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Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors? December 6, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Bookshop Ramblings, Watching and Waiting.
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If you’ve been following my other blogs, UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog and SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info, then it won’t have escaped your notice that the Christian book trade here in the UK has been going through a wee bit of a crisis over the last couple of years.

On the former SPCK bookshops front, things seem to be approaching a sort of resolution as Peter Gotham, the Interim Manager appointed by the Charity Commission, has seized control of most of the shops (Durham being the most obvious exception) and is now advertising for the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust’s creditors — amongst others, the people whose goods Mssrs J Mark and Philip W Brewer failed to pay for — to submit their claims against the organisation. If that’s you, you need to pull your finger out because, as things stand, you only have until the close of business on 16 December 2009 to get your claims in.

By a bizarre coincidence of timing, that’s also about the time that we can expect to hear what’s likely to happen to the struggling IBS-STL UK empire — STL Distribution, the Wesley Owen bookshops and Authentic Media/Paternoster Press. According to Keith Danby’s latest trade update, the negotiations with Biblica’s “preferred bidders” are expected to “take us into the week commencing 14th December” and we can expect a further announcement “when the sale process comes to a conclusion”.

It’s a welcome update that has been largely hailed as good news: to quote the Church Mouse,

The vital part of that is that the offers are ‘covering all aspects of the business’. This is very encouraging. Book selling in the UK is a tough market for anyone, evidenced not just by STL’s experience, but also by Borders going into administration. Some had thought that Wesley Owen’s chances of redemption were low, but it seems there is hope.

A more disturbing note, however, is sounded by the following statement from Danby which appeared in Toby Cohen’s Religious Intelligence report, Financial disaster hits British media player, published last week, Thursday, 3rd December 2009:

We are not being forced to make this decision by any bank. We came to the decision after struggling on for 12/13 months that now was the time to give the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership to do what was best for the continuity of the ministry and all of the stakeholders.

To me there seems to be more than a whiff of something peculiar here. Even looking at this in the best possible light, pulling the plug on your UK operations and telling not only your staff but also your business and ministry partners that if buyers are not found within a few weeks then the entire enterprise will go into administration seems a rather strange way to attract new investors.

Introducing this level of uncertainty into people’s lives and livelihoods during the most critical time of year for businesses — and what is often one of the most stressful times of year for families — is hardly the way to help to ensure continuity of ministry, let alone to offer reassurance to “the stakeholders”.

If providing “the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership” to take things forward was the primary concern, then surely the way to proceed would have been to seek to sell IBS-STL UK as a going concern, not as a business that was for sale or bust?

If there was no pressure from the charity’s bankers, then why was it deemed appropriate to subject either the staff or the rest of the UK Christian book trade to the trauma that they and we have gone through since November 16th?

I do not for one moment dispute the immense effort that has been put into finding a buyer or buyers, or into securing the futures of as many of STL UK’s 490 employees as possible; but I do not believe that Biblica’s decision to pull out of its UK operations was made with the best interests of the UK Christian book trade — or even its own UK division — in mind. No doubt new investment, new thinking and new leadership will emerge: but for that we will owe no debt of gratitude to Biblica, only rather to those who have shown the courage and entrepreneurial spirit to pick up the pieces afterwards.

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1. Tweets that mention Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors? « Phil's Boring Blog -- Topsy.com - December 6, 2009

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2. STL UK Crisis: Reports roundup and further reflections « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog - December 6, 2009

[…] Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors? Phil’s Boring Blog, 06/12/2009 […]

3. UTBooksboss - December 6, 2009

I have to agree with you on this phil – if as Mr Danby said there was no forced decision then the timing of this leaves them looking rather uncharitable to say the least.
Though given all this happened as we are moving into the christmas and advent season perhaps there is something to be said in the fact that the story the season urges to reflect on also begins with a forced journey of hardship that would have been painful (pregnant and on a donkey could not have been fun!) and ended with the destination saying no room in the inn, of course meanwhile unknown independent wise men from outside the core collective were still searching for the right way, got detoured and tricked by a major power player who then went and killed all the possible contenders, lukily though there were these messengers who stepped in to help make sure an escape plan was possible and that the hidden acts of the major power players were not kept secret, thus ensuring that the original message encapsulated in one small person and truth could safely go on to grow and flourish.
Hmm yep – says something, and I leave it to you to decide in our nativity play who would play which characters in todays modern take!!

