Heeley City Farm has shed nine employees and a CEO. Are they ready to face the future?
‘This man is the epitome of a SNAKE OIL SALESMAN and now is SLITHERING AWAY’
By Dan Hayes
Social media can be a brutal place.
On 26 May this year, Stuart Gillis said he was stepping down as chief executive of Heeley City Farm after just a year in the job. A suspiciously short statement from the board on Facebook praised him for his “commitment, resilience, and passion” at the farm over the last year. It also said he “helped us build our relationships with key partners and shape and deliver a turnaround plan to change the outlook and improve the farm’s financial viability”.
Below the line, as we journalists say (meaning in the comments section), it was a different story. “‘How sad’ said nobody ever,” said one commenter. “Good riddance,” wrote another.
In total there are 44 comments under the farm’s post announcing Mr Gillis’ departure, the vast majority of which will not have made pleasant reading for him. Scrolling through them makes him sound like a grotesque combination of the child-catcher, the Grinch and Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons.
“If I never see this man again it will be too soon,” wrote Dnbee Suze. “He knew I could see through his lies and wanted me out. I hope the farm can recover. As for him he needs professional help. He’s a very selfish, destructive and dangerous man.”
“This man is the epitome of a SNAKE OIL SALESMAN and now is SLITHERING AWAY,” said Tina Anderson. “What he was able to destroy makes me wanna vomit 🤮. And who have been deeply hurt by his evil makes me furious 🤬.”
The fact that all this has been happening at an organisation like Heeley City Farm is surprising to say the least. The charity’s Facebook page gives almost no indication of the turmoil that’s been taking place at the farm over the last year: the heartwarming feed is a steady stream of new-born lambs, cute rare breed goats and curly tailed pigs.
Famously, Heeley City Farm was set up by John Le Corney in 1981 with “a pig, £25 in the bank and a shed.” A patch of land originally set aside for a bypass road had become available and the council gave it to the community, provided they look after it. From its roots as an urban farm, over the last 40 years the charity has grown into an organisation which provides employment, education and training across South Yorkshire with a budget of around £1 million a year. When Le Corney finally retired five years ago after 35 years at the helm, Sue Pearson took over as chief executive. When she left last summer, the board praised her for putting the farm on a more secure financial footing than it had been in years.
Stuart Gillis was her replacement. An experienced manager in the museum and heritage sector, he has previously served as director of the National Waterways Museum in Cheshire, chief executive of Derby Museums, and manager of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk. When he took the job he said his “first and lasting impression of the farm is to smile from ear to ear”.
It was not to last. A short time before Gillis joined the farm, an annual grant of £100,000 per year from the Community Lottery Fund to fund food growing across Sheffield had been lost. It was obvious to everyone that without this funding, the farm would struggle, but the new chief executive and his senior management team differed on how to tackle the problem. One former member of staff, who spoke to The Tribune on condition of anonymity, said that Gillis immediately stopped all the senior management team from putting in funding bids. “He said the farm doesn’t work like that anymore,” they told us. As a result, within six months, the farm went from having £200,000 in the bank to having £33,000 in the bank, they added. “Organisations lose funding all the time and you just find another way to do it,” they said.
However, as well as these big strategic decisions, the dispute became highly personal as well. The former member of staff said from the outset, Gillis created a “toxic environment” by playing staff off against each other. Shortly after he arrived they allege he urged one member of staff to go for another’s job, before telling the latter that the former had eyes on their role. They also accused him of being “very defensive and aggressive” in several meetings as well, including to the point of jumping up and punching the table in one, behaviour which is said to have frightened some people present. In the end, the former staff member told us that some people were choosing to work from home rather than face him. “The term people used in the office to describe him was sociopath,” they added.
Needless to say, there are two sides to every story. Gillis said he wasn’t able to speak to us for this piece due to an agreement he had signed with the farm. However, speaking to others with knowledge of the situation, it is believed the farm’s newly-installed CEO wanted to make the organisation more professional and businesslike. “Gillis wanted to make the farm more strategic,” one person told us. “Rather than chasing funding and being opportunistic.”
In response to the withdrawal of Lottery funding for the food project, Gillis prepared a report for the board in late August. The farm only had enough money in the bank to last until December and needed a new plan, the report said. Furthermore it said the farm had two linked problems: one financial and the other organisation and management — he claimed he as CEO didn’t have overall authority for the farm, meaning the managers could do as they liked. It is this report which seems to have been the catalyst for the situation to deteriorate.
