Why I set up a Wales-based social business
Versions of this blog were published by The Guardian and the Institute of Welsh Affairs in 2015
The 2015 ‘Shape of Wales to Come’ report by the Bevan Foundation painted a bleak picture of the Welsh economy by 2020. More unqualified workers chasing low-paid, insecure jobs lies ahead, unless we try some radical new approaches, according to the think tank. But does this have to be the way? I don’t believe it does. But I do agree that business as usual isn’t an option for Wales.
One element of the report that really resonated for me is its call for Wales to make better use of its businesses and “the skills and resilience of its people" in order to overcome the challenges we face in an austerity age.
The story of Connect Assist which I set up in 2006 hopefully demonstrates what can be achieved when you think differently about how talent can be found, harnessed and used for economic and social benefit. For me, Wales has been the ideal place to grow a social business while creating quality employment opportunities for many people who were otherwise facing bleak prospects. I believe that we could be working harder to tell the story of why Wales is a great location for business, and to harness what the business community has to offer for social good.
Twelve years ago, after successfully setting up a number of social enterprises, I decided to set up a business that would help people in challenging circumstances. Initially I secured one contract to provide a helpline to a group of professional people with a higher-than-average incidence of mild to moderate mental ill health.
We wanted to create a socially responsible business that created jobs in an area of the UK that really needed the boost. I looked at a few options and quickly decided that the right place was the South Wales valleys. Despite having no connections with the area, I was acutely aware that it suffered from higher-than-average unemployment rates as a result of the decline of mining and heavy industry in the 1980s, meaning there were – indeed, still are - far too many highly-skilled and experienced people out of work.
We looked around and eventually found a building in Nantgarw. I raised around £900,000 to get started, with the help of investors, the bank, the Welsh Government and our own money. We moved into a large building and had to sublet most of it in order to pay the bills.
Back then we only had ten staff, but we had big ambitions. Twelve years on Connect Assist has created over 150 permanent jobs and provide helplines, contact centre services, digital technology and strategic consulting to a range of UK-wide organisations. We help charities, local authorities, public sector and some private companies to deliver services to their users. Most of our work involves helping people with debt, mental health, workplace challenges, family problems and other challenges.
A key secret of our success has undoubtedly been our location in Wales. In fact moving here to set up business has been one of the best decisions of my working life. Why?
Firstly, the workforce available here has a great deal to offer. Because we work with the most vulnerable people in society, we wanted to build a team with different skills, backgrounds and reasons for wanting to make a difference. Put simply, I believe that a diverse workforce provides a better service because it can serve the needs, motivations and fears of a wider range of people from a position of understanding and empathy.
We have been privileged to employ an amazing team, half of whom joined after a lengthy period of unemployment. About a quarter have some form of long-term health condition and a significant number are former members of the armed forces (who often struggle to find employment, a national scandal). Our team are highly qualified to support people in challenging circumstances, because they have faced many of the issues they are advising on themselves. This means our service users have a better experience and, ultimately, positive outcomes.
Then there is the political environment. I believe that the Welsh government really gets business. During the 2 General Election I was mortified at some of Labour's statements, 2017 which painted business in a largely negative light. It could not be more different in Wales where the government is highly proactive in its support of businesses. We have benefited from various support schemes that have helped us create jobs. That means we don’t only change lives via the services we provide, but we have been able to make a positive difference to hundreds of families by offering meaningful, flexible employment with genuine progression opportunities. Most of our leadership team managers started on the front-line of our helplines and we ensure our people get qualifications that will set them up for the future.
Thirdly, I was attracted by the progressive approach to sustainability here, having previously worked for environmental charities. A little known fact outside of Wales is that we are well ahead of the UK and most of the EU on a range of environmental standards. Recycling rates are at 56% and expected to hit 58% this year, which is much higher than England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the EU target for 2020.
However, I'm often surprised at how little many of my London-based friends and colleagues know about Wales, and at the outdated stereotypes held by a few. Not so for our customers who see the value of our Valleys workforce.
With progressive politics, strong social and community values, a positive business support culture, a diverse talent pool and the best environmental record of the UK nations, Wales has proved itself the ideal place to build a thriving business with strong social values. Wales has the values that are just about right for our times, and I’m often to be found evangelising to other entrepreneurs about the many good reasons to come and do business here.