At a time of increasing need and decreasing revenues, a co-operative model could provide a solution
Serving tea and cake might not seem particularly pioneering but the seven staff with learning difficulties who work at the Cafe in the Park in Herrington Country Park near Sunderland are all genuine pioneers.
The staff work for Sunderland Home Care Associates (SHCA), the ground-breaking employee owned social care business whose executive director and founder Margaret Elliot explains what makes these cafe workers so revolutionary: “Even though the staff only work one day a week so they don’t fall foul of benefit rules, as employees of SHCA they still have a share in the business which makes them the only people with learning difficulties in the UK who have a share in their own company.”
The Cafe In The Park which opened last year in conjunction with the local council is just one of the innovative micro business projects which are now being rolled out by SHCA which in turn has helped to position the north east business on the cutting edge of social care provision in the UK.
The company was founded almost 20 years ago and now has 450 staff with an annual turnover of £5m.
“Our core business is to help older, disabled and vulnerable people remain in their own homes to live as independent a life as possible for as long as possible by providing a personal care service,” says Elliot who was awarded an OBE in 2008.
“I believe that the key to our success lies in our staff,” says Elliot. “If you give people a stake in the business and people are valued and know they are listened to, the outcome is that you will achieve high quality client service.”
As shareholders, staff take part in meetings every other month to set budgets, pay and conditions and are all involved in training and developing training programmes. Though many employees lacked formal education before joining, almost 300 employees have now gained NVQs in Care and Management.
“Staff members play a vital role in the decision-making process because they own a share in the company,” explains Elliot. “That means profits are spent on providing a better service or towards rewarding our staff.”
SCHA is now busily embarking upon an ambitious programme of expansion and diversification in an effort to secure additional revenue streams.
“We didn’t want all to put all our eggs in one local authority tendering basket,” says Elliot.
Consequently the company now provides mentoring support services for students with disabilities at Sunderland colleges as well as working with children with disabilities and providing support for their families.
The success of SCHA led to the launch of Care and Share Associates in 2004, a separate company with the aim of replicating the employee owned model of home care across the country.
Now almost ten years later Care and Share Associates has evolved into six franchised businesses across the north of England with over 400 staff and an annual turnover of £7m.
Dr Guy Turnbull business development director at Care And Share Associates explains that whilst each franchised company is independent, all six companies still share a number of key business services.
“The trick is finding a way of balancing local ownership and autonomy with the economies of scale of big business. Margins have got really squeezed in the social care sector so we need a high volume of hours delivered in order to compete with the private sector,” says Turnbull.
“We’ve centralised our payroll, business development and other strategic business functions to keep our costs as low as possible.”
So what does Turnbull see as the main USP that the employee-owned model can offer?
“Because our employees have a share in the business our staff turnover is much lower than the private sector and overall our business model yields significant benefits on performance,” says Turnbull.
“This is crucial in health care as you aim to have continuity of support as you want to have the same person toileting you every day. Plus as we have no external shareholders we can reinvest our surpluses in staff development and training.”
Turnbull is under no illusion at the potential for growth within the home care sector: “We want to become the John Lewis of the social care sector and become the UK’s leading employee-owned provider of high quality health and social care services.”
With the government planning radical reform of public services to enable entrepreneurial front line staff to form mutual organisations and take over the services they provide, Sunderland Home Care Associates is now firmly on the Whitehall radar.
On a visit to the north east two years ago, minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, signalled his approval of the pioneering approach being taken by Sunderland Home Care Associates: “Sunderland Home Care is a great example of how freeing people from top down control can produce much better services and better value for money for tax payers. I want to see more organisations like this springing up across the country.”