Tory police commissioner candidate for Cambridgeshire Jason Ablewhite reveals his 'annus horribilis' - the year his company crashed owing over £200,000
PUBLISHED: 11:34 17 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:43 17 December 2015
The Conservative candidate for police commissioner for Cambridgeshire spoke for the first time today of 2009 being his "annus horribilis" - the year his company Bridge Fine Foods Ltd crashed owing over £200,000.
Councillor Jason Ablewhite, executive leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, and nominated by his party earlier this month for next year’s commissioner poll, said the experience of losing a business means “ I have empathy for people that have fallen on hard times.
“And that makes me more human in my decision making and not a bureaucratic robot.”
Documents from Companies House show that on March 30, 2010, Cllr Ablewhite signed off the official resolution for the winding up of Bridge Fine Foods Ltd. A statement of affairs showed that it had total debts of £228,000 including £15,000 owed to employees and £2,800 to HM Revenue and Customs.
The company that traded from St Ives as a wholesale distributor of refrigerated foods owed sums ranging from £68,000 to a Midlands food supplier, £60,000 to NatWest, and £2,292 to Huntingdonshire District Council.
In July 2011, when the company – based on the Somersham Road industrial estate- was officially wound up, it was shown that nearly £8,000 of realisable assets had been used to pay liquidators.
Cllr Ablewhite, 43, has been a district councillor since 2004 and was elected to the £14,000 year as executive leader of Huntingdonshire District Council in May 2011; he is also a former St Ives town mayor.
He has described himself as a “meticulous manager, excellent at juggling multiple tasks and working under pressure. Broad industry experience includes food service, specialist master butcher and chilled foods.”
From 1988 to 1998 he worked for his family’s butchery business in Cambridge, later taking charge of its catering arm. In 1998 the company was sold and he joined D P Cotsello in Dry Drayton, initially as a van salesman before becoming sales manager and later general manager.
He was part of a management buyout of the company which became Bridge Foods Ltd based in St Ives.
He said today: “In 2005 I took over a business with one other partner. The company at the time was not trading well and had high central cost centres.
“Over a three year period we managed to pull the company around, reduce overheads and increase revenue streams and profitability. Everything was going in a positive direction until 2009 when as we now understand it, the country had a financial heart attack and the banking system started to collapse.
“Five key customers went out of business in quick succession owing a substantial amount of money to us; major suppliers were reducing credit terms and the banks reducing working overdrafts. It was the perfect storm to be in business and not a good place to be in, in a small boat.
“After ploughing more of my own money into the business to help with cash flow it was becoming evident that this was going to be a long and deep recession and by the back end of 2009 we decided to place the company into voluntary liquidation. “Having lost the most money personally into the company and having a wife and two children to support who were at primary school it was truly one of toughest decisions I have ever had to make and telling the staff was heart breaking.
“Some of them had young children too. 2009 will always be my annus horribilis, it was a year that my depot was also broken into in February of that year when a truck was reversed into the shutter doors, the depot ransacked and one of the vehicles stolen and also the year that my beloved Nan also passed away.”
Cllr Ablewhite said: “It would have been easy just to give up but my tenacious nature and the fact I had previous successes, not withstanding the successful family business that was sold as a going concern in 1999 and further successes since.”
He added: “I can confirm I have never been insolvent or declared bankrupt or struck off as a company director and have always acted appropriately and in accordance with the law.”
In the past week his UKIP opponent for police commissioner, Nick Clarke, has used Twitter to hint at Cllr Ablewhite’s former business.
Mr Clarke, a former leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, tweeted: “If you can’t run your own finances why should the public believe you can run public finances. A significant risk.”
And in a later tweet he wrote: “Cllr Ablewhite lost his company in 2011; voluntary liquidation leaving a lot of debt.”
But in his response Cllr Ablewhite said: “To answer Nick’s question with the background now in mind, I have without a shadow of a doubt been one of the most successful local government leaders in many years.”
He said he had successfully been running “a £100,000,000 enterprise and I am the only leader in Cambridgeshire with executive powers.”
He said Huntingdonshire was “one of the largest district councils in the UK that had previously been facing a financial cliff even before austerity kicked in.
“I have been executive leader now for five years and have done a root and branch reform in that time. I have completely transformed the council into one that even with all the central Government cuts has a long term financial strategy.
“I have turned leisure facilities into a cost positive position (the first time since 1974) and the council as a whole into a financially positive position - the first time since 1995- with little to no effect on any front line service.”
He added: “I have 16 years of excellent local government service to stand on and business experience that I have learned from.
“I have empathy for a person that has fallen on hard times and that makes me more human in my decision making and not a bureaucratic robot.”
As well as his role at Huntingdonshire Council, Cllr Ablewhite is chairman of the East of England Local Government Association, chairman of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Police and Crime Panel, and a board director of the Greater Cambridge and Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership.
He was picked by the Conservatives as police commission candidate at a private meeting of Tory supporters in Comberton Village College chaired by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter Chris Mann. Cllr Ablewhite won 50 per cent of the votes in a three horse race.
“I am humbled to have been selected,” he said.
“If elected I promise to protect our frontline policing, work with all partners in the public sector to ensure efficiency and continue to support the vulnerable and victims of crime.”
Short listing had been in place for some weeks following the decision by Sir Graham Bright not to stand again.
Councillors Ablewhite, Peter Topping and Andy Cole emerged from several rounds of selection and made their final pitches to the meeting.
Cllr Coles is cabinet member for children services at Peterborough City Council – and is also a member of the police and crime panel.
Until retiring in 2012, he had served as a policeman for 30 years, retiring as a temporary detective chief inspector. He has the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and the police long service and good conduct medal.
Cllr Topping has been a county councillor for 18 months, and is vice chairman of the council’s accounts and audit committee. His area includes ten parishes in and around Duxford.
He describes his experience as a “programme assurance expert who has led over 40 reviews of high risk programmes for the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority”.
Cllr Topping was a police inspector in the Royal Hong Kong police for three years to 1985, worked as a crime reporter for the South China Post for the following year, before joining the briefing and planning unit of the Metropolitan Police.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems announced that Rupert Moss-Eccardt has been chosen as their candidate for the 2016 poll.
He unsuccessfully stood against Sir Graham in 2012.