4. Twitted by notbovvered - December 13, 2009

[…] This post was Twitted by notbovvered […]

5. eric barratt - December 17, 2009

from start to finish the staff have been lied to by Danby, covered the whole sorry mess.
promised dates to staff to let them know of the progress, dates pass now it is a mass meeting tomorrow for all staff, 18/12/09 to up date them.

Danby you should hang your head in shame for the way that you have treated people in the comapny, Christian ethics i think not. biblica didnt want ibs -stl they only wanted you, this shows through your handling of the whole sorry mess.
hope youo can sleep at night in your home when others are losing theirs!

C Parks - December 18, 2009

Hey Eric. Although I’m not sure I would have used the exact words you have used here I think there is something in what you say. In his own words Keith is responsible for this. In the second part of an interview for Christian Marketplace he answered the question “So you have to make money right?” with the response “[…] it is my responsibility to ensure that this ministry is viable.” A responsibility very publically failed.

Phil Groom - December 18, 2009

It’s also a failure that Keith has acknowledged: I have a copy of his memo to staff dated 20th Nov in which he makes that point — not an easy call to for anyone to make, let alone when you’re the global CEO of an organisation.

Nonetheless, his statement (cited above) that Biblica were not “forced to make this decision by any bank” does beg the question of what was driving their decision. The bit about it being “the time to give the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership” is obvious bull — if that were the case they’d have ensured that a buyer was lined up before pulling the plug. Keith made it very clear to staff that redundancy was every bit as likely, if not more likely, than a buyout.

Add the fact that Keith ignored certain parties who expressed an interest in taking on parts of the company and eric’s sense of betrayal does not seem unreasonable.

Luke - December 18, 2009

I’m certainly no expert in these matters, but i would take it to mean that they chose to sell BEFORE the banks forced their hand, so as to give another like-minded company the chance to step up and take on the mantle.

If this didn’t work, then banks would step in, administrators would be appointed, and Biblica would have no say in whom the potential buyers would be, christian or otherwise.

Let’s be clear, if the banks had forced the decision, then Keith or anyone at carlisle would have had absolutely no say in anything that has gone on these last few weeks. So yes, it did buy them (albeit a little) time “to give the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership”.

And with regards to ignoring certain parties who expressed interest… All I will say is “Messrs Phillip W and J Mark Brewer”.

I’m not saying anyone who’s offer was ignored was as despicable as these two people, but Phil, you should know as well as anyone the importance of making the right choice in terms of a potential buyer. And so yes, if I was Keith, and in the short term I could not verify 100% any aspect of a given bid, I too would have ignored it. Rather let the company die (a company which, by the way I work for) than provide any kind of false hope that a buyer will “save the company” who can then not carry through.

Phil Groom - December 18, 2009

Thanks Luke – that’s helpful.

For the record, those I know of whose expressions of interest were ignored are certainly nothing like the Brewer bros; and I’d suggest that politely declining the offers might have been better than silence.

Luke - December 19, 2009

Phil.

I also know a lot of those proposals were nothing like the brewers… I was one of them!

That said, my offer was declined, in writing both by IBS-STL and Baker Tilley, both of which were very polite, and explained the reasoning well. I am sorry if you know of people who were not treated as well… I can only comment on my own experience. However, i also suspect that for every real offer which was ignored, there were two or three which were purely speculative, to get a chance to nose around in IBS-STL’s financials, and probably more than a few Brewers thrown into the mix.

Given the companies IBS-STL finally selected (Koorong, CLC, David C Cook/Kingsway and the hitherto unknown distribution buyer) it seems fair to me that given the insanely short time frame, it was only possible to deal with those with very well established trading records, rather than those who’s bids (Like my own, and many others i personally know of) relied heavily on speculation and pledges, which are often not worth much more than the paper they are written on.

I know all about the confidentiality agreements, but it would interest me to know if any of them were able to demonstrate an ability to trade on the scale of the companies which were selected?

