Damned by Danby: 2009 and the Death of Christian Retail UK

Keith Danby - a global chief, part 2

Keith Danby - a global chief, part 2

Over the last few months Christian Marketplace has run a series of reports and interviews featuring Keith Danby, previously CEO of STL and now Global Chief Executive of IBS-STL/Biblica, a series that I’ve been reading with a growing sense of unease:

This month’s interview clinched my concerns:

We’ve got to understand that, by and large, Christian retailing is never going to be viable in the UK. Our market is not big enough.

Taken together with the following excerpts this seems to present a rather worrying trend:

1. Keith Danby takes control at IBS-STL UK, February 2009:

Asked how optimistic he felt that things might improve for Christian retailing in the short-to-medium term Danby said,

“I do not want to be guilty of making pronouncements concerning the UK trade but I do believe what we are experiencing in economic terms is very serious and deeper than many of us have experienced in our life time. I think it will be sometime before we climb out of it, if it ever returns to what we would consider to be the norm. Consequentially it may result in some Christian retail stores closing. It does however present an opportunity to talk to landlords to see if rents can be reduced.”

2. New structure at IBS-STL UK, taken from Message from Keith Danby, STL Blog, 8 April 2009:

I can assure you that this management team is fully committed to serving the interests of IBS-STL UK, our suppliers, stakeholders and the Christian Retail trade, and I trust together we can work hard to build our business together.

Perhaps I am reading more into Danby’s words than he intended, but I find it difficult to believe that the sequence within this statement — 1. IBS-STL UK, 2. suppliers, 3. stakeholders and 4. the Christian Retail trade — is accidental: Global Chiefs do not tend to construct their sentences haphazardly. Under Danby’s leadership, then, IBS-STL/Biblica exists to serve its own interests first and those of the Christian Retail trade last.

This appears to be confirmed in the opening paragraphs of his latest interview, Keith Danby: a global chief – part 2, August 2009:

CJ: There’s a perception around in the UK industry that Keith Danby is a hard-driving businessman who drives people hard. Is there another side to Keith Danby then?

KD: Yes there is. I make no apology for the fact that, if you cut me in half, part of me is very commercial – but the other half is very missional. I don’t see any contradiction in that. I want to run this ‘not for profit’ Christian charity in a businesslike way. I want it to be equitable.

CJ: You have to make money right?

KD: Yes, I want to be fair, but at the same time right now we have offices in 45 countries, we have 1650 staff, and it is my responsibility to ensure that this ministry is viable.

The next question invites Danby to address the implications of this but he effectively sweeps it aside with a one-word answer — “Absolutely” — and talks about his workaholic tendencies instead.

To this observer at least, however, the transition within barely six months from “I do not want to be guilty of making pronouncements concerning the UK trade” to “We’ve got to understand that, by and large, Christian retailing is never going to be viable in the UK” seems to require something more than a one word answer.

  • What level of commitment, if any, do we now have from IBS-STL/Biblica to support and work with the UK Christian retail trade beyond their own interests?

Danby is right in what he affirms: the UK Christian book/retail trade needs collaboration, change and — perhaps most of all — the church; and it’s encouraging to see someone of Danby’s status in the trade highlighting these points — points that all of us involved in Christian retail have long been only too well aware of. Last year I expressed it like this:

Is that why we’re there, to serve the local churches? Or are we there to serve the local community as resource centres for their spiritual lives? Or are we simply there on a par with every other business, competing to make a profit? Can we do all three — serve the local churches, serve the local community and make a profit?

For Christian bookshops profit isn’t — or shouldn’t be — our driving force: we are called be a prophetic presence on the high street, not simply another profiteering one. And for that we need churches behind us, supporting us as part of their mission strategy, helping us to reach out to our communities, to be places where people asking questions about spirituality and faith can make their first tentative steps.

From: Christian Bookshops — who needs them?

Or in Danby’s more recent words:

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind as to the missional value of Christian bookshops in the UK. I believe that our Christian bookshops provide a Christian presence in the community. There are people who will come into a Christian bookshop but would never go into a church.

So our Christian retail presence is carrying out an important missional activity. And the church doesn’t embrace that; church leadership doesn’t embrace it. But the community and the church needs to understand the importance of a Christian retail store, being part of its Christian work, witness and worship in this country. Until the church catches that vision our shops are always going to struggle.

I believe that the church needs to financially support this witness and presence in the community. So although I have no doubt of the missional value, I do really question the viability.

