Social business still needs to be a good business

I do a lot of presentations in my role to highlight the work of Realise Futures CIC. If I am speaking to the social business sector, I am pretty much guaranteed an interested and engaged audience, familiar with what a social business is and what it does. However, when I address colleagues or groups from my former employer, a large local authority, or to interested members of the local Chamber of Commerce, I will often count quietly to myself about how long it is before I hear or see what I call the “ah bless” look.

If I tell people that 40% of my staff, from the board of directors down, has a disability or a disadvantage, or that we turnover £14 million, have created 60 new jobs in the last year and employed nearly 400 people, it runs the risk of getting lost. In people’s minds, a vision of earnestly-made, not necessarily very scaleable pieces of work, still tends to prevail in some quarters.

My staff come from a variety of backgrounds; care services, large charities, private companies, engineering and manufacturing organisations and they have all, at some point or another, sat with me and described an enterprise or a business opportunity they would like to set up. My response is always, “How will this play with Mr Lyons at the bank?” Named after my very first bank manager some 30plus years ago, the Mr Lyons’ test challenges us all to ensure that we have a credible business idea that is properly costed, has been well researched and will add value and profit to the company. After all, every business needs money.

If not, and there is a risk that it will trade on the fact that we are a different sort of company – and that many of the people who design, build or deliver our products have disabilities – then the idea has to be recast. We have to ensure that our business can continue to secure the livelihoods of our 400 employees who work in our cafes, in our factories who deliver community learning and careers advice and employment support and still make a contribution to the community.

The only way we can do this safely is to ensure that we have robust business ideas and models which will then be successful and enable us to make a significant contribution to the community as well as a reasonable margin. So, for every picnic table made from recycled plastic that we sell, for every packaging contract we fulfil, every garden we makeover and every road sign we manufacture, we know that we are delivering a quality product which compares, and usually exceeds, the standards of our competitors within those markets. We have worked hard to be a credible business with a wide range of suppliers and partner organisations who see us as a reliable, cost-effective business ally, or a valued supplier first.  Who makes the product, and why the company is structured in the way it is, is very much a remote second.