Q&A: UMPH head provides update on closings

The United Methodist Publishing House’s decision to close all 57 Cokesbury stores last fall made big news beyond Methodism. Some stores have closed already, and the rest will be shuttered by April 26. Reporter managing editor Sam Hodges asked Neil Alexander, UMPH president and publisher, for an update. Mr. Alexander answered questions by email.

Were you surprised at the amount and nature of reaction to the announcement of the Cokesbury closings?

We’ve heard from a broad range of folks—some asking questions for clarification, others expressing their regrets, a few with angry criticism of the decision and many with comments conveying understanding and support. Given that Cokesbury’s ministry touches tens of thousands of people in myriad ways, the level of interest and comment has not

Neil Alexander

been surprising at all. We are gratified by the confirmation that Cokesbury has had a significant and positive impact through the stores and other channels. We’ve worked hard to make the stores as welcoming and effective as possible to serve thousands of people in scores of local areas for decades, and the fact that they will be missed by many is entirely expected.

Many are mindful that our decisions are shaped by our mission which is to advance Christianity through the publishing and distribution of quality resources; by our mandate from the UMC that requires that we be fully self-sustaining without access to any general church funds as we cover all costs including paying for long-term retirement and health care for current and retired staff; and by the realities of the changing environment in technologies and economics that have affected every publisher and bookseller including giants such as the bankrupt Borders chain of bookstores.

Are you still convinced this is the way to go and, briefly, why?

There is absolutely no doubt at all that this is the right time to step into the future for our retail ministry. Given the exponentially increasing costs of maintaining local stores in areas where they could only serve a limited number of nearby customers, it is time to concentrate on better ways (both in person and via telephone and the Internet) of presenting and delivering resources—ways that are more relevant, flexible, matched to customer needs and cost-effective in serving the entire U.S. and many global customers as well.

Has anything about the process of closing stores surprised you? If so, what?

We have been moved by the generosity of spirit and support of many of the Cokesbury staff who were adversely affected personally by the closing of the stores. Their care for our customers, commitment to Cokesbury’s mission and understanding of the need for change has been graceful and endearing.

Are you allowing, perhaps encouraging, stores that want to have some special event for the closing to do so?

Bishop Robert Spain, our UMPH Chaplain, has provided guidance for the managerial staff who travel to each store site for the final days of operation. We want people to experience firsthand the Church’s gratitude for their ministries, and concern for their transitions. In each setting, the staff has the option of choosing a farewell dinner or luncheon that we sponsor. In a number of sites local clergy and others have stopped in to share words of appreciation and prayer. UMPH Board members have participated in some places and several bishops have been present—shared prayers or made contact with the staff. We welcome these times for reflection, grieving, thanksgiving and respectful endings.

How many UMPH employees will there be, post-store closings vs. pre-store closings?

Prior to the announcement we had about 620 full-time positions and expect that number to be about 475 after the last stores close. We will also no longer require services from about 75 part-time employees who worked in the local stores.

Can you share what you’re offering in terms of severance?

Severance pay varies based on years of employment with even the newest employees receiving four weeks of pay and others as many as five months. Staff who stay through the closing dates of their stores also receive a retention bonus. Health care options included the opportunity to change plans and choose between higher and lower premiums; medical coverage is assured for at least six months at the same rates active employees pay and at UMPH-subsidized rates for up to a year if desired. Everyone will be 100-percent vested in our retirement plan even if they had been employed for less than three years, and access to individual and family counseling was extended for eight weeks past the last date of employment. Plus, career transition consulting and training have been provided for all affected staff members.

I’ve talked to two seminaries that have had a Cokesbury store and now plan to shift business to a Barnes & Noble nearby, and to another that’s worked out an arrangement with Amazon.com. Does this concern you?

We’ve operated seminary bookstores for over 20 years and that experience has taught us a good deal about what is practical and affordable. Students at all of the schools we’ve served in the last decade have already had multiple avenues for obtaining textbooks at our stores, university campus stores, at Cokesbury.com and at other online retailers and used book sellers. There have always been competitors and we will energetically continue to offer custom services through Cokesbury on many campuses with dedicated websites and provisions for handling used and new books for their course work.

Many have complained that the Cokesbury.com site is hard to use. Are you making adjustments?

Of course! Many features have been altered, added or improved and we are expanding and enhancing Cokesbury.com through a vigorous ongoing process. We urge folks to regularly visit the site and observe recent and upcoming changes, and we will continuously add more features to assure accuracy and ease of searches, ordering, and tracking billings and shipments.

How are things going with hiring the “reps” you said will be out visiting churches once the stores are closed?

Of the 51 community resource consultants who will be based in 48 communities nationwide, all but 10 had been hired as of March 1. The first training class takes place mid-March, and we’d like to have all positions filled in time for the spring annual conferences. We have ample evidence based on the history of Cokesbury representatives previously assigned to various locations that makes us very optimistic about this approach. Relationships are built, specific products are shown based on the customer’s interests, and answers to unique local challenges are provided.

Are you going to be selling any properties where stores have been?

We own nine of the 57 properties where stores have been located and those sites are all being offered for sale.

Do you expect to be paying on leases for a while, even though there’s no store operating?

We are fulfilling all of our commitments to lease holders. In some cases an advance payment or sublease arrangement is possible. The cost for outstanding leases was factored into our calculations in planning for store closings.

Is there a one-time large expense for closing the stores? Any idea what that might be?

There are a number of categories of costs including employee-related expenses, store site leases, disposition of fixtures and inventory, etc., that add up to several million dollars. All of these costs were factored into the plan for the store closings and the total expense will be offset by sales of assets and lower costs for future operations.

How long do you think it will take for UMPH to determine whether this strategy has been a success, and what will be the key indicators?

We have very specific goals for assuring the quality of customer service, satisfaction and retention and the ratio of ongoing expenses as a percentage of sales. It is important to note that as we close the stores we are simultaneously making new investments and revamping and expanding other areas of service such as the Cokesbury telephone sales center, the deployment of 50 or more community resource consultants and improvements at Cokesbury.com.

Can you give a comment or two for what this experience has been like, emotionally and maybe even physically, for you and your top staff?

For everyone involved, no matter what their job description, this has been a very busy and demanding period. We’ve needed to draw deeply from our spiritual, emotional and intellectual wells. We’ve felt profound regret in letting go of some aspects of what we and our customers previously treasured but we have also experienced the excitement and challenge of building up new ways of serving churches and the people they serve.

We are especially mindful of the pain for staff members and communities who are experiencing loss: loss of jobs and the loss of a place that many found welcoming and a source of help and friends for their ministries. We empathize with all who feel anxiety about what the future will look like and wonder what kinds of adaptations will be required to serve and thrive.

We’ve been deeply touched by folks who are leaving the staff of Cokesbury and by customers and church partners in communities across the United States who have shown gracious generosity as friends of the Cokesbury ministry. We care about the futures of staff members who have been instrumental in making our ministry relevant, effective and valued. The departing personnel have demonstrated inspiring loyalty to our mission and exceptional professionalism. Over these weeks we have frequently paused to express deep respect, appreciation and thanksgiving for the spirit, courage and dignity of those who have brought us to this juncture and to pray that God will lead and bless all who will play a part in shaping Cokesbury’s next chapters.

shodges@umr.org

 

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Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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