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A Load Of Bread

Stuart White

Those of you with an interest in global financial news no doubt heard the news of the virtual collapse this week of the UK chain British Home Stores.  The firm has been put into administration, a prelude to formerly going bankrupt, a little over a year after a last-minute reprieve and sale saved it from suffering the identical fate.

To try and explain the significance of this loss to the British retail scene, think of the former regional OK Bazaars that was founded in 1927, a year before British Home Stores or BHS.  Both stores began life as discount retailers offering a wide range of clothing, furniture, appliances, toys and home hardware. Both later expanded their range to include food and both were publicly listed, OK in 1929, BHS in 1928  and by the late 1960s both chains were about the same size, OK boasting about 100 stores, BHS 94.  Both were household names and both offered a one-stop shopping experience. 

British Home Stores was also well-known for their budget restaurants in all their larger urban outlets.  It’s fair to say that like the also-defunct Woolworths group, BHS was part of the British psyche as well as an expected, familiar sight on the high street.  And just as with the demise of Woolworths, some quintessential part of the retail scene in the UK is now to be lost forever.

Media pundits have given much space and airtime this week in analysing what exactly went wrong for the company.  After last year’s bailout by the newly-formed Retail Acquisition group for the sum of ₤1 (about 15 Pula),  it was hoped that its flagging position could be revived, despite carrying with it pension debts of ₤100 million (about P15,000,000) but as has been seen, it never recovered any of its former glory.  The sad truth is probably that BHS still carried an old-fashioned slightly dowdy image, despite merging with the trendy Habitat furniture empire founded by Sir Terence Conran and the infants and children’s chain Mothercare.  It was regarded as a store for older people and thus neglected by younger shoppers, added to which every high street in Britain and elsewhere is now having to compete with on-line shopping and a revolution in shopping habits which has exploded in a very short time frame.  Simply put, it was out of time and out of sync.

But the question that has most pundits up in arms this week has been the asset-stripping exercise undertaken by former owner Sir Philip Green prior to his selling off the business, leading many to question whether it might never have come to grief had the monies remained.  Green bought the chain, known as Stonehouse PLC in 2000 and before selling last year to Retail Acquisitions, he is known to have salted away some ₤586m (P8790,000,000) paid to himself and his family in dividends, rental payments and interest before off-loading to RA for that nominal sum.  And there is no doubt that Green is the King of Bling, owner of no less than 3 super-yachts and enjoying a jet-set lifestyle. 

Contrast that to the fate of the almost 12,000 former employees who now face a very uncertain future, not only whether they will be able to find alternative employment but even whether a proportion of their pension pot will survive the bankruptcy.  The press has been full of pictures of Green and his wife sunning themselves on one or other of the yachts, one of which is moored more or less permanently in Monaco, sipping champagne, frolicking with celebrities and generally enjoying their lavish lifestyle.  Their greed has been widely condemned, there have been calls for Sir Philip to be stripped of his knighthood and many have asked if he should not be made to pay back some of the money, at least to bail out the pension fund.

Others, however, have pointed out one salient but crucial fact.  Sir Philip may be in the moral low ground but what he did was not illegal.  It was his company and he was entitled to his dividends and other payments.  He sold a sinking ship, to be sure, but that was well-known to the new owners who bought it for a nominal sum in the full knowledge that they were taking on a failing enterprise with a massive pension debt and they went ahead in that knowledge.  That they failed is unfortunate, though city analysts point out that the failure might have been predicted since they had no retail experience and little financial track record.  This final nail in the BHS coffin might be said to be theirs and theirs alone, as uncomfortable as the contemporary pictures of the super-rich Greens might seem.  The fact is that as of January 2015, Sir Philip and his family no longer owned or controlled the group of stores and its fate was ultimately brought about by its new owners and current retail conditions.

There is a tradition at sea that the captain always goes down with his ship – that if the vessel is in trouble, he is the last crew member to leave.  So is there a case for a captain of industry doing the same thing, staying aboard his metaphorical sinking boat and going down with it, after seeing as many of his crew or employees possibly off to safety?  Of course there is, and undoubtedly when an owner’s heart and soul is in the business, that is what happens.  A committed owner will move heaven and earth to salvage their life’s work and passion and if push does have to come to shove, they will take what little they can and suffer the loss of their company and lifestyle, along with their staff.  But Sir Philip Green was a businessman first and foremost.  He bought the BHC group to make money and he sold it when he realised that was no longer the case.  He had a head for business and his head told him it was time to leave.  He may have been knighted by the queen and clearly he’ll never be sainted but the bottom line is that technically he’s no sinner either.  

Now according to the Bible it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven – a small crumb of comfort for any committed Christians amongst the 12,000 unemployed workers who right now all really need some manna from heaven themselves.  And without a loaf of bread, where’s that crumb going to come from?  As for Sir Philip, he may be an utter cad, but he’s a very wealthy cad who also happens to have given huge sums of money to various charities.   It’s just a pity no-one reminded him that charity begins at home before he moved out!

STUART WHITE is the Managing Director of HRMC

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Export Processing Zones: How to Get SEZA to Sizzle

23rd September 2020
Export Processing Zone (EPZ) factory in Kenya

In 2005, the Business & Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) pitched the idea of the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the Mogae Administration.