Like I said, I have every reason to be bitter at Keith, I, and many of my family, are in line to loose our jobs as a result of this, we work for a store now in administration, and our bid to save the store was “ignored”, I just don’t think he, or IBS-STL deserve to have more blame heaped upon them… Keith has already accepted more blame than any other company head I know of, Accepted more, (personally) than he is (personally) responsible, and carries more burden over this than you can imagine. Now is not the time for blame, bitterness won’t help any of us. We need to stand together to support those in need, and keep christian retail from taking any more hurt than it already has.

6. eric barratt - December 17, 2009

and just to add to the last rant, would be nice if staff had been paid, not had to work for the last three weeks for no money, just empty promises of you can claim it off the government, or the new owner if there is one. some way to look after staff.
merry christmas

Phil Groom - December 22, 2009

From an anonymous contributor:

For the record, the staff salaries have been processed and will all be paid before Christmas…

7. uberVU - social comments - December 17, 2009

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by notbovvered: Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors?: http://wp.me/pgrvb-9R

8. Rev Andrew - December 18, 2009

ouch eric! Do you have a personal axe to grind or something? I hope your facts are correct, because what you have written is quite libelous. I knew on Monday that the staff would be told by the end of the week what was going on. I’m sure it’s not an easy process for anyone, so may be we should be a little more understanding and gracious.

9. Mel - December 18, 2009

Rev Andrew,
I dont know who Eric is, or whether he is one of those effected, but it reads as if he is, and I don’t know either your own situation or setting with relation to this issue.
I do know as someone who has been made redundant once and who has been faced with a similar situation as those in WO etc that it is easy for some to say be more gracious and understanding, however when you are the one with the neck on the chopping board it is much harder to be so, though I agree that in principal it is at just these times when we should be so.
This is not to say I necessarily agree with the actual statements that Eric is making, but I think that in truth it is those of us not effected and those who may be effected but still hold more secure positions that should actaully be a little more understanding and gracious to those whose livelihoods are at risk here. Especially in light of the fact that Christmas is both the season of goodwill but also an admitted time of great stress even without concerns such as the IBS-STL/Biblica issues facing people.
But then that’s just my thoughts.

10. Phil Groom - December 18, 2009

I’d echo what Mel says here: I think what we’ve got here from eric is cry from the heart from someone who is feeling very scared, upset and betrayed by Biblica — and Keith, as global chief of and spokesman for that organisation, is inevitably going to face the flak for that.

If Biblica pulled the plug on STL UK when they were not forced to do so and without first ensuring the security of their UK employees, is that not far more outrageous? Even more so when it’s a Christian organisation: where is the ‘good news for the poor’ in this situation?

I don’t think Keith Danby needs defending; but people in eric’s position do.

11. Lizzie - December 18, 2009

Most of the workers here at STL share Eric’s opinion. Today still no definitive answer. I think we will be redundant by christmas …what about or notice? what about our untaken holidays?? All we got was the link to a website from the government …

12. Stef - December 18, 2009

I think it’s unfair to say that /most/ share eric’s opinion. Some do, some (those who’ve known Keith for a while, from what I hear) don’t.
I work at STL and I don’t believe that Keith is entirely, or even mostly, to blame for what has befallen STL. There have been very poor judgements from many quarters. Anyone who has been there when Keith was chief exec should recognise, no matter what else you might think of him, that he /does/ have the best interests of the mission and the people at heart. In that he is sincere.

We have been given assurances that any work we do we will be paid for – though a few weeks ago it wasn’t known if it would be by a new buyer, administrators or the government, or when we might get that pay.

We’ve been told that in the worst-case, untaken holidays we will be paid for, we would get pay in lieu of notice (which is one week’s pay for each year worked, up to 12 weeks or up until we got a new job) and redundancy pay. We would also get help on how all this works in more detail from Baker-Tilly should it come to it.

In fact there has just been an announcement about STLD (just after 9pm, by email, so probably many haven’t yet heard). I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into detail about it here, but I think that much of the panic or stress we’ve been feeling should be eased by it.

I think it’s likely we will be paid for December work – in December, and still have a job in 2010.

I believe the future is also much more optimistic for Wesley Owen and Authentic than it has been over the last few weeks.

