ONE of the most iconic names in Wigan is being sold to a Yorkshire company in a shock deal.
Control of Pooles Pies will now cross the Pennines after owner Dave Whelan started a legal process to dispose of the famed brand and its modern plant in Pemberton to a Leeds-based bakery.
In an exclusive interview with the Wigan Evening Post, the millionaire Latics chairman said he feared for the future of the firm and its 60-plus workforce.
Not only was he unhappy with the new bosses’ running of the company. He was also “extremely concerned” because current co-director Neil Court-Johnston has been hit with an injunction by a judge aimed at preventing industrial espionage.
Mr Court-Johnston had recruited two employees to Pooles from rival Hollands Pies, where he himself used to hold a senior post. This was deemed in legal terms to be “unlawfully intervening to gain staff” and it was alleged that the recruits had passed on confidential information to Pooles. As such Mr Court-Johnston was in breach of contract with Hollands.
Further legal proceedings between the two firms are ongoing, a spokesman for Hollands’ owners, 2 Sisters Food Group said today.
Family-owned Country Style Foods, which is in the process of becoming Pooles’ new owners this week, is a leading craft producer which has made its name with trendy continental breads such as sour dough and ciabatta for the home supermarkets.
Mr Whelan, who is confident the Pemberton staff won’t be losing their jobs or the factory closing because of the new deal, today explained why he intervened.
He said: “I took Pooles into administration on Wednesday because I was really worried about the firm and the dozens of people who work there.
“I had sold it to Neil Court-Johnston and his dad for £4m on the understanding that they did not have to pay a penny for three years. I also lent them £2m as an overdraft facility and gave them another half million from Barclay’s acting as personal guarantor to keep them going.
“But they were running up debts and then there were these court proceedings involving recruiting staff from Hollands. I was increasingly concerned about Pooles.
“I had kept my debenture on the property and machinery so I took the company into administration. If I had not it would have had to pay another £2m to save it.
“But now it will be coming out of administration again in the next day or two and will be in safe hands. The buyers are two brothers who make pies in Leeds and Manchester who have a very solid company.
“The lad who came to look round Pooles said it was the best pie factory he had ever seen so I am confident everyone will be staying put.”
Poole’s today had no-one willing to comment on the sale and referred inquiries by the Wigan Evening Post directly to Country Style chairman John Wood, who has subsequently been unavailable.
One process worker said that shift managers had called them in for a meeting at the Kilshaw Street site to tell them about the sale of Pooles and gave “what assurances they could” about job security.
But she said: “Of course it is worrying.
“My brother worked at Rathbones Bakery in Newtown but look what has happened to them after it was bought by Morrisons Supermarkets.
“This place is pretty modern and they have spent a lot on machines so we are all hoping that goes in our favour.
”Pooles wouldn’t be Pooles if they weren’t made in Wigan, would they?”
Mr Court-Johnston, who secured deals with the supermarket retailers for Pooles, is no longer responsible for the daily operation of the business and is no longer based there, although he is still listed as a director.
He had earlier stated that Pooles had enjoyed sufficient succes in winning supermarket orders to consider quadrupling the workforce
He is quoted on the TheBusinessDesk.com: “There’s been a measure of disagreement over recent weeks over the forward direction of the business. I’m not in a position to comment further but despite being a director I was unaware of the current moves.
“My prime concern now is for our employees...we’ve successfully brought major customers and planned to create substantial employment in Wigan. Hopefully, any transaction will produce similar benefits.”
Mr Whelan acquired Pooles more than a quarter of a century ago.
It is said to be one of the oldest surviving bakery brands to have been in continuous production in the country.