Enterprising Ideas At Acceptable Enterprises

Podcast Episode 35. A social enterprise must first achieve success as an enterprise before they can deliver on any of their social objectives, that is the message from this week’s podcast guest David Hunter. David is the CEO of Acceptable Enterprises Ltd (AEL) who are based in Larne, Northern Ireland and provide employment opportunities for young people with additional needs.

AEL do this across a diverse range of industries from manafacturing bottled water to selling products online. The innovative array of industries in which AEL operate in has resulted in a very successful business in terms of both turnover and providing an increasing number of work opportunities for young people with additional needs.

One of the successful businesses is an ethical bottled water line called ‘Clearer Water,’ each bottle has a unique trace code that a consumer can type into an app on their phone. Doing this provides a stream of information such as the PH rating, mineral content and temperature of the product BUT it also delivers information about the person who bottled the water such as their hobbies, the music they like to listen to and what football team they support. Another business achieving success is the online business selling a variety of products on eBay and Amazon. The focus is on quality which as David explains is why AEL has extremely high levels of customer satisfaction on both eBay and Amazon.

David also discusses why companies need to understand that if they employ people with additional needs it doesn’t mean that the quality of their product or service will diminish as a result. As he says for many employers, the prospect of making reasonable adjustments when hiring employees with disabilities can be quite daunting. However, AEL has numerous proven ideas to illustrate to employers how simple reasonable adjustments can be.

AEL also believe in ensuring that all the businesses they operate have a diverse workforce, so they try to ensure that they follow a model where the workforce is made up of 1/3 people with additional needs, 1/3 people who have had challenges in their lives and 1/3 people from the local community. David argues that creating a workforce in this way reduces social isolation and is also more reflective of the wider world of work.

David also shares some words of advice for others who want to establish a similar company or organisation to help employ young people with additional needs. His advice is to look for a particular problem in your community that you want to tackle and then to use social enterprise as a means to combat that problem. Also look at the online sales world where you can reach millions of customers easily. The crucial part is coming up with the idea or concept for generating the income and using that income to deliver your social objectives.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 35 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode I’m chatting with David Hunter from Acceptable Enterprises. They’re based in Northern Ireland and provide a variety of employment opportunities for young people with additional needs across quite a diverse number of industries. I found out about Acceptable Enterprises quite randomly via a purchase on eBay which is David reminds us in his interview, I purchased purely based on price not because I knew that this was helping provide employment to someone with additional needs.

There are few ideas to look out for in this episode and there’s one theme that I think we keep coming back to and that is the need to operate a successful business, first and foremost, in order to provide employment opportunities because the employment opportunities need to be sustainable. David does a good job for running a sort of social enterprise needs to have the enterprise be aim to make money in order to achieve the social impact that it desires.

Another idea I really liked about what Acceptable Enterprise does is the whole third, third, third idea: that is a third of the workforce is young people with additional needs, a third is people who have had other challenges in their lives so that might be mental health issues or they’ve been through divorce for example and a third of people from a local community. As David says, this can help alleviate the social isolation that sometimes can happen to young people with additional needs.

David also talks about the transition program they run with a number of schools in the local area and this program really helps young people see that there’s opportunities once they finish school. And it also helps us parents who worry about that as David puts it ‘falling off the edge of the cliff’ moment when our children actually leave school and we wonder what they’re going to do then.

There’s a lot to learn from what Acceptable Enterprises is doing from having diverse businesses that tapping to online retailing for example to providing the whole idea of enterprise and social together but the enterprise has to come as much as the social part. But what I think they’re really doing is providing clear evidence that young people with additional needs can work in a variety of roles with reasonable adjustments, producing high quality work and knows reasonable adjustments and not quite as major as many employers might believe them to be.

DEBRA: This week I’m talking to David Hunter who’s the CEO of Acceptable Enterprises. Welcome, David.

DAVID: Thank you very much. Very nice to be here.

DEBRA: You tell me a little bit about Acceptable Enterprises?

DAVID: Yeah, well, established in 1998 by a group who basically wanted to
alleviate some of the issues around lack of opportunities for people of disability particularly learning disability. Opened to get into the creation of employment and training opportunities as well for those people. So it’s been around since 1998 but really the group has been over the last few years really 2012 has seen a creative rapid growth.

We’re social enterprise organization, we’re not dependent on government funding. We operate it in a number of business areas to produce and come to support the activities of the charity. And we are a registered charity so we don’t get our funding from government nor do we get our funding from charitable donation. Our income all comes from our business activities that we started of.