I’d like to take a moment to thank Phil for his voice here. He hasn’t always been 100% correct about the things I’ve seen posted over at UKCBD (maybe 97%!) but he’s always been fair, even tempered, positive and understanding. Always thinking of the bottom-rung-of-the-ladder people (like me). The blog and its many posters and followers were for a while the only bright spark of hope and optimism in this whole sorry mess. Knowing that there were people out there who genuinely cared about us and were prepared to do something about it means a lot.

Thanks Phil.

S

Phil Groom - December 18, 2009

You’re welcome, Stef. Wish I could have done more. I’ve never claimed infallibility, btw: I’ll leave that to the Pope!!

13. James Batterbee - December 18, 2009

Lots of people have lots to say especially those not involved.

I am involved and here is my say.

I’m not happy with the communication. When you are told a specific time or day then you should be told something then even if it is that there is no news.

Email need to be proof read before sending

Don’t insult the intelligence of your staff.

Biblica could have bailed out the UK had they chosen to do so.

SAP: It’s all been said before.

I will be joining the 2.4million unemployed in January, along with Stef.

James

14. Fi421 - December 19, 2009

I also work for STL and I can agree 100% with James. I don’t need to add anymore.

15. supersimbo - December 19, 2009

Its very sad to hear such conflicting views on this whole thing, for me this only highlights the terrible communication both privately to staff and publicly re: the whole thing….

Praying for the WO staff in Edinburgh this morning who have already shared what their fate is…

16. Wesley Owen Enter Administration « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog - December 19, 2009

[…] Some Staff Reactions […]

17. Doogemeister - December 19, 2009

I just heard the news from my boss today that the company went into Administration yesterday evening!
A few shops will survive (and have buyers) but at least 26 will no longer be around! A sad day indeed because I have many friends in those places. Here in Scotland only one shop (Glasgow) will remain. The new owners come from Australia!
Have no idea yet how things will change or if staff will be affected in any way here.
I feel very sad for all of those places that will be closing up and for all those servants who now have to seek pastures new.

18. Paul K - December 19, 2009

Sad, horrible, awful news. As soon as I’d heard I popped in to say hi to my local store (Guildford) yet found they were so busy they didn’t have time to chat. A strange world we live in.

For some reason I thought it would all come OK in the end, somehow. This is not the result I and others were praying for, really. Deflating.

Prayers for those affected. May your Christmas not be fully tainted by what has happened and your hopes remain (or become) undimmed. I’ve been made redundant four times although, strangely, never around Christmas so how people are feeling I can understand a little, but not fully. I hope something positive does show itself for all to see… But for the next week if nothing else I hope the hope of the world doesn’t lose all meaning in the hurt of the news.

19. Luke - December 20, 2009

James, Fi, I will agree with you that there has been an awful lot said here and elsewhere by a lot of people who are not involved, and our experience I find it hard to share your pessimism or anger over this.

Yes, come January My Mum and Sister, and a lot of very good friends are out of a job, and my income is significantly reduced as i prepare to be a father for the first time (I work at 2 stores, one was saved by Koorong, the other is in administration). And yes, things have not been handled perfectly, but, to be honest, it’s been handled a damn sight better than an awful lot of these sort of things. We have know for a whole month that this was possible. We never once (until today, when to be fair, everything is out of the hands of IBS-STL and in those of the administrators) walked into work to hear news which others had heard before us… even those press releases which were leaked were still relayed directly to us before making it into the wild. We were always given chance to circulate any and all news amongst our own people before it was released to the general public. We were given far more information during the process than is normally given, or even possible in these circumstances. At least we didn’t find out anything from one of our friends who read it in the newspaper a few days prior, which happened to many people borders, Whittards and Zavvi recently.

Sure, deadlines passed on occasion, that’s the nature of negotiations. but it really was only when we got right down to the final hours, when to be honest, they were more busy trying to save as many of our jobs as possible, so, annoying as it was, i for one will forgive them that one.

We were never once told things were any more positive than they really were. We received communications directly from the top, perhaps not as often as we would have liked, but certainly more often than we would have done in normal circumstances. Let’s be honest, Keith could have personally called each and every one of us once every hour, and it still wouldn’t have been enough for some of us.

