We spoke to Michelle York, Commercial Director at Nuneaton Signs about the work they do creating employment for people with disabilities, adapting to COVID and what it means to work for a social enterprise.

Michelle took part in a special webinar for our Choose Communities: Buy Social campaign which was all about the impact social enterprises are having on their communities in the UK and around the world. To hear from Michelle listen in from 33:39 till the end. A written version of the interview is included below.

Could you tell us a little bit about the work that you do at Nuneaten Signs and what your social purpose is?

We were set up in 1982, a little while ago now, by the local authority as a sheltered workshop. So the pure purpose of Nuneaton Signs was to provide meaningful employment for people with disabilities through the sale and manufacture of signs. We’re a slightly different format now that in 2010, we became limited by guarantee so we’re not in effect owned by anybody. We have the board of non-exec directors, and the company is in effect owned by the company. So if it was ever sold, the money goes to a designated named charity in the articles.  So we’re based in Nuneaton and we make signs –  I always joke marketing had the day off when they named our  company!

We have 52 members of staff and three quarters of our workforce have at least one disability. That can range between a medical condition and obvious physical condition to a mental health conditions. So it’s wide ranging here

How do you reach out to people with disabilities and secure them jobs at Nuneaton Signs?

So we work with the local Job Centre and we work with obviously the Department of Work and Pensions. We’re well known within the area having been here since the 80s. so we do have people approach us, as well as somewhere they want to come and work for, but predominantly, it’s through word of mouth, we advertise jobs and it’s somewhere in the local area that people know has a family feel. We get people here on training courses, to empower, to embrace going back to work after long term unemployment, or sickness or disability, etc. And a lot of people end up staying.

Can you tell us a little bit about how things changed when lockdown began and what impact COVID has had on the business,

I mean the impact has been massive. In March, we kept working, we actually made the decision on 3 April that we were going to close down our doors, we had a lot of staff that were shielding, obviously, we have medical conditions, we have people that live with parents who are the older age group and took the decision shield as well. So the decision was sort of taken out of our hands because of the amount of staff that we have that either felt vulnerable, or were vulnerable. And we weren’t going to force anybody to come to work and put anybody at risk. So we got to the point where we actually were lacking some key members of staff within the business. So we made the decision to close on the third, we told all our customers the week before, so that we could sort the order book out because the last thing we wanted to do was let any of our customers down. And then 3 April, we closed our doors at lunchtime on Friday. And I remember standing outside with the MD with the door shut and looking at him just not knowing what the future held. At that point, didn’t know if we’d reopen our doors.

When you think back to how things felt then to now it’s quite dramatic. So we spent the week, a couple of us, working from home, doing a bit of catch up, doing a bit of the back end stuff and I made a call into the MD later on that first week and said we’ve got to go back, we’ve got to reopen the doors. To start off with our competitors had stayed open and first and foremost we’ve got to be a commercially viable business to keep a roof over our heads and to keep paying 50 members of staff and he agreed. We’d spent a week we knew what the concerns were, we knew what the risks were, we then spent the next week putting processes and procedures in place to make sure all the staff would be safe and we’ll be working as safe as we could. Then we opened up gradually. We brought a few members of staff in across different aspects of the business and then gradually, literally day on day we had more people coming back, which was fabulous.

We had some massive learning curves – we never thought that we could work remotely. It’s never been something that we thought we had the system set up to do. And actually we surprised ourselves within a couple of days, we had a lot of members of staff working from home on the office and the admin side. We even had our first online website, e-commerce site, set up which was built literally overnight. Lucky enough I’ve got a bit of an IT background in a previous life, so I was able to build that pretty quick. But we’ve never had an e-commerce site and we built that and we were suddenly dealing with Joe public on a daily basis, rather than just literally walking through the door. We had to unfortunately stop visitors coming into the building because we obviously didn’t want to risk our staff. So we’ve created a lot of floor stickers, a lot of 2m social distancing reminders and banners, etc. So not only did we make that for the general public but also for the large corporate clients, so our big construction firms that we work for, obviously, they kept working during the time and needed to work safely. So we worked with them, and very quickly turned around branded signage for them, so they can keep their staff safe on site but also educate them on site.