DEBRA: What kind of businesses do you have?

DAVID: We have some of the ones that seem to be (I don’t want to use the term but I’m gonna have to) pitch and hold around social enterprises for people of learning disability which is hearing the coffee tapes set up and also part of agriculture where where we have a couple of very large poly-tunnels and so on. But really where we’re breaking new ground is in other business activities so we do sub-contract work for industry including some big names. We do sample making for companies.

Our fastest growing area really is our online business where we bring particular products directly from China and breaking large quantities down and having them for resale on eBay and Amazon. Our business has been growing very fast for us, the job takes a lot of our employees. It’s evidenced by the online feedback on eBay. For example, after 20,000 responses is setting up 100% customer feedback which is, I supposed, a lot of private sector companies would give their high teeth for a feedback written like that.

We also have a water pumping plant. So just really up and running a bit 2 years now;18 months to 2 years. So this is really an ethical bold water that we’re producing called clearer water. It’s not about that water even though our water is very high quality. It’s about the job creation and it’s the job creation that means more than all the other guff you put on a label.

So we have a unique treatise code on the bottle of water where the consumer can take that into an app on their phone and they can’t find note not just about the product, about the temperature and pH width and then the mineral content, and but they can find note about the person so they will find out that Johnny bottles the water on the 14th of February. Tells them about Johnny and the fact that this is his first paid employment and what he likes to do, what music he likes to listen to. And so that really connects the person that’s made the decision to purchase that water with the person that they’ve helped to support an employment. And it’s gone incredibly rare. I mean, in this last 12 months, it’s just been a massive increase in sales from people who love that backstory about the employment creation.

In northern island here, we’ve got some real top accounts, Titanic Belfast, Yellow Dwarf, Fitzwilliam Hotel, and Sea Marriott, over a 150 customers now buying us bottles of water because they love the backstory of the job creation for people who have different abilities. So the water bottling plant alone, we’ve went from this time last year we had 2 employees and a couple volunteers and now we’ve got 11 employees and of the 11 name have a disability.

So we’re big on creating a mixed workforce as well so throughout the different business activities, it’s very important to us that there is a mix of people. We talk about a third, a third and a third which is a like a third of our paid employees of people some form of disability. By the third of our employees have had some difficulties of other types so it could be mental health through drug addiction or things like divorce or everyday problems that can affect any of us. The other third to the rest of us.

What we think is about as more reflective of society in general and if we going through front door and look down the street at any time, you’re going to get a mix of people and that’s what we’re trying to create because we think it’s socially isolating. Just to have a place for people with disability or employed so that’s where we want to be not what we want to be either.

DEBRA: How do you find people or how do they find you?

DAVID: There’s various means. If I have to say, it’s mainly because of the successes or our profile has gained a lot of attraction. We used to be and that we have been through the health services and they would make referrals to us. We also work very closely with the Department for Communities here and we would have got a lot of people being referred through from that point.

We’re doing a lot of work also with the transitions program. That is a new program that we’ve just started working in the skills. We run a pilot project with our local roving skills special skill here taking class leavers as their is no owner skill leavers class at 16 or 17 or 18 years old. We were bringing them down here for work trials one day a week just to stay to pick the life with the classroom environment. That worked really well. The young people themselves wanted to be involved all the time and couldn’t wait to come down.

So we went forward to Big Lottery UK with the idea that we would develop ourselves and reach out to other schools in the area. There was also this very real problem amongst the parents and the cares at home and the stakeholders that they were a bit lost and they were feeling really owed in their deaths in terms of you know the school had looked after these guys so well for so long and then it was a classic falling off the edge of the cliff. It’s a term that many parents come back to us with and now, we have 4 special schools and the wider area and one day a week we bring people from those schools to or be as here and we let them try new things like manufacturing over the water bottling plant, agriculture, online retailing. And even just within the online retailing, there’s so much can be done in terms of the packaging, the order fulfilment, the creation of listings and so on.

These are real life industries which are relevant in today’s fast moving world. Now we’ve proven a point. We’ve employed 10 people of our program in the last three years. A lot of these guys, 3 or more people they’ve done around 25. And we’ve just got another example of the water bottling plant. In March 2017, we employed 6 young people with learning disabilities and we’ve just looked back over the last 12 months and then in their first 12 months in employment, there’s been 2 days off. That’s how dedicated these individuals are. We just think that we’re pushing the boundaries so we went further a bit in similar companies.

