Key enterprises
Giles Johnston

Member Article

The Big Society in Action

A North-East charity has brought in a businessman to help make the transition to social enterprise.

Key Enterprises is based on the North Tyne Industrial Estate, Benton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The charity was established in 1983 to provide vocational training for people suffering mental health problems or learning difficulties.

Service users can engage in various activities including wood and metalwork, horticulture, IT, crafts, bicycle repairing and catering. All activities enable individuals to learn skills, build confidence, be active in the community and live more independently. Over 85 individuals use Key Enterprises each week, working under the guidance of supervisors who are qualified to City and Guilds level in their trade area. This enables training to be accredited through the National Open College.

The training is designed to be both therapeutic and vocational, a key aim being to help people get back into employment. The furniture and fixtures made by the service users are so good that Key Enterprises is able to sell them to councils and increasingly to the public and businesses! Chairs, tables and wardrobes, gates and railings, park benches and bird houses are all made to suit individual customer needs. Nothing is off the shelf.

The charity’s transition to social enterprise makes it a very good case study of David Cameron’s much publicised Big Society initiative. This is especially so in relation to the Government’s drive to cut benefits and get as many of the disabled and long term sick back into work as possible.

Giles Johnston of Smartspeed Consulting has joined the Board of Trustees of Key Enterprises. The role of the Trustees is to help the organisation develop its commercial awareness. Giles, who specialises in helping businesses become more efficient and profitable, is focusing on helping Key Enterprises improve it processes and operations and develop new products for the marketplace.

Mr Johnston is keenly interested in using his entrepreneurial skills within a social enterprise context. His work in this regard has included several years working as a volunteer with the Youth Offending Team on North Tyneside.

The 34-year-old explains, “The voluntary sector has an important role to play in the delivery of public services. However, as Government and Local Authority grant aid sharply reduces charities will have to become more business like and increasingly entrepreneurial.

“I know quite a few business owners who are helping community groups and charities make this challenging transition. This is, I believe, is what the Big Society is all about. What makes Key Enterprises such an interesting case is being able to harness that creativity and enterprise but whilst bearing in mind that the service’s main focus is not profit but people’s health. So it’s a fascinating and challenging balance and one which many charities are grappling with.”

One of the most successful activity areas for Key Enterprises is in repairing and then selling old bicycles, which are supplied by Northumbria Police. Service users learn valuable new skills and there is a real sense of buzz on the shop floor as gears are delicately repaired, frames sprayed and wheels polished.

The bike collection includes several tandems once owned by North Tyneside Council and which for 17 years languished in a corner at the council’s old offices in Wallsend. Key Enterprises even has its own a bike club, with trips into the countryside during the summer.

“The bike department is a great example of how Key Enterprises can adapt and serve the community,” Giles Johnston explains. “There is a growing demand for cheap, reliable bikes. One market we are looking at is building bicycles to meet the needs of people with severe physical handicaps.”

The biggest commission that Key Enterprises has worked on is a portable bandstand for North Tyneside Council, used in its annual Christmas fair. Giles says, “The bandstand was delivered on budget and well within time and shows how Key Enterprises can deliver what people want, when they want it and for how much they want to spend.”

Mike Halsey, 62, is the Chief Executive of Key Enterprises. He says, “This a steep learning curve for us and it’s great to have Giles onboard, to help us become more business like. The result is a fascinating hybrid of charity and private enterprise.

“The age of grant-aid for charities is gone and this is a tough environment and Key Enterprises has had to undergo restructuring. Ironically, demand for services such as ours is increasing as there is more stress related and mental health problems because of the country’s economic situation.

“I believe that in the emergence of the Big Society there will be a key role for entrepreneurs such as Giles Johnston who have a keen social awareness.”

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Giles Johnston .

Enjoy the read? Get Bdaily delivered.

Sign up to receive our popular North East morning email for free.

* Occasional offers & updates from selected Bdaily partners

Our Partners

Top Ten Most Read