The Social Value Portcast is our new podcast series in which we invite guests from a variety of organisations across the UK that are notable for embedding social value as a part of their day-to-day practices.
In this premiere episode, our business development executive, Chris Harling, sits down with Michelle York, commercial director from Nuneaton Signs. This Warwickshire-based Not For Profit signage company recently joined us as a member earlier this year, and since their founding, they have prioritised the meaningful employment of people with disabilities. We discuss why social value is at the heart of their business as a social enterprise.
This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
Chris Harling: So Michelle, tell us a bit about who you are and what your role is within Nuneaton Signs.
Michelle York: So I am commercial director here at Nuneaton Signs which means that I am responsible for the day to day management of one of the sales departments along with the strategy and vision within the Nuneaton Signs as an organisation.
CH: Just for context, Nuneaton Sings is a not for profit organisation based in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. They recently joined the Social Value Portal as a member earlier this year and have been using the National TOMs Measurement Framework to help them calculate and report their social value. As a company, they specialise in signage. But what’s really notable about Nuneaton Signs is how they have prioritised meaningful employment for people with disabilities. Michelle, could you give us an overview of the company and the motivation for this back when it was initially founded?
MY: Absolutely. The company was originally founded back in 1982, by the local authority, and it was set up as a sheltered workshop. There’s a bit of lack of knowledge about what a social enterprise is, and what social value is, even now. So back in the 80s, it was pioneering in its time. The local authority knew that there was a need to provide meaningful employment for people with disabilities in the area and within the area, there was also a need for road signs. Putting those two concepts together, hence how Nuneaton Signs was formed. So we have been a company in our own right – standing on our own two feet – since 2010 but we’ve actually been around since 82. The ethos remains the same to this day: it is purely about providing meaningful and rewarding employment for people with disabilities through the sale and manufacture of signs. It is the absolute heartbeat of everything that we do. We are not for profit, it’s a statement that I’ll be honest, didn’t do us a lot of favours over the years. I don’t think a lot of people understood it. But when we embrace the social enterprise movement, probably three years ago now, we actually realised that we were a social enterprise. It changed the landscape for us. We had a very, very clear story to go to our customers with. They understood it, they got it. And without a doubt, it has changed our customer base beyond recognition.
CH: So on that topic, why is social value so important to Nuneaton Signs and how does it tie into the company ethos?
MY: Social value is incredibly important to us. In very simple terms, we look at social value has been in business for good. There is no reason why a business should just be for monetary gain, or it should just be for social value. They are not exclusive to each other anymore. Our opinion is that every company should be able to produce tangible social value so for us, it’s incredibly important that every step of what we do has social value associated with it. Which is why we’ve worked hard over the last few years to analyse the business and look at where we can improve our social value. You know, we’re going out to customers saying how important it is to buy from social enterprises and the social value associated with it. We’re now looking closer at what we do and how we can increase our own as well as increase in other people’s.
CH: Following on from that, what motivated the organisation to start measuring social value? More specifically, why did you choose the TOMs measurement framework?
MY: In all honesty, what pushed us or motivated us to start measuring social value was a push from our customer base. For the last three years, we have gone down the route of really promoting the fact that we’re a social enterprise and the benefits of working with a social enterprise and what that means to the people that we employ and how we are able to change lives with every single sign that’s bought from us. When customers buy from us instead of another signage company, they’re choosing the Buy Social movement. They’re choosing to realise the power of the pocket. Our customer base has been asking us for the next stage of our story. They say our ethos is fantastic but there’s been a push as to what’s the next chapter, what’s the next part of the journey because they’ve wanted to get involved with it. So the natural progression for us has been taking on the social value part and really embracing it and analysing everything that we do.
We decided to go down the route of the TOMs framework because it made sense. The TOMs for us is measuring our outcome. We’re not using it to measure the spend with us equates to. We’re using it to look at how the customer spend with us allows us to do something. Allows us to create more jobs. Allows us to provide additional opportunities within the workplace, whether it be apprenticeships, work placements, internships etc. But then on the flip side of it, it has also given us now the opportunity to really look at everything that we do from start to finish, and how we can increase our social value.
CH: And how do you see social value fitting into your wider sustainability plans?