DEBRA: Are you planning on expanding then? Clearly you have a a group of people coming on from these schools ready to work, so are you planning on expanding?

DAVID: We want to continue to grow. We have other business ideas obviously since the image of Northern Ireland is being transformed greatly over the last 20 years. It’s now seen as a tourist destination point and we are really, really benefiting from the influx of visitors.

So we’re looking at a tourism project right now which is a 5 star or a 4 star little cabin rented accommodation on our beautiful coast road and what we intend to do is set that up and create up another 12 or so jobs around that business. And we want to lift the barn in terms of the quality offer and this is part of what we’re doing and to prove the worth, the capability, the quality standards that can be achieved and that’s almost despite, you know, employing people with disability doesn’t mean that the quality of our service is less. So we’ve proven that point by the 100% feedback and we’ve proven that point that the manufacturing unit that we’ve set up that’s ASEL accredited and it’s SALSA accredited.

I guess the thing in there is we also want to prove industry and other employers right there: if we can do this, you can do this. If you have a hundred people in your work force, there’s absolutely no reason at all why a few of those people are somebody with a disability. So that’s what we’re trying to do by showing that to people as supposed to just saying.
DEBRA:Is that being money your biggest challenges then changing perception?
DAVID: With a lot of the bigger employers that we engage with from time to time, it’s more fear if people who are applying for jobs in their last 10 and perhaps some HR manager is saying: How will I have to adapt my workplace? What policies and procedures they need to put in place to enable this person to coming work with us? Those sort of things.

So what we do here is really demonstrate things in a very real way. What reasonable adjustment is all about. We’re able to demonstrate the people that reasonable adjustments for us has been serving up two sets of skills where a 100 envelopes gets weighed and we calibrate the skills to read a hundred envelopes so people with no numeracy skills don’t actually need the count a hundred envelopes. The skills does up for them. And as soon as they have that done, they pass it to somebody else and they double check that there is a hundred envelopes in that package and then it’s good to go. And so that’s a first quality check for example.

So we build up workflow processes. We break it down into smaller bite size pieces. But what that means for us is that in terms of our quality checking, because we have a dedicated flow chart that shows our loose processes and that’s proven then the smaller, there’s more opportunity to catch anything that goes wrong. And this is why we’re at 100% feedback on a Ebay.

Those feedback written are common from people who feel that their supporting the charity. No they don’t purchase the goods from us because we are registered charity. They purchase the goods based on the price, the quality and our delivery time. The same three key elements affects any other business. And some credible points are the feedback that we get proves the point to other industry out there that there is a case of reasonable adjustment. Or if you look at our shelves and shelving units in here, it’s not that we have product numbers across every shelf. We have a sample of the actual product tailored to the front of the shelf. So if it’s daffodil yellow envelopes and see 5 that’s what we have on the front of the shelf and they don’t want it just makes more sense anyway because anybody going into that shelving store and they’re looking for a product number they can get mixed up, they can forget it but if there’s a big yellow envelope set in stock to the front of the shelf then they know exactly what stocks behind that. And with dozens of these ideas of reasonable adjustment and how you gonna incorporate people with disabilities to be your workforce.

DEBRA: Do you think that’s what other companies aren’t doing? They think it’s such a big joke that they don’t take people on?

DAVID: I think perhaps it’s just on the one aspect of what’s involved and what’s entailed and I think you have to show people. It’s one thing to talk about it and say it. But what we’re trying to do in the efforts that we’re making here is show other employers exactly how simple that can be. We’re not saying that that works for everybody on every occasion. We’re not saying that we don’t have our challenges in terms of adjusting people at different disabilities at different types of employment. We do, but it’s not unwillingness, I can only point out that a lot of these guys just don’t know how simple some of the ideas can be. And incorporate some of these very simple ways around dealing with this person’s disability can just be as simple as two sets of skills. So you know it is really to demonstrate. I don’t think there’s a pose of a discrimination as such. I think there is a worry about this gonna give us worker or result an extra cost to the business. When I think they could just bracket down that we can find out, it’s actually not as costly as scary as we thought.

DEBRA: These processes that you talked about changing, did they come from the people with additional needs themselves or is it just a trial and error?

