Robbed by his trusted workers: Betrayed owner of Stratford butchers speaks out
- Credit: Archant
A shop owner who had hundreds of thousands of pounds stolen from him when he was fighting cancer has spoken out about his ordeal.
Roy Cook owns two Dewhursts butchers shops but it was the store in the Stratford Centre that hit the headlines recently when two of Roy’s trusted members of staff were convicted of stealing £230,000 from him.
Now the 73-year-old has spoken out about how it felt to be betrayed by his workers, and how he has managed to regain his trust in people.
Having started work at Smithfields meat market at 15, and set up his own business at the age of 24, Roy had 40 years as an employer under his belt by the time he bought the two Dewhursts shops in 200 – but that didn’t prepare him for the betrayal that was going on under his nose.
“With my staff I have always been part of the team, although I’m not a butcher,” he said in the back office of the Stratford store.
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This meant he was keen to work with the staff that came with his new shops. He kept all of them on, and even aborted his plans for the newly acquired business to please them: “I assumed they knew more about their shop than I did and the Dewhursts staff didn’t want to change.”
The staff included husband-and-wife team the Quirks: Kevin Quirk managed the Stratford shop, whilst his wife Brenda was the sales supervisor. In time it would emerge that they were robbing Roy to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, but the full extent of their activities didn’t come to light until last year.
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Alarm bells first began to ring five years ago when Roy noticed discrepancies between the books for the Tottenham and Stratford stores. “I first had suspicions in 2012,” Roy said, “but because of my ill health I didn’t take it further”.
That “ill health” was tongue cancer, which meant that for two years Roy could not eat food by mouth; instead he had to pump food directly into his own stomach via an incision he calls his “second belly button”.
Understandably, this harrowing condition distracted him from his business worries and after his recovery, Roy and his wife Shirley tried to get back to a normal life, and their unproven suspicions were shoved to the back of their minds, until in 2015 an envelope landed on their doorstep that would shatter their peace.
“We got a letter that said: ‘Mr Cook, you are being robbed.’”
Even with this bombshell, and in the aftermath of cancer, Roy kept his characteristic dry sense of humour: “It was a Saturday morning, we were having breakfast and I said to my wife” ‘you never know what you’re going to get in the post”.
Perhaps this is because, as Roy confided, he didn’t take it seriously at first: “I didn’t think that the two people who had written to me could possibly know enough about the business.”
Then he interviewed the two sales assistants who had sent it to him.
“What they told me, I couldn’t believe. They told me that for four afternoons a week from 4pm to 6pm the manager brought hid own till from downstairs The company till was cashed up then reopened and credit cards went into it, whilst cash sales went into the manager’s till.”
Over nine years, from the moment Roy Cook had taken over Dewhursts and throughout his disfiguring battle with cancer, the Quirks had been siphoning off hundreds of thousands of pounds from his business with this brazen method.
Roy went straight to the police, but was frustrated by delays to the investigation and took matters into his own hands, hiring a private investigator.
A mystery shopper was sent in four days a week with a hidden camera and drew up a report complete with photographic evidence.
“As soon as police saw the report on Friday, they changed all their shift patterns and raided the shop on Saturday at 5pm and caught the whole system in full swing,” he said, although he confessed that evening on February 7 2015 was scary for him.
“They told me to stay out of the way because they had to protect me so I stood in the carpark waiting for the phone to ring.
“On a cold February night two years ago they called me in and the butchers were all lined up against the wall. It frightened me.”
Despite the betrayal, Roy remained dedicated to his staff - as can be seen by what he did in the aftermath.
“After the police raid when the Quirks had been arrested, the staff came up to me and said, ‘what about our Saturday money?” I asked, “what Saturday money?” and they said every Saturday they got a cash packet as payment for working their day off or an attendance bonus. I knew nothing about it.”
That’s because the money had been coming through the Quirks from the second till – but despite it being ill-gotten, Roy didn’t want to leave his workers without the money they had become accustomed to: “Because the staff were used to getting £60 to £120 a week, I said we will carry on paying it but it goes on the pay roll.”
In spite of this kindness, all of the staff who worked at Dewhursts of Stratford at the time of the scandal have left, except for one of the whistle-blowers (Roy said the other letter-writer left on good terms).
“I’m the villain. I think they hate me,” he said sombrely. “I feel naive because I trusted people. I think it made me look stupid.”
To make matters worse, removing the Quirks and their scam to skim off the top didn’t improve the shop’s takings at all.
“Mr Quirk had been here for 30 years. He had his own private clientele like a hairdresser does,” Roy explained.
“Some of that meat he was getting was given away because he wasn’t paying for it. When that good deal goes away, the custom goes away. So on top of everything else, he has damaged my business.”
The Quirks were found guilty of theft by employee at Snaresbrook Crown Court on December 7 2016. The rest of the staff were found not guilty.
On Friday January 13, the Quirks got lucky and avoided prison sentences. Kevin Quirk, 54, was given a sentence of two years’ imprisonment, suspended for 24 months, and ordered to carry out 300 hours of community service, whilst Brenda, 52, received an eight-month sentence, also suspended for 24 months, and 100 hours of community services.
Both have to pay a victim surcharge of £100, but Roy doesn’t know if he will see any of the money that the Quirks took from him, which he believes is far higher than the £230,000 theft that the prosecution were able to prove. A court order is in place to confiscate the proceeds of the crime, but its success is uncertain.
Despite the injustice he has suffered, and 23 stressful hours in the witness box, Mr Cook is not bitter.
“I have to say it hasn’t changed me,” he said. “My mother always used to say, “I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction”.
“I have done my best to look after my staff if they want personal loans, extra holidays, or have personal problems. It’s how live.”
“When my staff are in trouble I will lend them money, because I know they will go to a loan-shark. I will give them an unsecured interest-free loan on their pay if they need. That’s what I’m here for. Im here to offer staff employment. I take pride in being able to offer people employment.
“People ask if I had to do it again, would I do it the same way, and I think I would.”