Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.
My introduction to Recover in Welwyn Garden City (in Hertfordshire) was through a social entrepreneur and friend – Hugo van Kempen. Hugo is big on the environment, creativity and entrepreneurship and I respect his opinion so, when he said I should meet Ian Block, Recover’s manager, I was off to see him the following week.
I think Hugo was impressed by Ian’s vision and ambition. He (Ian) had taken on the refurbishment of a warehouse that he (Hugo) had earlier looked at and decided was too big a job for him to get it into a useful state.
A year and a day after Ian had moved into that dilapidated warehouse, I visited him in bright and warm surroundings – a transformation. And before I’d even got to the office at the back of the warehouse, I’d bought an office chair. Ian has a background in furniture sales and he had me well and truly hooked with no (obvious) sales pitch!
Like the two other Hertfordshire social enterprises in the CRI family, Recover offer training to volunteers who have difficulty getting into employment. Overcoming addictions, explains Ian, takes time – to build self-esteem and self-confidence – and Recover provides volunteers with breathing space through care and creativity.
With a view to life and employment beyond Recover’s supportive environment, training includes technical skills in high-class wood finishing and upholstery, alongside so-called ‘softer skills’ – team work, delegation, teaching others, management, as well as broader life skills.
The return on that investment is the creation of items of furniture for sale that can only be described as works of art.
The enterprise end of the venture is, says Ian “Helping the volunteers develop their creativity. We work with them to up-cycle and refurbish stuff destined for landfill. They turn donated items into interesting, one-of-a-kind, pieces – leaving evidence of the hand-craft involved. We’re not competing with high street, factory-finished, mass-produced, products from China. For our volunteers there’s no greater confidence-builder than seeing something they’ve created being bought by someone for a good price.”
This is truly adding value but how, I wonder, does Ian arrive at a ‘good price’ for their unique items of furniture – is pricing an art or a science?
“I’ve got a background in antiques and furniture sales. I’m in tune with the markets and, although each item is unique, the internet is a good way to make comparisons. Price also depends on your brand, location and the clients you’re selling to. Even though charity shop prices have crept up, we’re not competing with them or other furniture reuse schemes. We’d like to become a recognised brand which would probably double the prices we can get. For now, we’re pricing above charity shops, at about 50% of what we could sell in a shop in Islington or Greenwich.”
What’s Ian’s view of telling the story behind their products?
“ The story is important – were supporting people and helping them to move on. Most customers are buying into what we’re doing. They get an original, quality item, crafted with volunteer input and we like to put names on items – ‘another product by…’ Some volunteers don’t want this, and we respect that, but the majority are happy to be identified.”
The future is looking bright for the Recover team. The first year has been about getting the premises useable and volunteers learning how to produce quality furniture. The year ahead is about selling. As well as online sales, there’s a first delivery of a few items to a shop in north London.
Always the entrepreneur but sensitive to the needs of his volunteers, Ian explains his strategy. “We’re looking at several outlets in different parts of London. We’ll be able to test different products at different prices to see what works. The volunteers are not yet ready to set up and manage a retail outlet, so we’re testing the water at no additional cost to ourselves.”
See Recover’s hand-crafted, refurbished and upcycled furniture at www.recoverteam.co.uk
For more on the three CRI Hertfordshire social enterprises, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/quality-matters