DAVID: Well trial and error, yeah absolutely. We certainly with lots of different individuals and their abilities are all different. And you know one of the learnings that we have over the last number of years is just not to underestimate the ability of somebody with the disability, really. So when we talked to the individual and found out certain traits that that individual has or certain challenges that they face. We then think about how can we make the process easier. But obviously in terms of conditions such as autism impulse, we’ve dealt with a number of people who are on the autistic spectrum and within that spectrum lie a large range of abilities but there are some which are common. So those common characteristics are things that we look at say “Well how can we problem-solve this”.

We have four places which are a bit quieter than others, are their bets for the radio was going and people are happy to chat away. So we look at separate the business area and the different areas with different people and having different tasks for different people. There has been a lot of the knowledge that we’ve acquired has been through the practical experiences of dealing with people. You know we do training and other staff do training to look out for certain triggers that may affect some of them and so the majority of it has been through more of learning curves.

DEBRA: Do you first and foremost say “This is a business scene that just happens to employ people that have additional needs”?

DAVID: My take on it come in 2012 that previously had been a volunteer director for the company. So my background was business. But when I started volunteering for the company, I really got picked on by the concept and the idea that these guys genuinely needed help to access opportunities. So what I decided to do which I had picked up for the last 25 or 30 years in business, I had to say that to employ those skills in trying to deliver on the social mission.

So it was a different take and it was a new take for our board in particular, where the model was social enterprise and what I would basically been saying was “If you don’t have this enterprise, you may not be able to deliver on your social objectives. They very have to know what I have to do as I have to present the business or that argument and show that for our customers that it makes sense for them to deal with us. Because if you’re not doing a good job and if the quality standards you make at one job from a factory but you’ll not get another one.

So in terms of the income generation, yes, the business is important. The business side is very very important because there’s less and less opportunities for funding and even when we look at the various government departments and so on. They’ve got more work to do for less money and so we have to work differently. And so there’s a realism here within this company that the business side of things, the enterprise side of things, is crucially important because if we bring everyone in comment, then we do what we want with our own income. If we are running service level agreements just for government agencies or for getting money to do certain tasks, then we’re restricted that confine by what somebody else wants us to do.

We bring in the money from our business activities and we use them social purposes. So the creation of our polytunnels under community allotments and all of that and even starting up some programs. We do that with the money that we get from the business side. If we can create a strong income field from there, not only not depending on others for that, but you can do a lot more than what you set out to do.

We do say that we have this commercial focus in terms of bringing in common to the charity but we’ve stand over that 100 percent because the key performance is the business is so high in terms of what we’re able to do by even just the job creation part of it. You know where we went from in 2012 we had 14 employees and today we’ve got 47. You cannot do much more work in terms of a social impact than give somebody a job that wouldn’t have the opportunity to get a job. I mean you get to the stage where you’re handed 11,000 a week in a small time and wages, we’ll then you can claim you really have an a very strong social impact. But the actual effect of this is that we have a mixed ability workforce and were putting people with no disability in everyday contact with people. We have a disability and they all mixed and they work away and no one even thinks about it. That’s the stage we’re at. That if you like to see social result of the enterprise being successful. So we’ve delivered our objectives.

DEBRA: If you had to give someone advice in a similar situation trying to set something up like you’ve done, what would you say?

DAVID: I would say if you can see a particular problem within your community that you want to tackle up, think of those social enterprise as the means to tackle up to take your problem. You’ve gotta have an idea. We very often do best practice for our organisations and we do that because we show them that the online business alone, you can start an online business. Honestly, if you and I started discussing your idea for an online business, you could have that up and start it and by the end of next year, you can turn over hundred thousand in the fall and here two hundred thousand and so on. The way our online business has grew over the number of years.

Really the crucial part was coming up with the idea or the concept to generate the income. And use that income then to deliver those social objectives. I think if I’ve got to describe first and foremost what our social objectives are, what is the problem that we’re trying to resolve, once you’re clear about that then you start. And just because you work, even people who work in the social sector, I would say that may limit your thinking or bring a restrictive element to what you’re trying to do. Talk the people that are involved in the business, talk to people that are retired from business, get those people interested in what it is you’re trying to do. If they’re brought into your cause, there’s a lot of experience and skills to bring to your organisation. So tap in to people with knowledge and experience that you don’t have. Make sure the right people are in the room that can help you to assess and deliver your social mission.

DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it

DAVID: Thank you very much.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? Social enterprise means just that enterprise that has a social impact but without the enterprise you cannot achieve your social objectives. Think about new ideas for business, look for problems that need solving.

Acceptable Enterprises

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