A THIEVING bookkeeper who fleeced hundreds of thousands of pounds from a North-East car dealership is being blamed for a crisis which has put 300 jobs at risk.

South Cleveland Garages, which has six garages across the region, went into receivership on Thursday night.

Staff in Darlington, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool were sent home and administrator Pricewaterhouse Cooper was appointed to find a buyer for the 18-year-old business, which has an annual turnover of about £60m.

Businesswoman Mary Blair, 55, was jailed for five years in January after she admitted stealing more than £750,000 from PMB Motors in Darlington, which was later taken over by South Cleveland Garages.

More than £200,000 of that was siphoned off by Blair after she was kept on as an accountant at South Cleveland, which sells Citroen, Peugeot, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and MB Rover new and used cars, as well as providing servicing, parts and body shop facilities.

Managing director Bill Robson said last night her crime plunged the company into a cash flow crisis.

"That was a straight loss of £205,000," he said. "The effect on us was that it wiped out our 2002 profits.

"As she sits in her cell, I hope this woman reflects on the pain she has caused so many hard-working people and their families. We have tried everything we possibly could to recover but it has just proved impossible.

"We haven't been helped by the downturn in the motor industry but the principal reason for the business going bust was the greed of Mary Blair.

"She effectively stole a year's profit and no business can cope with that."

Mr Robson said a number of reasons led to the receivers being called in, including the company's bank withdrawing its overdraft facility.

But he added the firm still had a net asset value of £2m and he was confident creditors would be paid.

"It's so sad to see it finish this way," he said. "I leave as I started 18 years ago, with absolutely no savings and an overdraft. Every penny was invested in the business."

Blair, of Summerhouse Grove, Darlington, told Teesside Crown Court she had no memory of her crimes over a five-year period.

But Mr Robson and former PMB boss John McArdle believe she calculatedly stole as much as £1.1m.

The money was used to fund visits to a daughter in Australia, to buy houses and provide large cash gifts to family members and to set up her own bridal wear business, Manhattan House, in Darlington and Newcastle.

Blair's deception began in 1997 when she started stealing cash from the then PMB Motors in Darlington.

She involved family members in an elaborate money laundering scheme that cloaked the losses from fellow directors and independent auditors. She continued her thieving when the firm was taken over by South Cleveland Garages in 2001.

Her crime came to light the following year when bosses ordered an in-depth investigation into the books.

Mr McArdle said: "She was regarded as everyone's favourite aunt. People would go to her with their problems.

"The business had, understandably, major cash flow problems but Mary always had an explanation."

Joint administrative receiver Ian Green said last night administrators were trying to raise additional cash to resume trading until a buyer was found.

About 180 employees are affected in Middlesbrough, 60 in Darlington and the same number in Hartlepool.