Is Danby also right in his denial of the trade’s ongoing viability? I think not. Yes, shops are struggling. Yes, shops have closed. Yes, people like the Brewer brothers have caused havoc and betrayed the trade.

When, however, IBS-STL/Biblica’s Global Chief Executive not only questions the trade’s viability but publicly states that “by and large, Christian retailing is never going to be viable in the UK” then I personally begin to fear a much deeper betrayal in the making.

I hope that I am wrong, but these words from an old Larry Norman song echo in my mind:

I knew a girl,
sweet as could be,
but she fell for a man
like a chain sawed tree.
She listened to his lies,
was fooled by his charms,
now she’s sitting
with a baby in her arms.

If you, my fellow booksellers and retailers, now feel rather like that girl in your relationship with STL, you are not alone…

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12 thoughts on “Damned by Danby: 2009 and the Death of Christian Retail UK

  1. Phil,

    I think it is true to say that all the same fears and concerns as were raised in this post https://christianbookshopsblog.org.uk/2009/04/07/more-changes-afoot-at-stlwesley-owen/ are certainly just as true now – and indeed in this last article they are flagged up as a red alert!

    Rather than assuring us independent christian retailers that there is no ill intent towards us this article seems almost to infer, as you say, ‘hey it’s business and so long as I can justify it by my mission then I’ll do whatever’.

    I can on one hand understand that – and if they were just a ‘commercial business’ and not riding on the ‘Charity’ coat tails and benefits, let alone the ‘Christian’ tag, then I actaully wouldn’t have an issue.

    However I would now like a statement from Keith Danby or the Biblica Board/Trustee’s that it is in fact not their objective to use their monopoly and advantages of being one of the largest Christian Charities out there to do harm to what they have stated is an ailing business and that they are not looking for or are in anyway actively working in such a way as to put shops other than (though Ideally not even) Wesley Owens out of business.

    I am however most doubtful I will get this statement or undertaking from them – though I live in hope they are a more honorable group than history has sometimes shown large groups of Christians wielding much power, money and authority to be – albeit in the name of mission.

    By the way I appreciate and accept that those active and engaged in this ‘biblica’ or ‘IBS-STL’ mission are totally upright and led by the need to do good and certainly I have no ill-will to anyone involved at all and my hope is that we can all truly work together without fear and in harmony for the building of the Fathers kingdom.

    But it has to be said that sometimes the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, and justification is meant to be by faith alone and not by way of our own understanding, reasoning or in our own eyes. If you include works, then lets be clear that slighting another to do good for others is generally not counted as justified by most biblical concepts I am aware of.

    I shall await, living in hope as my faith dictates, that I or we shall get a response and assurance soon on this worrying issue.

  2. Pingback: Damned by Danby: Harsh or Prophetic? « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog

  3. As long-time manager of a smaller charity bookshop close beside a Wesley Owen shop,I have so far found that Keith Danby has put in place internal controls and otherwise ensured that we are treated fairly.
    For instance last November our supplies were disrupted much less than our neighbours.
    I have publicly stated that what scares me is the use of the power that he has skillfully accumulated after his departure.
    Where do I connect with the facebook discussion please?

  4. Surely the way ahead for STL is obvious – close down the Wesley Owen shops that are haemorraging cash because they are trying to be viable. Yes of course Christian bookshops in the UK are never going to be commercially viable – that’s why we depend on church support and volunteers. But in aggressively buying up independents to attempt to take control of the supply chain, STL has lost that utterly essential element of symbiosis. My advice to Keith Danby is to dump Wesley Owen (except for the website) and get back to your core business of acting as strategic wholesaler to the Christian Retail Trade.

    • I’m not sure that you’re quite painting a fair picture there, John. I stand ready to be corrected, of course, but as I understand it, STL were invited to take over the former SU shops because SU couldn’t keep them running: it wasn’t an aggressive takeover; and that’s generally been the case wherever they’ve taken over other shops: it’s been at the owners’ invitation. So Wesley Owen’s expansion has been more of a rescue mission than a bid to take over the trade (as I say, I stand ready to be corrected, especially by anyone who’s been on the inside of any takeovers who knows different).

      But it’s certainly high time they stopped billing themselves as “your one stop, one invoice, one delivery supplier for all your essential needs” because that patently isn’t true, and never has been: it’s nothing but marketing spin which ill becomes a Christian organisation.

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