Saturday, September 6, 2008

Shimla Pinks

Is Manchester's best Indian restaurant - and not a social business. Its a highly stylized , slightly brash place, typifing the confident new Manchester which I still feel stunned by when I come here.

The Manchester of my youth was drab, inward-looking and still bore the after-effects of World War II. Today it is full of place like Shimla Pinks and the buzz of knowing it is England's true second city.

Here, on Thursday night, I meet the irrepressible Doug Cresswell, founder and CEO of Pure Innovations, one of the biggest success stories in social enteprise - that, of course, nobody south of Knutsford Services has heard about. That's probably because they are based in Stockport and Doug spends most of his time building his business rather than (like certain others!) going round telling people about it.

I first met Doug, funnily enough, at a niche learning-disability conference where we were both keynoting. He was there telling the story of how he used to work for Stockport Council and then, after a couple of years plotting, took its shitty, traditional day services lock, stock and barrel, into a brand new firm, Pure, with a remit to get every single person into work. And you know what, he near as damn well did it. Not only in Stockport but now in other areas of the North West and now in London.

Like the very best social entrepreneurs, Doug is fuelled by a big belief. His is about the importance of work to a good life for those born with a learning disability. He has zero-tolerance for the failed policies of the past and has no hesitation in publicly denouncing local authority staff as `turkeys' who think they are owed a living.

Interestingly, local authorities around the UK love him and ask him to come and call their staff turkeys too. He gets away with it, I think, not only because he's an attractive personality but also because his overall message is a positive one. That it doesn't have to be like this. That with the right leadership, ideas and the proper direction of effort, problems can be solved.

Like a lot of northern social entrepreneurs, Doug tends to be ignored by the sector media and he isn't near enough to town to schmooze with the new social investment community. Yet he's as good as nearly all of the Ambassadors in terms of what he's done.

And not short of ambition. He wants to grow Pure from £6m to £15m in the next five years and is hungry to hear about our experience with Impetus Trust. I promise an intro, not only to them but to others I know. Doug has all the qualities these investors look for. He's got form, integrity, he is there for life and his ideas are road-tested. Watch that space.

Earlier in the day I had been in Barnsley with two of my staff, Jenn Kiernan and Natalie Hemingway, plus a former service user, Martin Piper, who want to spin-out a mental health helpline service currently run by Speaking Up into a new social business. I am impressed by their plans and we hook up with Rob Greenland who is, I hope, going to be supporting them to find a finance cornerstone.

They are going to become a CIC and have just two Directors. Good move as far I was concerned they might encumber themselves with a Trustee type set up. Jenn, who is going to be MD seems to have the kind of natural acumen and energy to make it work. Like many of our people, she has a great story which involves two foreshortened stints at Oxford Uni and 18 months working in Dolce's shoeshop in Meadowhall, Sheffield before geting to us. I am proud that we still find people like her - and prouder still that we are still willing to support them to become independent social entrepreneurs if that's what they seek to do.

Afterwards, Rob takes me for a beer and we discuss how it feels to be in social business for ten plus years. We're both moving towards the idea that the good you do is the good you are, regardless of the structure you operate within. Widening the tent to include progressive privately owned business is, for both of us, critical if social business is to move beyond the margins.

On Friday I visit Sheffield where I went to an ACEVO do with Nick Clegg speaking. I had to say I was underwhelmed. There was something unconvincing and lightweight about him which I couldn't get out of my mind. This was a big disappointment because I like what he writes and how he thinks. He just didn't seem big enough to me. Perhaps the Lib Dems have chosen the wrong guy, or gone for him a bit early. The other guy, Huhne, while boring-as-fuck, does seem to know his stuff and carry himself well.

The rain which became the floods started that day and thankfully I drove home without incident. Seeing Ruby (2) and Wilf (9 months) after three days was a delight though my response to them tends to be strongly related to the weather. If we're all stuck indoors, the days pass at a glacial pace. I now have a week off and if the forecast is right it is going to be long week ahead.

The week ends sweetly enough with an email from Patrick Butler at Guardian Society with a confirmation that they are going with a piece from me in Public Manager on Wednesday. Upon hearing this, Katy chooses to tell me she has just spent the fee on a new car-seat for Wilf.

Like most women,Katy knows the importance of timing.

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