Within days multiple grievances had been lodged against Gillis accusing him of bullying and harassment. Staff members also took a series of news articles to the board which they said proved he had caused similar problems at the previous places he had worked (the National Waterways Museum and Derby Museums). An external investigation into the accusations ended up taking two months before exonerating him on all but one count. However, citing a “toxic workplace environment”, then-chair Carl Lee asked Gillis to leave, with the charity opting for a flat management structure with no CEO instead.
This decision lasted a total of three days. After the farm’s funders, including the National Lottery and Sheffield City Council, questioned the organisation’s new management structure, Gillis was asked to return. This went down with the farm’s staff about as well as you can imagine. “There were people at the desk crying because they knew he wasn’t going anywhere,” the former staff member told us. “That's the impact he had on the staff.”
The first the outside world knew of the turmoil within the organisation was last December. After Gillis had been reappointed and previous chair Carl Lee had resigned, a public meeting on the future of the farm took place at Heeley Parish Church. At this point, the farm was in such dire financial straits that bankruptcy and managed closure became not just a possibility but a likelihood. However, a rescue package involving making nine of the farm’s 47 staff redundant and installing a brand new board was thought to be another way of bringing the organisation under control.
At the meeting, when questioned about the internal disagreements, as well as his management style and leadership ethos, Sam Walby of Now Then reported Gillis reacted angrily. “There is a chance that this farm cannot be managed,” he said.
Could Gillis argue that he just wanted to professionalise the farm, I ask the former member of staff: to make it more businesslike and “strategic” so it could do more good in its local community and in Sheffield? The former member of staff concedes he “probably could”, but argues that he totally failed to articulate this vision. “He didn’t speak to anyone,” they tell me.
They said an example of this is an early decision he made to close the farm’s long-running energy centre (which gave people advice on how to reduce energy bills and insulate homes), which Gillis claimed wasn’t useful anymore. This was disputed by staff and the former CEO John Le Corney, and the timing didn’t help — it was closed last summer, just as the cost of living crisis began to bite. How useful the centre would have been open is a matter of debate, but his decision to use the building as a personal office instead had the effect of separating him from the team in a way that his predecessors never had been.
“I think the farm should have been run like a business but it depends on the type of business,” the former staff member added. “It’s never going to be some massive corporate thing, which is what Stuart wanted.”
According to the former member of staff, who was actually one of the nine made redundant as part of the rescue package earlier this year, people feel more positive about the future of the farm now. They said the new board has been drawn from organisations which have the same kind of values and ethos as the farm itself. “People are still worried about the farm because Stuart left in such a horrendous state,” they told us. “But talking to people they feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.”
Looking at this from the outside, the role of the previous board seems key. When the staff members raised concerns, the board could have chosen to end Gillis’ contract, as he was still within his probationary period. However, by asking the staff members to put in grievances against the new CEO instead, this had the effect of paralysing the organisation — Gillis was under investigation and therefore couldn’t do anything at a time when decisions needed to be made about the future. As such, the toxicity continued to grow. “The senior managers said we’d made a mistake but they were just ignored,” the former staff member told us. “The previous board let the staff down massively.”
And there is also the question of why Gillis was appointed in the first place. He had a reputation for trying to turn struggling organisations around by bringing in greater professionalism and business savvy. But this approach was always likely to clash with the idealism of staff who had been at the farm for decades. “The place has been run in a certain way for so long,” one former insider told us. “It was set up as an anarchist commune and it has always kept that ethos.”
So, who to believe? Was the farm anarchic and ungovernable or did an unscrupulous bean counter get his hands on one of Sheffield’s most beloved organisations? It rather depends on how you see the world. The former staff member we spoke to alleges Gillis set out to destroy the organisation. He presumably thinks he has saved it.
The farm now has a new board of trustees and a new chair in the highly experienced Dave Clarson, formerly of the Manor & Castle Development Trust. Only time will tell whether this and the nine redundancies which took place earlier this year will be enough to stabilise the organisation.
The former insider said that it was a good thing that the board had finally taken control of the organisation for the first time, and that they hoped for the best for the future. However, they added that until the farm deals with its management issues, they believed it would continue to lurch from one crisis to the next.
“It does it every five years, it overreaches and it sheds a whole load of staff,” they told us. “And if it is not to do that it has to have a different business plan. But the very fact that the term ‘business plan’ was being used was anathema to some of the people at the farm. That’s too capitalist. That’s not what we are about.”
Heeley City Farm is open daily from 9.30am-4pm. An exhibition about the history of the charity, “The People’s Museum of Heeley”, is on at the farm’s garden centre every Saturday in August (10am-3pm).