If you ever thought that running a social enterprise was the fluffy also-ran to the harsher world of the traditional way of doing business, talk to Will Nixon. Mike Levy meets an social entrepreneur who proves social business is smart business.
Will Nixon is the very business-savvy CEO of PM Training and the director of regeneration at Aspire Housing. This is a social housing association, which offers homes to thousands of disadvantaged people in the North Staffordshire area.
At first glance, combining training and housing might seem an odd fit but to Nixon it is a perfect synergy. Nixon's background is in social housing policy and in recent years he joined Aspire Housing, which provides around 20,000 customers with quality affordable homes in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire area. Their homes range from rent and shared ownership, to sheltered housing and help for those who wish to live independently. The Aspire Group describes itself as 'a business with a social ethos'.
What is unusual about Aspire is that the housing association is part of a bigger group which includes the training company and the Realise Foundation, a charity set up to encourage regeneration projects in the area.
There is a pattern in Nixon's work: "Working in housing policy, I soon realised that the issues were not really about bricks and mortar but what lies behind the door. This is an area of low educational attainment, inter-generational worklessness and low incomes." What Nixon and his colleagues saw was that housing, work and the local environment make a close fit. The thousands of tenants and residents of the housing association make up a discrete community with distinct needs for good quality homes, skills to find worthwhile employment and a good environment in which to work and play.
"I think that what we do is social enterprise at its best. It is a business which needs to be run smartly, set against measurable performance indicators and yet one which never loses sight of our focus on individuals."
"We are unusual in the way we have combined the housing association with the training for work. We are a housing business that has acquired an employment training business. It makes a lot of sense," says Nixon. When the housing association acquired the PM Training business in 2008, one of Nixon's roles was to ensure that the two organisations neatly complemented each other. He says it wasn't too difficult to do as the culture of PM had a strong social ethic which, says Nixon, only goes to show that traditional business models and ethical goals need not be incompatible.
PM donates its entire financial surplus to the Realise Foundation which has three core activities including the creation of an endowment for lifelong learning which provides bursaries for local people to get to university. It also provides apprentice sponsorships and environmental improvement schemes which draw in trainees working with PM – add in that a large number of participants are also Aspire tenants and you can see how the three arms of Nixon's work tie in so well.
"I think that what we do is social enterprise at its best," says Nixon proudly. "It is a business which needs to be run smartly, set against measurable performance indicators and yet one which never loses sight of our focus on individuals. Is everything perfect? No, there are issues that affect every business and there are always pressures that the financial bottom line is where it needs to be. The ethical nature of the business ensures that we are always focused on where we are investing the surpluses – in the housing stock, in training, employment and the environment. It is a virtuous circle."
But without shareholders and the pure profit motive, is it tempting to sit back and become a little flabby? Nixon laughs at this question. "In the last two years of PM Training, we have doubled our turnover and profit bottom line. We use the Social Return on Investment (SROI) methodology to demonstrate our wider social impact and we see that ever-increasing. We have a very ambitious corporate strategy and follow strict business principles."
What are the challenges of leading an organisation with this blend of business and social/ethical output? "The biggest is undoubtedly culture," says Nixon. "The golden thread running through our organisation is this question: how does our corporate strategy with its vision, mission and ambition translate down into each individual role?” The question is how do you lead an organisation like that? Nixon instinctively sees himself both as a leader of his employees and providing leadership to the trainees and apprentices who work with PM. Says Nixon, "The people who come to work for PM generally want to give something back to society. I am lucky that the very special people who work for us don't see themselves as special."
As for learners: "Our ethos for our learners is that each one has a special talent waiting to be found. That doesn't mean they are all angels but I think where we excel is having over 28 years working with such individuals. We invest heavily in our induction programme which is designed to get 'behind people's eyes' – to understand their own special life circumstances. We keep our staff/learners ratio very low (around eight to one) and we have special teams to provide environmental improvements in the area – this is made up of a supervisor, an apprentice and two learners."
"The key is to keep on top of the present and to do, as best we can, some strategic thinking about the future of this area."
Leading a diverse organisation such as his also involves keeping good relations with the local companies who provide placements for the learners. There are now over 400 such companies and Nixon sees as imperative the need to keep them motivated and on board. "We have done that in a very strategic and targeted manner. We keep in close contact with them and their supply chain to make sure that we are fulfilling their business needs both today and in three to five years hence. The key is to keep on top of the present and to do, as best we can, some strategic thinking about the future of this area."
Nixon believes that the rhetoric around social enterprise is a little dismissive if not depressing. "There is a view that social enterprise can fill the gaps left by government cuts. There is another view that the sector is fluffy and not serious. But to me social enterprise means smart business. To me profit itself is not a dirty word – the key is what you do with your surpluses. I feel that there are opportunities for social enterprise in virtually any market but it needs to be properly resourced, run smartly and led with vision."
Eschewing the us-versus-them attitude, Nixon also sees social enterprise as a very strong partner to the private sector. He believes that those who work with (as suppliers or partners) a well-run social enterprise have the opportunity to absorb corporate social responsibility (CSR) by association; a real win-win situation where there is no sign of fluffiness.
Mike Levy is a freelance journalist, copywriter with 20 years' experience and director of Write Start. He is also a writing and presentations coach and especially loves playwriting and creating resources for schools.