town's historic links with carpets, he resolved to start making Axminsters in Axminster again. And in the 1950s he expanded his manufacturing imprint in Devon by buying Buckfast Mill, where wool for the carpets, from British sheep, is spun to this day.
Axminster carpets are once again found in Royal palaces, train carriages, smart hotels and British Airways planes.
A year ago the firm was awarded a Royal Warrant from the Queen, to whom it regularly supplies carpets, including those for the refurbishment of Windsor Castle. The business is still owned by the Dutfield family and is a major employer in the East Devon town, with generations of families notching up hundreds of years of carpet making between them.