MY: Hugely, in a very short answer to be honest Chris. We are working towards our ISO 14001 from an environmental standpoint. We’re also now looking at everything to do with our supply chain. We are going to our supply chain members and we are measuring what their social impact is. Whether it be social value, whether it’s return on investment, etc. Because I can’t guarantee that they’re all going to be using the same framework as we’ve decided to use, although we do push that one. It’s given us a real chance to be tangible about what we’re looking at and quantify where we are and where we want to go to. Because we’re measuring where we were last year and we’re also going to set a very aspirational target for what we want to achieve in this financial year and the financial year afterwards.
CH: Just going back to that core ideology of employing people with disabilities, how exactly does that work in Nuneaton Signs? How many people with disabilities have you worked with?
MY: So it works a number of ways. We are well known in the area because we’ve been established obviously, since the 80s. We do get a lot of people coming directly to us asking if we have any opportunities, or can they go on a waiting list. But we also have good relationships with the DWP, Access to Work etc. When we do a recruitment drive, we go to them as a starting point as to people that we are looking for and jobs that we’re looking to fill The job coaches then in turn, look at their talent pool and put people forward to us. We then go through the normal interview and recruitment process. In regards to how many people have we helped, we estimate, because obviously you can only keep records for so long, we have helped approximately 250 individuals with at least one disability get back into long term employment since we started our movement back in the 80s. At the moment, we have a working force of 53 members of staff, and out of that 70% have at least one disability. Now the disability range is huge. You have the obvious physical disabilities, you have people that have medical conditions, mental health conditions, and as we know, disabilities that aren’t visible.
CH: So how does the manufacturing process work within the factory? Do you adopt this for employees with disabilities?
MY: Here at Nuneaton Signs, it’s all about what people can do. We don’t want anybody to be defined by their disability. In the same way that my attention to detail is horrendous, don’t give me a contract to read, it’s given to somebody that’s got that attention to detail. However, put me in front of a couple of 100 people to speak to and I’m in my element. So the manufacturing process is the same as pretty much every other sign shop. The faces are printed, which is pretty much like a large sticker. In another department we have an area that’s cutting the substrates to size. And then throughout that process, you eventually get to the point where the face is put onto the substrate. So we have many aspects of the manufacturing that don’t need to be altered for any type of disability. We have people in wheelchairs, we have people with very obvious physical disabilities, and we have people with learning disabilities. So where it’s a learning disability, we make sure that the process has gone through very clearly, very concisely, in short bursts, and those individuals are very happy and confident in what they’re doing. And they have a list to go back to and they’ve got a mentor or a work buddy if they ever have any questions.
With regards to the physical disability side, you have to be incredibly up to date on your health and safety and make sure that everything is safe and secure for anybody within the factory. We do have people with visual impairments and we have very clear walkways with very clear instructions for people on that. So if we need to make adjustments we do. We had a gentleman that worked for us that wasn’t able to speak, but he was also deaf. So we made very clear boards for him that he could follow the instructions so that he knew exactly what was to be done every step of the way. If there was a problem – go to this step. If this was right – go to the next step. So it’s about working with the individuals when they are with us and finding the best route. There’s no one size fits all for this. It’s all about treating everybody as unique in their own way.
CH: It certainly seems like Nuneaton Signs have some great initiatives. How exactly do you work with your supply chain to promote and encourage the delivery of social value?
MY: Now, this is an area we are concentrating on this year. We have always looked at our supply chain in regards to capability and capacity, working through our due diligence to making sure we’re getting best value. We have recently appointed a new buyer to the business, hence why we’ve got an increase from 52 to 53 members of staff, and part of the buyer’s role is to start looking closely at the supply chain and looking at their social value to be asking them, “How are you producing social value and in what format and how are you measuring it?” Because we don’t want fictitious figures. This is very important to us. It’s very, very close to our heart. And we want to make sure that it’s been taken seriously at every stage of the sign-making process.
CH: So what type of customers do you work with? Do you think they see the importance of working with a social enterprise?