It took five years before the SEZ policy was formulated, another five years before the relevant law was enacted, and a full three years before the Special Economic Zones Authority (SEZA) became operational.

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Egypt Bagged Again

23rd September 2020

… courtesy of infiltration stratagem by Jehovah-Enlil’s clan

With the passing of Joshua’s generation, General Atiku, the promised peace and prosperity of a land flowing with milk and honey disappeared, giving way to chaos and confusion.

Maybe Joshua himself was to blame for this shambolic state of affairs. He had failed to mentor a successor in the manner Moses had mentored him. He had left the nation without a central government or a human head of state but as a confederacy of twelve independent tribes without any unifying force except their Anunnaki gods.

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23rd September 2020

If I say the word ‘robot’ to you,  I can guess what would immediately spring to mind –  a cute little Android or animal-like creature with human or pet animal characteristics and a ‘heart’, that is to say to say a battery, of gold, the sort we’ve all seen in various movies and  tv shows.  Think R2D2 or 3CPO in Star Wars, Wall-E in the movie of the same name,  Sonny in I Robot, loveable rogue Bender in Futurama,  Johnny 5 in Short Circuit…

Of course there are the evil ones too, the sort that want to rise up and eliminate us  inferior humans – Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in The Terminator,  Box in Logan’s Run,  Police robots in Elysium and  Otomo in Robocop.

And that’s to name but a few.  As a general rule of thumb, the closer the robot is to human form, the more dangerous it is and of course the ultimate threat in any Sci-Fi movie is that the robots will turn the tables and become the masters, not the mechanical slaves.  And whilst we are in reality a long way from robotic domination, there are an increasing number of examples of  robotics in the workplace.

ROBOT BLOODHOUNDS Sometimes by the time that one of us smells something the damage has already begun – the smell of burning rubber or even worse, the smell of deadly gas. Thank goodness for a robot capable of quickly detecting and analyzing a smell from our very own footprint.

A*Library Bot The A*Star (Singapore) developed library bot which when books are equipped with RFID location chips, can scan shelves quickly seeking out-of-place titles.  It manoeuvres with ease around corners, enhances the sorting and searching of books, and can self-navigate the library facility during non-open hours.

DRUG-COMPOUNDING ROBOT Automated medicine distribution system, connected to the hospital prescription system. It’s goal? To manipulate a large variety of objects (i.e.: drug vials, syringes, and IV bags) normally used in the manual process of drugs compounding to facilitate stronger standardisation, create higher levels of patient safety, and lower the risk of hospital staff exposed to toxic substances.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY ROBOTS Applications include screw-driving, assembling, painting, trimming/cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labelling, welding, handling, quality control applications as well as tasks that require extreme precision,

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled ‘bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds and Spain-based Agrobot has taken the treachery out of strawberry picking. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. And that’s only scratching the finely-tilled soil.

INDUSTRIAL FLOOR SCRUBBERS The Global Automatic Floor Scrubber Machine boasts a 1.6HP motor that offers 113″ water lift, 180 RPM and a coverage rate of 17,000 sq. ft. per hour

These examples all come from the aptly-named site    because while these functions are labour-saving and ripe for automation, the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the workplace will undoubtedly lead to increasing reliance on machines and a resulting swathe of human redundancies in a broad spectrum of industries and services.

This process has been greatly boosted by the global pandemic due to a combination of a workforce on furlough, whether by decree or by choice, and the obvious advantages of using virus-free machines – I don’t think computer viruses count!  For example, it was suggested recently that their use might have a beneficial effect in care homes for the elderly, solving short staffing issues and cheering up the old folks with the novelty of having their tea, coffee and medicines delivered by glorified model cars.  It’s a theory, at any rate.

Already, customers at the South-Korean  fast-food chain No Brand Burger can avoid any interaction with a human server during the pandemic.  The chain is using robots to take orders, prepare food and bring meals out to diners.  Customers order and pay via touchscreen, then their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When it’s ready, a robot ‘waiter’ brings out their takeout bag.   

‘This is the first time I’ve actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun,’ Shin Hyun Soo, an office worker at No Brand in Seoul for the first time, told the AP. 

Human workers add toppings to the burgers and wrap them up in takeout bags before passing them over to yellow-and-black serving robots, which have been compared to Minions. 

Also in Korea, the Italian restaurant chain Mad for Garlic is using serving robots even for sit-down customers. Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the electronic ‘waiter,’ known as Aglio Kim, navigates between tables with up to five orders.  Mad for Garlic manager Lee Young-ho said kids especially like the robots, which can carry up to 66lbs in their trays.

These catering robots look nothing like their human counterparts – in fact they are nothing more than glorified food trolleys so using our thumb rule from the movies, mankind is safe from imminent takeover but clearly  Korean hospitality sector workers’ jobs are not.

And right there is the dichotomy – replacement by stealth.  Remote-controlled robotic waiters and waitresses don’t need to be paid, they don’t go on strike and they don’t spread disease so it’s a sure bet their army is already on the march.

But there may be more redundancies on the way as well.  Have you noticed how AI designers have an inability to use words of more than one syllable?  So ‘robot’ has become ‘bot’ and ‘android’ simply ‘droid?  Well, guys, if you continue to build machines ultimately smarter than yourselves you ‘rons  may find yourself surplus to requirements too – that’s ‘moron’ to us polysyllabic humans”!

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