People

Published: November 11, 2019 | Updated: November 13, 2019

How a daughter’s love for her father – and sheer grit – saved his company from collapse (and a cautionary tale for all businesses)

Gemma Palladino, Managing Director of AEC (South West) Electrical Ltd, and her father, Peter.
By Andrew Diprose, editor

Gemma Palladino will never forget the day she called in to see her dad, Peter, 13 years ago at his office.

Always cheerful, optimistic and a role model to Gemma, she was shocked to find him at one of the lowest points in his life and close to tears.

His Poole-based business, AEC (South West) Electrical Ltd, had run out of money leaving him with no option but to close the company after 20 years.

“Dad was heartbroken. I’d never seen him like that before. Even after all these years, I can still remember the shock of that day,” said Gemma.

“He just couldn’t understand how his company – profitable and very busy – had no money.”

What followed would lend itself more to a TV drama, or even a Hollywood film, rather than everyday life at a small, but successful, Dorset company.

Indeed, Gemma is currently writing a book about the whole experience while her son is doing a film script as part of his A-level studies.

It’s a story of grit, determination, a daughter’s love for her father and what Gemma describes as “the ultimate betrayal.”

Gemma, 37, said: “I absolutely adore my dad and there was no way I could leave him like that.

“I worked in travel and called my boss at the time and said I will need to work for my dad for a week. He was fantastic and said that was fine.

“It seemed strange that dad’s secretary was not in the office. She was obsessed with work and never went on holiday but dad said she was away for a week.”

Within 24 hours the true reason for the company’s cash crisis had come to light.

Gemma said: “The next day we were preparing letters for the employees – just the two of us – and I took a call to say a cheque had bounced.

“I checked the cheque book and the cheque stump had a different name to the person calling. Alarm bells immediately started ringing.

“In fact, the person on the phone was a cash converter who said my dad’s secretary had been bringing in cheques to cash for more than 15 years.

“He faxed the cheque over and it was not my dad’s signature. Suddenly it all made sense. She (the secretary) was the reason my dad’s company had no funds.

“It was the ultimate betrayal.”

Events from there took a swift turn. Police were called and the secretary was arrested at her desk on return from holiday.

She subsequently received a six-year prison sentence for stealing more than £150,000 over at least a decade. She was released after four years.

Gemma said: “Everyone had been hoodwinked. It was one of the most elaborate deceptions police had come across involving up to ten different aliases. It took them six weeks to work out how she had done it.”

Now came the task of saving the company and paying off some of the huge bills it had amassed including about £100,000 in tax and VAT. Every penny was subsequently repaid.

“I made a promise that we will get through this and take the company forward. We have to try,” said Gemma.

“We owed it to our loyal customers and suppliers. I’m not a quitter.

“Our clients were wonderful, particularly two – Terry Hopwood at The Clipper in Poole and (the late) Jennie Deavin at the Marsham Court Hotel. They paid in advance for all their work on trust.”

And now, 13 years on?

Gemma, a mother of four, is Managing Director of AEC (South West) Electrical Ltd, a thriving – and profitable – business on the Holes Bay Business Park with an annual turnover of £1.2m and employing 20 staff.

Among its most loyal clients are Sovereign Housing Association and Ankers & Rawlings.

Meanwhile Peter is doing what he enjoys most. Out on the road, meeting new and long-standing clients where he’s known as the bird man due to the fact that his constant companion is a nine-year-old green cheek conure called Charlie.

Peter, 65, said: “I still blame myself for what happened. I should have realised but I was so busy with other things and trusted her (the secretary) too much.

“Gemma has given up her life for me. She loved her job in travel and could have done so well. I will never be able to put into words how thankful I am to her and how much she means to me.”

Gemma said: “I did this for dad. Yes, it’s been difficult but I’m just so happy to see dad enjoying life again. He’s a very special person and will always be a huge part of my life.

“I also want other companies to be aware that this sort of thing can – and does – happen. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust people but you should always be on your guard.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we have.”