MY: Our customer base, and the variety in it, is huge. We deal with the local area on one-off orders, somebody might want to sign for the gate or they want their van decaled. So we go from that aspect all the way through to your large household name construction companies such as Wates, Morgan Sindall, and Willmott Dixon. There’s such a variety within the construction sector that have embraced us working as a social enterprise. It also means a lot to them because they have understood the power of their pocket and the reason to Buy Social. We’ve got customers that have traded with us for over 20 years. If you look at Hanson, for instance, very big into the quarries and there and the aggregates. Skanska, huge into the infrastructure. So we have had contracts with them for 10 years and been trading with them for 20 years in some cases.
Not all of them realise that we’re a social enterprise on the actual sites. Head office, obviously, we always made sure that they were aware of the benefits of working with us and what the money is being put into and what sets us apart from other signage companies. However, due to the push within social value, and now the understanding of a social enterprise, sometimes there can be a misconception with social enterprises that we haven’t got capacity, and we haven’t got scalability. That’s been put to rest a little bit, the fact that we can scale we can do national contracts, and we can deliver as much as any “normal” company. The difference is, is the added value that we bring and customers really are starting to embrace and bring us into their supply chain. Because we are commercially viable, we have to be to have the contracts that we hold. You’ve got some customers that have been embracing the social enterprise movement for for many, many years, whereas others are just starting on their journey of social value. So it’s interesting to see how it’s moving within the various industries.
CH: One of the main concerns coming out of COVID-19 is that the effects of the pandemic are not necessarily equal among different groups in society. According to recent data from the ONS, in the wake of the pandemic, a higher proportion of disabled employees in the UK have been made redundant than non-disabled employees. Specifically, in 2020 from July to November, 21 per thousand disabled employees were made redundant, compared to the 13 per thousand employees who are not disabled. Do you agree that there’s a risk that disabled people have been unfairly affected in the past year, or even discriminated against?
MY: I think that’s quite a difficult question to answer if I’m completely honest. I can only look at our scenario here without knowing too in-depth about the situations with other companies. But I would say the feedback that I get from staff when I’m speaking to them about having gone for other job roles and opportunities in other businesses is that they do feel discriminated against. It’s made quite clear to them from the early onset that they won’t be able to do the job. I can give you an example: I have a young lady that’s just joined us here who has a visual impairment. We interviewed her over Zoom due to COVID. She had had quite a few interviews and hadn’t been successful. Yet within five minutes of meeting her online, I knew she was right for us. I’d had a CV, it was great. She was straight out of college. We’re at the point of closing the interview off and it had been a very positive one to the point where I was about to tell her that we would get an offer letter sent over. But before we finished up she actually told us, “I do have something which I need to talk to you about and it’s caused me issues, and I haven’t got job roles because of this. I do have a visual impairment.” And this sort of stopped me in my tracks because at no point during this interview had I been aware of this, and my response to her was, “Does it impact you? Are you worried about being able to do your job?”
“No, no, no, I’m perfectly capable,” she said.
And so I was like “Well brilliant! Makes no difference to me. Our job is to support is people like you that aren’t getting those opportunities.”
So you see here that a young lady out of college has been quite obviously told “No, this is not the job for you. We do not see you as being capable due to your visual impairment.” So yes, there is discrimination going on. And we do see it on a day to day basis. In my opinion, I think it’s the fear factor. I think it’s the unknown for a lot of companies that are out there. Because they get worried that they’re not going to be able to support the individual. They can’t make the the the adjustments that are needed and they’re worried about getting backed into a corner. This is part of the reason that we are starting our supported internship programme in September for young people coming out of SEN (special educational needs) education. We will give them real-life work experience on the job training, and then towards the end of their 12 months with us, we’re going to be supporting them in , ideally, finding employment in the local area, or going onto further education. But we will work with employers in the area to inform and educate. It may be that they need to put in a grab rail in their bathroom or near the steps go into the building. Or it may be that, due to somebody’s mental health condition, they might need a staged integration into the workplace. So we’re going to work hard getting to know our young interns, but also working hard with employers in the area to take away that fear factor and provide ongoing support afterwards.
CH: Still on the subject of COVID-19. How has Nuneaton Signs reacted to the global pandemic? Has it affected your social value policy?