So you were producing all the ‘keep your distance’ type signs?

Thousands, thousands upon thousands of them went through the factory, it was amazing. I remember Zane, who looks after the quarry customers, he got all excited because he had an order that wasn’t COVID related! And fortunately, for us, there was obviously a lot in the news about signage about keeping safe and about promoting – if you’re working, socially distancing on site, and if the government were allowing you to keep working for key workers, because, you know, we had to get that message out that the construction firms weren’t ignoring government guidelines, they’re actually working to them and, and exceeding safety expectations.

So would you say demand was similar or even higher than it was pre- pandemic?

If I tell you that May was probably one of our best trading months in history of the company on our side of what we do. We were shocked if I’m honest, we thought we’d be a bit late to the party with the other signage companies – there’s 4000, signage companies in the UK. But we were determined to get our staff back to work because when you’ve got staff with mental health conditions, low learning ages, etc. they don’t understand why they’ve been coming to work for 15 years to the same setting and suddenly they’re told, not anymore.

A lot of people with mental health conditions need routine need, need stability and it was the best interest for everybody, not just the people who are differently-abled who have got these medical conditions but for, for us able-bodied people, we wanted back to work, you know, we wanted to make a difference. The big part of our business is actually making road signs. So we were seen as key workers to keep the infrastructure working.

Touching on the people that you sell products to, as a social enterprise working in the B2B space, why do you feel it’s important for businesses to buy social and buy from social enterprises?

We do a lot of B2B, without a doubt and we spent the first 36 years of our existence, not shouting the story as to what we do and why we do it. The last couple of years after a chance conversation with Sue at Wates (Wates construction company) made us realise that we were actually a social enterprise, nothing we had to do about our business changed. Everything, every penny in this business is about providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. And that chance conversation with Sue has been the revelation, if you like for this organisation. So when we’re dealing with selling to other businesses and the larger corporates that we work with in the construction sector and across the board, we want people to understand and realise the power that their pocket has. Choosing where they spend their money on a day to day basis makes such a difference to an organisation that reinvests into their mission, their ethos, as twee as it sounds -every sign that somebody decides to order from us as a social enterprise genuinely helps us change lives. And, you know, we’re not out there with the begging bowl, we’re not out there asking for special treatment – we’re purely asking to be given an opportunity to quote. We know that we’ve got to be a commercially viable decision but we’re just asking these businesses to sometimes take a moment, take a leap of faith – ordering from a social enterprise isn’t necessarily risky, it doesn’t mean lower quality, it doesn’t mean lack of customer service. If anything, It means the complete opposite to all that. It means that you get a high quality product at a sensible price, because we know we’ve got to be competitive but it’s also got the added value of it’s not about lining shareholders pockets, it genuinely does help us change lives.

That’s, that’s really interesting talking about working for 36 years as a social enterprise, but not calling yourself a social enterprise.

Yes, if you think back to 1982. I mean, I’ll be honest, I was one, you know, really don’t remember it. But to set up an organization that wasn’t purely about profit, it just had, to cover its costs. But to do that, back in the 80s, it was pioneering in its time, nobody would have understood the phrase social enterprise, nobody would have understood what social value meant.

The generation before me came in, and they created this amazing entity, and they’ve gone “there you go take it, make it better, create more opportunities for people, you know, put your stamp on it”. So the journey is fantastic with the history and the pedigree behind it and I go home at night and I think, yeah, I’ve made a difference. To me, that’s so important as somebody that has done sales their whole career and has done it all for profit to suddenly now see it as people that are coming in lacking confidence, lacking self-belief and within a couple of weeks their aura changes, their personality changes they’re coming to work with a purpose and it makes such a difference, not just to that individual that works for us, but to the family and the friends and the connection. It’s the the ripple effect