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Stanley Gibbons - A Slow Motion Car Crash



The story of Stanley Gibbons in the 21st Century is more frightening than a teen novel packed with zombies and vampires. I've watched them work hard writing cheques trying to become "Jack of all hobbies" and throw away their position as "Masters of GB & Commonwealth philately". Despite more than a century of experience in our great hobby, their foresight seems to have been guided by salesman's hype that presumably included a powerpoint slide saying China is a trustworthy honey pot that all western busnesses should expect to tap forever.

In fairness, SG were not alone in putting way too many eggs in their chinese basket. It seems many household name businesses apparently can't predict the outcome if they trade within a bubble that will almost certainly pop as the realities of a corrupt, heavily manipulated, single party managed economy hit home. Surely someone somewhere is on a rooftop shouting; "Business rule No.1 - Nobody is allowed to profit from China in the long term except China"? No doubt the ever happy clappy users of Apple's products will argue with me until...

Anyway, SG have created a lot more mess for themselves than just willingly over-exposing themselves to China. The actions of the decision making Board members have, at times, smacked of over inflated egos and an unwillingnes to admit weaknesses. Whenever there's been a problem raised - such as their spivvy investment sales methods or lack of progress on a web marketplace - they have always had excuses ready to avoid blame. They never seem to take a look in the mirror and see it is their own judgement and ability that will ultimately make the company a winner or loser.

In my opinion, some of the purchases they've made over the years were astonishing in their naivity. Those that weren't horrendously expensive bad buys from the outset, were soon turned to corporate manure by what I fear is simply inept management. I cite Bidstart as exhibit No. 1 M'Lord. When SG bought the website it was a reasonably active marketplace mainly focused on stamps but dwarfed by eBay due to a lack of buyer traffic (marketing and promotion).

Whether or not you believe SG overpaid for BidStart, the acquisition should have heralded a major leap forward for both philately and Gibbons. eBay had already proven to everyone how the aftermarket in stamps will develop going forward. However, the San Jose giant's lack of understanding about specialised collectables and arrogant management while underpinned by the Paypal cash cow, meant they were vulnerable to a better alternative. Stanley Gibbons should have been that better alternative.

SG at that time had the reputation, knowledge data, stock and money that could have seen off eBay for stamps. That would have placed SG at the top of the hobby once again. All they needed was a reliable trading website, category experts working from home to check and act on reports of fakes and scams and a long, unyielding campaign to attract buyers (sellers will soon follow buyers who are spending).

Sadly, just like the dozens of bedroom auction kings I've seen over the years that claim they will take on eBay with a $10 a month shared hosting account, SG  don't appear to have a clue how to attract buyer traffic. Some people are obviously too busy to study companies like Amazon I guess?

So far as I can see, SG now have two major assets propping up an otherwise uncertain future. The name itself and the catalogues. Will these be enough to see the company survive? I'm not so sure.

Personally I think it's very much in the interests of the now privatised Royal Mail to see the SG name and catalogues continue. Without the aftermarket for the basic philatelic products Royal Mail produce, the hobby is all but dead in my view. Royal Mail will just become another company pumping out mass produced collectables flogged via the Sunday supplements. The albums that evidence the investment of cash, time, effort, study and knowledge in order to build a display of classics, research varieties, explore themes or illustrate history will increasingly close for good.

Some readers may well ask if Royal Mail today would actually care about such an outcome? With SG now a "penny share" I can only hope they do and will consider what the loss of the Stanley Gibbons name and the catalogues they produce could mean to their own business going forward. Who else is there that has the cash, business skills, knowledge and vested interest in making SG succeed?

Some may claim Royal Mail is not the right company to offer catalogue valuations on the products they produce. Personally I see that as no more of a conflict than SG would have now when asked to justify the value of investments they've sold based upon their own catalogue values. If Royal Mail kept SG as an independent entity that only offers valuation advice on stamps and covers RM no longer sell at face value, there would perhaps be less grounds for questioning their objectivity.

But, for now, all I can do is carry on watching this slow motion car crash and hope an outcome that's good for our hobby survives.



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