President’s Report read at the AGM – July 2020
As it has been over two and a quarter years since our last AGM during which much has happened, I have decided to present this report as an account of the whole period in order to keep things as simple as possible. I will therefore be looking at the difficulties we have faced, our triumphs and the challenges and opportunities going forward.
Misappropriation of cash [March – August 2019]
In 2014 the club made an operating loss of almost £14,000, and 2015 and 2016 also saw operating losses. But as the club started to host regular events such as Be-bop Baby, You Should Be Dancing! and of course the popular Tea Dances the tide slowly began to turn.
In 2017 there was an operating profit of almost £12,000 but it was the following year, 2018 when things really started to change. John Lawrence was elected President and was determined that we had to modernise our outlook and along with the hard work of a number of new and long standing committee members the fortunes of the club started to turn around.
Those of you who attended the AGM in March 2019 will recall that we had made an operating surplus of £25,000 in 2018. John was re-elected as President and I was elected as Vice President.
However, members from that time will recall that we were almost immediately thrown into crisis when the then secretary threatened to cash an unauthorised cheque for £25,000 ‘backpay’ in his favour.
He promised however to return half of it if two of the newly elected committee members resigned. It was also made clear that the President was not expected to have access to the club’s safe and transpired that no account of cash held had been provided to the accountants for over 5 years.
This attempt to subvert the results of the elections, to which some committee members objected, resulted in CIU branch officials attending a meeting, and supporting the aims of the newer committee members. So the secretary cashed the cheque and we were left with roughly £8000 in the bank.
The advice from our insurer’s legal department was that the locks should be changed, we should get the safe keys back (at this time only the secretary and one committee member had access to it), and certain committee members should be excluded pending hearings.
Cash held in the safe was agreed with John Lawrence and Abby-Lee Widger and subsequent calculations by our accountants noted that £11,000 cash was unaccounted for. After many weeks intensive work led by Abby the £25,000 was returned to the club. The £11,000 cash unaccounted for is not recoverable and so is written off in the 2019 accounts.
Much of this work had to remain confidential, raising suspicions amongst members, and it was only five months later, when we were able to provide a full written account of what had taken place that they understood what had transpired.
In July 2019 the previous Secretary stepped down and Abby-Lee Widger was unanimously elected as the new Secretary.
[March 2018 – February 2020 – Bar steward]
Dissatisfaction with the bar steward had been recorded in committee meeting minutes going back ten years, and had been raised in previous AGMs, but in all that time no one on the committee had undertaken to actually manage her. It was agreed in 2018 that two committee members would hold regular management meetings where issues on both sides could be raised and relations improved. This proved far more difficult than anticipated as she resisted attempts to build bridges and to discuss ways of improving and updating the bar offering.
In 2019 when the new committee was elected and faced with a financial crisis it became imperative that she co-operated with the committee and do as requested, especially in terms of overstaffing which was costing us money we could not afford.
Again, we turned to the club insurer’s legal department and over the next year all meetings and subsequent disciplinary procedures were documented, ensuring that employment law was followed to the letter. This resulted in her dismissal in February 2020. All this was extremely time consuming, stressful for those involved and was something that could not be discussed.
March 2020 onwards – Covid/Urgent structural repairs
Once Abby took over the secretary’s role, it became very clear, very quickly that the previous secretary had not undertaken his duties with anything nearing diligence. No proper membership records had been kept since he took up duties, and he admitted to never having read the secretary’s manual. We were overpaying for most of our utilities, our PRS payments were far too high and the majority of transactions were cash.
It emerged that none of the statutory inspections were taking place – so there was no valid fire or electrical safety certificate.
Whilst some of the outstanding issues that had been left were relatively easily addressed after the money had been returned, it was actually the closures which began in March 2020 due to the pandemic that allowed other problems to start being addressed. We were able to have a fire alarm fitted and a full electrical inspection carried out. Much needed bar security grilles were installed and the major structural works on the fire escape were completed. Brenda Shearing donated the money to get our stage curtains cleaned and rehung and a grant enabled us to install a new sound system.
When volunteers cleared the side of the fire escape, we had discovered a whole new room beneath it that had been left disused for years. Unfortunately we also realised that the original build had been extremely shoddy, there had been substantial water ingress and its roof, forming the floor of the fire escape was in danger of imminent collapse. This massive repair was completed at the beginning of the year.
During the first closure we also invested in sports hall grade protective carpet tiles for the dance floor. They have enabled us to remain one of the only local venues open for live events during Covid restrictions as we’ve been able to space tables in line with the government guidance which smaller venues have been unable to do. We can’t however wait for the tiles to be taken up again tomorrow. They will however still be used for children’s parties, markets or events that lend themselves to having tables and chairs up to the stage.
Other Covid challenges
As many of you know, the lockdowns took place during our centenary year and all the celebrations we were planning were cancelled. This was massively disappointing of course and like so many businesses we lost the income we expected to generate . Then when we re-opened in September we had to follow the constantly changing government guidelines, and also had to introduce the app for table service. This of course meant that we not only had to pay extra staff but were trading under reduced capacity.
And our final challenge as many of you know, was the flood we had, resulting from a ruptured heating pipe in the upstairs bar, discovered at the same time that the main boiler also developed a costly to repair fault.
Throughout the past two years we are delighted that so many members have offered to help the club in a whole range of different ways from gardening and cleaning, to painting and decorating, to organising a crowd funder or sorting through old receipts for an insurance claim. We are indebted to these people who have supported our work which has at times felt frankly overwhelming.
So, we now take payments by card and have reduced cash payments massively, ensuring transparency. Our film hires are now charged at £1200 per day rather than the £300 they used to be charged at. The rent on the flat is now paid by standing order and there is a tenancy agreement in place.
The upstairs bar has been given a new lease of life after much work by volunteers and has been refloored and has a new heating system following the flood. It is now viable as a party hire venue or for smaller more intimate events. The old committee room is the only part of the building to have been updated and going forward will be available for hire as a smart meeting room (our WiFi has also been upgraded) but also an exhibition space with the potential to further diversify our income and membership.
Members now receive regular updates by email and we have a significant presence on social media where we publicise the far broader range of events and activities we host. We have featured in the local press and of course were CIU club of the month in June. Two members of our committee have achieved their award in club management.
It is at this point that I should mention the new bar staff team we have employed. Those of you who knew and loved the Victoria will know that their manager Katie has joined us following the disappointing failure of their plans to relocate. This has however been of huge benefit to us because not only have some of the events they hosted now moved here but Katie has also brought in new members along with her apparently innate enthusiasm for running a bar. We now have a bar manager and team who want to work with the committee and members and who are friendly and welcoming to everyone who walks in.
We are also providing a temporary home from the Rose and Crown for the legendary local Red Imp Comedy Club and have hosted a whole range of well-known names from British comedy circuit. Sara Pascoe will be performing here on Tuesday night.
The massive £80,000 Cultural Recovery grant that Abby and I successfully bid for not only covered the costs of the structural repairs but has supported staff costs and enabled us to book a much more diverse range of entertainment for Saturday nights.
As I said earlier, we have been supported in so many ways by members, new and established and now have a membership of almost 400, 160 of whom have joined in the last year.
Challenges and opportunities ahead
There has been little or no regular maintenance of the building for years and we are now in the position of needing to find £80,000 for a new roof and at least £16,000 for the building to be re-wired. However the club’s profile in the local community has risen exponentially, and it is opening up to newer diverse audiences who understand the importance of preserving this vital part of our social and cultural history. The investment we make now will ensure that our club continues for another 100 years.