MY: Has it affected our social value? Yes, in a positive way. We did shut our doors for two weeks in April last year when there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of upheaval. We at one stage didn’t know whether we were allowed to stay open. Due to us making road signs and the safety signs, and the push within construction, we were classed within that key worker sector. We made the choice to reopen our doors very quickly. We spent a week asking, “Can we?” and then a week asking “How do we?” because we needed to make sure our staff were safe every step of the way. So we spent the time making sure that we had safety protocols in place. And then we spent the time speaking to our staff because we wanted to come back on a staged basis. We have a lot of people with mental health conditions and it was important to get these individuals back into their working environment. Some have worked with us for over 30 years, and couldn’t actually grasp the reason why we were suddenly shutting our doors. So not just for a turnover basis but also for the commitment to our staff, we found it incredibly important to open. Which was why we did a staged route only for the fact of we needed to make sure it was financially viable because we’d closed our doors, we had fulfilled all our orders, we weren’t taking any more, we had spoken to our customers every step of the way. So we were opening our doors without an order book which was a frightening place to be.
But actually, we flourished if I’m honest. We actually launched an e-commerce site. We’d never had a customer-facing e-commerce site within that first week of being open. We launched new ranges, we created COVID catalogues for our whole customer base and supported them on the quick turnaround to make them safe and secure. So actually, for us, we proved just how flexible and agile a social enterprise can be. We were a business for good. We wanted to help people, not just our staff, but people in the Big Bad World. We wanted to make sure they had the signs that they needed. We wanted to make sure that companies could open their doors and construction sites could keep working. Because they needed all this. Now we are in a very fortunate position that in the last four weeks alone, we have taken on four new members of staff, which is a fantastic position for us to be in. We’re also about to go out and advertise for a further two members of staff, as well as the supported internship that starts in September. This is purely behind the fact that our customers are supporting us. Our business is growing because of customers wanting to buy their signs from an organisation that’s doing business for more than just money. We’re doing business for the benefit of others.
CH: How do you see the uptake of social value across the UK and perhaps even the rest of the world?
MY: I think from the government PPN notice that came out in January, social value has had a massive push within numerous industries. The construction sector for one is really getting behind this and driving it as they have been on social enterprises for many years. What would I like to see going forward? More industries taking it up. Let’s have your high street retailers, your Big Four supermarkets, all looking at how to do business for good and looking at the social value. You go into the stores now and there are some products on the shelves that I know are from social enterprises that have social value attached. What I would like to see is more quantifiable data and more people measuring exactly what social value means and what difference it’s making in the community. Because it’s all very well saying, “Yes, social value, we’ve ticked that box.” Well, how? What are you doing? And how are you measuring it? And how are you justifying what you’re putting forward? It’s great that people are getting behind the movement and taking it as seriously as they are, but we need to make sure that it’s for the right reasons.
CH: Michelle, it’s been wonderful having you on the podcast today and hearing more about great work Nuneaton Signs so thank you for your time. But before I wrap up, I have one last question to close up on. Why is social value important to you personally?
MY: Wow, what a good question! Social value has always been important to me. Even though I didn’t realise it was “social value” at the time. Prior to working at Nuneaton signs I was working in educating IT and specialising in the education sector. And it was all about enhancing teaching and learning through the use of ICT. Since coming to the Nuneaton Signs I have realised that all I have wanted to do is give something back. From the moment I walked through the doors at Nuneaton Signs I knew I wanted to work here. It wasn’t a case of waiting for the job offer. That was where I was going to work and I was going to work that no matter what happened because I knew I could make a difference. I knew I could take the company and increase the sales, increase the profitability to enable us to reinvest the money. But when you’re in a company that isn’t looking at the money just for the bottom line to line shareholders pockets, for director’s better cars or anything like that it gives you a different sense of purpose getting up in the morning and come into work. You enjoy every single day because you walk through the factory and you see people that came to work for you even a few weeks before that couldn’t make eye contact, that couldn’t hold a conversation. And suddenly they’re waving and saying “Hello, Michelle, good morning! How you doing? How’s the day? What have you got planned?” And you see the the increase in self belief and self confidence and that makes such a difference to your working life. You go home, and you actually think, “You know what? I’ve earned my money. I’ve made a difference.” This is what it’s all about. It’s about genuinely creating opportunities for people and knowing that you’re giving back to society is just such a wonderful feeling and makes you so proud to be part of the organisation.