And i take particular issue with the idea that biblica could have easily saved us if they had wanted to. Biblica is a charity, and anyone who has ever had the misfortune of having to deal with the finances of a charity will know that having money, and being able to use it are entirely different matters. Even if Biblica had the money necessary to save the entire company (and i am not certain that they do) charities are not allowed to invest in anything that the charities commission perceives to be too big a risk. And you can’t spend money given for one purpose (like bible translation) on a different purpose (like a business) without the express permission of those who donated the money . It’s a really difficult prospect.

Look, i’m as gutted as anyone that they couldn’t find a way to save all of our stores, but they saved Distribution, Authentic, and at least 14 of our stores, with the possibility of more than a few more continuing independently or as part of groups.

Don’t get me wrong, this outcome is heartbreaking in so many ways. I would count many of you around the group amongst friends, whether we have ever met or just shared emails or phone conversations. My heart goes out to everyone facing the possibility of unemployment in the new year, including my mum and sister, and I hate to imagine a future with 26 less towns served by christian retail.

But getting mad at Keith, or anyone at the former IBS-STL isn’t gonna save a single job. There are ways we can save Christian retailing in every one of our towns affected, but hating on Keith isn’t gonna help us. I believe we need to be single minded in our efforts to work out a plan for the post IBS-STL world. And I believe that that world can, and should include Christian retailers in many, even most of the towns which were formerly homes to Wesley Owen Stores.

There are people in the group who did an awful lot of work on how we could proceed into a world without IBS-STL, and i would encourage those of you who haven’t already done so to seek out that advice. It is not too late to save your shop, but we need to switch gears. We need to redirect our focus away from the sadness and anger towards those whom we feel have let us down, and invest it into something more positive. We need to take all of that fire in us, and direct it towards saving our stores.

I have a fully costed business plan i would love share with you, Let you personalise and make your own. My experience is that there are many churches willing and able to keep your shop alive independently, you just need to get out there and make it happen.

We could spend the next weeks and months cursing those at IBS-STL who have hurt us, or we could spend them fighting for our stores, for the future of our trade, and for the mission, and i for one know what i would rather do.

26jamesb - December 20, 2009

Luke

Thanks for your extensive comments.

I think you have read something into what I haven’t posted.

There is severe disappointment in my comments, but not anger or malice.

What i posted are facts not assumptions, suppositions or rumours.

I agree that we have had a lotof communication from certain areas however you know as well as i do that there have been misguided emails which have caused offence and upset.

As someone who has been in this trade 10 years i have seen a lot of changes and some good and some not.

I will be very happy to share my views with u but not on this blog.

My email is jbatterbee@hotmail.co.uk

Send me a message with your business plan and i will reply with the extensive work i’ve been doing for the last 4 weeks.

I believe that we do make a difference and how we finish is so important.

We are salt and light on the high st and need to continue to be that even when we don’t feel like it.

As a store manager who has had to deal with 14 staff over the last 2 days in various states of upset, it is emotional.

Whilst I understand a lot of you comments I don’t think you are quite grasping the gravity of the situation for some members of team that have been doing the same thing for 20 years.

They have sweated blood and tears for WO and SU previously and this is very painful for them.

Knowing and respecting your mum as i do i believe that it will be a difficult time for your family and i will praying for you all.

My focus is very much on the future and not holding the hurts of the past. This and other blogs are there to air views and state opinions so please don’t criticise members of staff who choose to do so.

I haven’t been bashing anyone or slagging people off so i think we need to bear with one another.

I look forward to receiving that business plan

James

Luke - December 20, 2009

James, thanks for the response. It was certainly not my intention to “criticise you for sharing your opinions” simply to respond to them with my own. And while it is true, we have all of us got a personal stake in this that a lot do not share, it seems that, at times, things are said in public (like this) which rely on knowledge of things which happened privately, like the perceived failures of communication. Perhaps addressing the reply to you was a problem on my part, I know your or Fi’s opinions were largely not what was addressed in my response, it was intended to be more of a general response to some of the criticism which has been heaped upon the situation by those in and out of “the loop”.

