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After the H.B. Fenn collapse: an insider’s perspective

Published in the April 2011 issue of Q&Q

A disclosure, to start: I have a vested interest in this story. On Sept. 28, 2010, I watched, devastated, as 11 of my colleagues at Key Porter Books were let go. A few more “ myself included “ were laid off in mid-December. And February brought more bad news: the bankruptcy of H.B. Fenn and Company, which left 125 employees out of work. Those people were my colleagues, too: H.B. Fenn owned Key Porter and supported its publishing program, both financially and with human resources.

I spent 11 years at Key Porter “ a dog’s age in publishing. I joined the company as a junior editor, and worked most recently as editor-in-chief. The place felt like home to me; my authors and colleagues were family. A wacky, dysfunctional family, to be sure, but family nonetheless.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about this family. Publishing is highly competitive, but it’s also oddly close-knit. Publishing people talk, a lot. We talk about books and writers. We talk about politics and sports. We gossip. And we support each other “ in the office and out. So what happens when that support system vanishes?

Here’s the interesting thing: it doesn’t. If there has been any good news among the piles and piles of bad, it is that it takes more than a few layoffs to destroy a family.


It is unbelievable how the employees of H.B. Fenn/Key Porter have stuck together, says Phil Clarke, former IT manager for H.B. Fenn. Within hours, I had offers for letters of reference, recommendations, notes of sympathy. All office politics went out the door and everyone just banded together.

Former corporate and special sales manager Paula Sloss, who lost her job as part of the Key Porter layoffs last fall, had a similar experience. Key Porter co-founder Anna Porter, who had sold the company to Fenn in 2004, leapt into action on behalf of her former employees. Names and contact information flowed Sloss’s way, and doors that might once have been closed swung open.

At H.B. Fenn, rumours that something big was about to happen were rampant in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 3 mass layoffs. After seeing the layoffs with the loss of Hachette [in 2009] and Key Porter, I knew it would be hard to reach people down the road, Clarke says. On the morning of Feb. 3, he spent half an hour writing his personal contact information onto the back of his business cards. I wrote it down on 50 cards in total, he recalls, and when I left I had 16 remaining in my pocket.

Katherine Wilson, senior marketing and publicity associate, was also worried about staying in touch. We all knew that we might not have access to our e-mail, she says. As she was trying to figure out what to do, Marco Castro, a member of the IT team, came by. Marco was going around the office, helping people export their contacts onto disc.

By noon, the news was official. After clearing out his office, Clarke went home and started a Facebook support group called Those affected by H.B. Fenn’s bankruptcy. It was live by 2 p.m.

I invited some key people, and they invited their people, and it just spiralled, Clarke says. By Thursday evening, there were 20 or so members. By midday Friday, that number had doubled. At the time of writing, there were 68 “ more than half the people who were let go.

Not surprisingly, the earliest posts were about how to cope. Employees in a bankruptcy situation do not receive severance or termination pay; they can, however, apply for assistance through the Wage Earners’ Protection Program and E.I. Thanks to the Facebook group, and a few industrious ex-employees, a step-by-step process emerged. Contacts at various government agencies were uncovered, phone numbers and links shared.

As people got a handle on how to proceed, the focus of the group changed. These days, you can find job-hunting tips, good luck wishes for those heading off to interviews, and the odd bit of venting. It’s as if, in the absence of a physical office, a virtual one has formed.

Sitting in a downtown coffee shop less than a week after the layoffs, Clarke, Wilson, and former sales manager Brad Kalbfleisch agree the outpouring of support has been the one bright spot in an otherwise dark period. When you work with people, they don’t usually take the time to tell you that they appreciate you, that you’re doing a good job, Wilson says. When you get laid off, they tell you. It’s very nice.

Clarke agrees. I now realize how great the people I worked with are. He picks up his iPhone and checks for messages. I’m waiting for someone in the group to announce that they’ve got a job, he says. That will be the next big thing.