HCT Group are one of the best known social enterprises in the UK, renowned for having scaled up from small beginnings, for their ability to compete commercially and for their focus on social impact. For five years, the organisation has also been running a ‘champions programme’, the idea of which is to embed understanding and awareness of social enterprise throughout the organisation - whilst also allowing people working in different locations to see what is going on in the group as a whole.

Social Enterprise UK have been taken on by HCT to facilitate the programme (a note that we are following in the footsteps and trail blazed by Ronnie Hughes) and we started in Leeds on February 15th & 16th. There are 12 people taking part and they come from Bristol, Guernsey, Jersey, Leeds, London and Wakefield - and we all managed to make it up on time via various routes to our starting point in Leeds.

DAY 1:

After introducing ourselves, we walked to our first stop at the Cielo cafe in York Place. Cielo is a social enterprise cafe chain which started in 2008 with a cafe in Garforth, and has since spread to have several sites in Leeds and, recently, a new one in West Bromwich in the West Midlands. Founded by a husband and wife team, the business reinvests its profits back into the local community through grants to charities and projects in local areas. Its coffee roasting arm adds to the business mix, and profit from that goes to projects in the country where the coffee comes from (currently, they are supporting charities in Ethiopia). 

We ate at the York Place site which opened in the last year or so in the business district, and it was good to find it busy (apart from the tables set aside for us!). It was clear that the organisation’s approach also included what they stocked: Ubuntu Cola and ChariTea were amongst the drink options. The group enjoyed the coffees, sandwiches and salads and we had a good conversation about a number of things:

- how small social enterprises can compete in very competitive retail environments successfully
- whether Cielo should promote its social enterprise and ethical credentials more obviously
- the balance between making a difference and commercial success

Then we got picked up by our ‘Join Book Drive’ bus, with Maria our driver, to head off to our next stop: Seagulls Paint. We were welcomed by the founders Cat & Kate, who set up Seagulls after “lots of glasses of red wine” around a kitchen table back in 2004. The social enterprise’s core business is paint which it takes in, makes fit for re-use, sells and disposes of - which means there is less waste and that people with less money can buy paint for their own homes. But it is also a people as well as a paint business: Seagulls provide volunteering opportunities for those struggling to get back into work or find meaningful training. Some stay with them for a short time on the way to something else; others stay part of the family for much longer. 

And their clear passion for paint and people has led naturally on to doing art workshops for a range of groups (especially those with mental health problems) and that in turn has led on to creating a gallery to showcase and sell the art that is produced. The enterprising spirit that led to Seagulls being started up in the first place is clearly still alive and well.

Cat & Kate were really open to questions and some of the things that came up included:
- keeping the ‘family’ spirit alive, and living their values (and if/how that was possible as social enterprises scale)
- the balance of different income streams - from the council, from individuals and so on - and how that has changed over time (and how it might again)
- the relationship to the private sector, and the pros and cons of working with them for social enterprises
- the ‘unseen’ challenges that all small businesses face: HR, cashflow and more behind the scenes

The group were struck by the passion and purpose of the founders, and their central importance to the business - but also by how Seagulls has expanded its business into new areas to expand the difference they can make.

Finally on Day 1, we bussed back to the depot in Leeds, where Gary Young of CT Group talked about the community work that is underway in Leeds as part of the model up there. He talked about the importance of the commercial and social sides of the business coming together, and how this was leading to new partnerships and possibilities across the city.

After showing a video message from HCT’s CEO Dai Powell about why the Champions programme was important to the organisation, we had a group discussion about what we had seen that day. Things that stood out to me from that conversation were:

- the need to grow awareness and understanding of social enterprise (generally!)
- the need for social enterprises to communicate what they are and what they do
- the different ways of growing/scaling impact (Cielo opening new branches; Seagulls expanding services; CT Group winning contracts in new locations)
- some growing clarity on how social enterprise was different from both traditional charity and traditional business

That discussion continued over dinner & drinks later that evening….

DAY 2

We kicked off on the second day by heading over to Paperworks on the other side of Leeds. Paperworks started in Harrogate in 1994 providing some employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities, and it has grown since then into a fulfilment and processing business in both Harrogate and a new-ish warehouse space in Leeds, where we visited. We were met by CEO Jo and Business Development Manager James who gave us an overview of what the organisation does before splitting us into two groups to tour the facility.

It’s a fascinating business and varied work: picking and packing pencils; posting guitar tuition DVDs; medical cards for Boots; sending out school uniforms. We noted that Paperworks didn’t really describe the range of what they did now, although lots of people know their name now so it’s not right to change it. Things I learned? People with autism can be impressively precise with beer bottle labels. Shredded paper can be exported to California for use as animal bedding. School uniforms are a surprisingly large business.

It was great to meet the trainees and see them at work, and to get a sense of James & Jo’s great passion for the work - and for finding commercial work that was suitable to the people they are seeking to help. Things that came up:

- the balance of income streams: from packing, from referrals, a few grants for innovation
- the pride they take in the quality of their work and delivery
- the ‘chicken and egg’ of winning more business and needing trainees to fulfil the orders…but not taking on trainees until you have the business….
- that the social does matter to their repeat customers and clients

The group were rightly really inspired by Paperworks and several expressed a wish to work there or that there was something similar near them.

We then moved on to St Vincent’s, a local charity which CT has started supporting with its community transport recently. They are a support centre which provides a really wide range of services to anyone who needs it: this ranges from food parcels to lessons in speaking English to help with form-filling and much much more. More of a traditional charity, St Vincent’s is powered by volunteers and donations, having to fundraise 90% of its income each year to keep going (interestingly, a direct inverse from Paperworks, for whom grants make up about 10% of their income) with the rest coming from its retail outlets: selling clothes, furniture and more across 12 shops in the city. It was really interesting to see how CT can help other charitable organisations in the city as part of its social mission. Things that came up in discussion:

- food waste and how we should introduce similar legislation to France re. supermarkets
- how St Vincent’s responded to the needs of the local communities
- the relationship between community transport and reducing social isolation
- the poverty in some of the areas around the city

We then got back in the bus, this time driven by Brian who had helped create the partnership with St Vincent’s and CT, and went to the Arch cafe in the centre of Leeds. The Arch is another social enterprise cafe in a beautiful space, and all of its profits go towards Age UK Leeds. Many thanks to Fiona Rotheray and the team for catering for us at a busy lunchtime. 

We followed lunch with a final session of discussions and reflection on what we had seen and heard that day. It was a really interesting conversation, and some things that stood out to me were:

- the way in which some social enterprises model have their impact ‘internally’ and some ‘externally’ 
- the (inspiring) passion and purpose and values of the leaders of social enterprises
- the proactive nature of social enterprise compared to the reactive nature (at times) of charity
- the group thinking about how HCT could do more, in the way it communicates / shares its own work, but also through new opportunities

and much more besides: much food for thought for me as much as anyone else.

Next session, we are in Bristol, which I’m really looking forward to it. The homework has been set for next time: speak to at least one person about social enterprise, and to look up one example of another social enterprise to share with the group next time….