My apologies if it seemed that much of this was addressed at you, it was not. My response to you began and ended with that first line about sharing your belief that a lot was being said by people who don’t really know what is happening, and stating that my own read on the situation is much more positive than that of many others.

I guess it is the sort of person i am. To many this can be seen as a closed door… to me, i see a challenge… a new lock to pick… i enjoy a good challenge.

I guess i would just rather see more people offering solutions and seeing it as a new challenge and a big opportunity than seeing it as the end.

I will certainly email you with some of the things i have put together so far, and look forward to sharing some of your own vast wisdom too. I guess it is just the sort of person i am, but a part of me got excited when i heard it was possible that some of the stores may close. Not because of lost jobs or the pain and hurt, which please don’t misunderstand, i am not trying to discount, it is very real, and utterly devastating for anyone it affects, but because after many a heated discussion about whether we would do things the IBS-STL way (often we wouldn’t), we may finally be given the chance to do things our own way, to put my money where my mouth is, and see if i actually could do a better job of it.

You always struck me as a similar sort of person, and i guess i just expected to see you more vocal about your plans going forward than you were in that message… I am very excited to hear that you are focusing on the future and have been working on solutions this past 4 weeks. I pray for your staff and store, and those of every other manager who now finds themselves in a position none i would never wish upon anyone.

I hope that i will be hearing from you for a long time to come.

And i know it is emotional for all of us, there is a lot we will all say that will probably rub someone up the wrong way, it’s a tough time for us all, and i doubt there will be many here who aren’t more than eager to forgive anything that we may say or do over these next tough weeks.

Luke

Phil Groom - December 20, 2009

Luke and James – if you guys, either individually or together, would like to contribute a guest post (or even series of posts) to the UKCBD blog outlining how you would like to see things taken forward, I’d love to hear from you.

For the record, I know from when I met Keith Danby a while back that the way things have panned out is not the way he’d have liked them too. If the truth is ever allowed out, I think we’ll discover that his hands were largely tied by Biblica’s board — but that’s another story. What we need right now is creative thinking that will help overcome the inertia in churches, bring them on board and give them the sense of ownership they didn’t have when the shops were part of an outside organisation.

If you haven’t already done so, might be worth taking a look through some of the posts I’ve linked to here: The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling.

Look forward to hearing more from you.

20. A.N. Employee - December 21, 2009

Eric Barrat needs to re/examine the content of his earlier posts.
Surely having FAMILY working for the company his comments should have been tempered with a little restraint.

And in future stick to the FACTS

Phil Groom - December 21, 2009

@A.N. Employee: corrections are always welcome. Could you clarify where you believe eric has his facts wrong, please, rather than leave it hanging?

Contact me privately if you prefer.

Thanks.

21. Dean Crosby - December 22, 2009

Dear Phil,
I write this to you from Australia. I know that this change is unsettling for all concerned especially just prior to Chirstmas. I will keep this brief. I work for Koorong. They are an honest christian organisation. The Boots family that own Koorong are loving genuine christians and have built up the Koorong brand with 18 stores nationally. Koorong is the largest retailer of Christian books, music, etc in Australia. It would be fair to say that they care for and look after their employees and have a real heart for this great ministry. I hope that over time the staff in the UK will find this out for themselves. Have a look at our website.

regards and blessings to you all at this time.

Phil Groom - December 22, 2009

Dean, thank you: great to hear from you. I’m looking forward to seeing how things work out and wish you and your colleagues — both new and old — every success here.

Grace and peace to you all.

22. E. Wilson - December 31, 2009

As someone in the general book trade I have been through two major collapses in the past quarter century. These things seem invariably to be very messy but surely could be handled with more sensitivity than’s been the case here. It strikes me as havin been a big bit of a dog’s breakfast for the poor staff.
For those rescued by this Koorang outfit we pray it will indeed turn out their new employers give exemplary Christian leadership and care.

23. Dean Crosby - January 5, 2010

For those of you who are interested in learning a little more about Koorong and Wesley Owen please go to the Christian Retailing website
http://www.christianretailing.com and under search type in Koorong.

24. 2010: Blog Review of the Year « Phil's Boring Blog - January 3, 2011

[…] Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors? December 2009 35 comments 3 […]


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