Tell Laura we loved her

As Laura Ashley prepares to sell its factories, the local workers are wistful about better days. Dana Rubin reports

THE DAY after Laura Ashley plc said it will sell or close its four factories in Wales, an unrelenting rain brought even more gloom to the village where the company opened its first plant.

At the former Victorian train station that Laura Ashley converted into a fabric-cutting facility, company officials refused to comment. Huddled beneath umbrellas, employees leaving the plant after their Friday morning shift boarded the company-supplied buses taking them to nearby towns.

They were instructed by their employers not to talk.

In Carno, a village of 450 people nestled in a valley near Oswestry, many former employees and residents invoked the late Laura Ashley's name with a mixture of nostalgia and bitterness.

"She wouldn't have let things get to this stage," said Howard Roberts- Jones, 52, who worked for nine years as a factory manager. "She wouldn't have had all these high flyers who get these wonderful bonuses who line their pockets and destroy the company."

The name of Ann Iverson, the chief executive who was fired last November after failing to achieve the turnaround she had promised, was mentioned more in sorrow than in anger.

"Ann Iverson, bless her little heart - she should never have been there, should she," said Glynne Richards, 67, who worked as a buyer at the Carno facility for 12 years. "She went in and changed the whole style."

The announcement of the closures is the latest in a string of disasters for the company. Last week, Laura Ashley stock fell 44 per cent, from 35 pence to 20 pence, after it announced it would lose as much as pounds 25m in 1997 after slack Christmas sales.

About 200 jobs are at stake in Carno. The company has tried to offer assurances that it will find buyers for the threatened facilities, making layoffs unnecessary. The local paper quotes a company spokeswoman saying it is "unlikely" the plants will close.

In Carno the mood was melancholy. "It's a disaster, I can assure you," said Mr Richards. "There'll be nobody that can employ all those people at those rates."

It was in this tiny village that Laura Ashley established the business that eventually won a cult following with its flowery designs and its aura of rural simplicity.

The company thrived on an image of benign femininity. "I like sweet women," Laura Ashley once told an interviewer.

As the legend goes, Laura Ashley was a pregnant homemaker in London when she began silkscreening her own designs on to scarves, napkins and tea-towels. Eventually her husband, Bernard Ashley, quit his job in the City and joined her growing enterprise.

Flooded out of their first workshop in Sussex, they moved the business to the Welsh town of Machynlleth and opened a shop on the main street. Later, they moved to a former barn in Carno; and later still, they turned the one-time railway station into a factory.

From women's clothing, the business expanded to interior design, co-ordinating wallpaper, upholstery fabrics, bedding, lampshades, and bed and bath products. Factories opened in the nearby market towns of Newtown, Llanidloes, Caernarfon and Machynlleth.

As the company prospered, so did the community: local people found steady jobs, women without higher education worked at cutting and sewing fabric. One former sheep shearer became a plant manager.

"The company gave people an opportunity to realise they had skills they never knew they had," said Alun Phillips, a local councillor and former headmaster of Carno School.

"Employment increased the standard of living," he said. "It meant people had nicer houses, nicer cars, people went on holiday."

Both the company and the family were generous towards their adopted home. They donated pounds 40,000 towards a local community centre and they bought the local school a Santa Claus outfit from Harrods. Bernard Ashley was president of the local football club.

The family continues to pay for the upkeep of the cemetery, where Laura Ashley is buried beneath a modest headstone.

She died in 1985, on her 60th birthday. After celebrating at her daughter's Cotswold home, she fell down a flight of stairs, slipped into a coma and died nine days later.

Bernard Ashley continued to run the company and introduced outside managers on the board. By 1989 it was facing economic troubles and laid off its first workers. The head office was moved from Carno to Maidenhead, Berkshire. In 1993 the company returned a profit, but it never regained its market position.

Despite the doom and gloom, some in Carno are still hopeful. Derrick Pugh, a former video and engineering manager for the company, said he has written to Sir Bernard Ashley asking him to purchase the manufacturing parts of the business.

"He'd be in a position to operate his own company without interference from bureaucrats and fat cats," Mr Pugh said. "I'm sure he'll come up with something."

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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