Can a Business Make a Difference?

Like most of us I wish I could do something about the human suffering in the world, terrorism and division, and the injustices I see in society.

So what has that got to do with fitted furniture?

Me fitting the cornice to one of our recent projects.

For the past few years I have resisted a sense of calling to ministry or charity sector work because of an instinct that a well-run business could improve people’s lives in a unique way. There is a certain discipline, accountability and dignity that is necessary to creating a profit-making business while keeping your integrity. These values can then be communicated to employees, customers, and all who the business touches.

Maramuresi church - 1
My drawing of a church in Maramures, Romania, Made entirely of wood.

Right now I believe I am reaching a turning point both personally and in my business. My vision is starting to become a reality and it’s exciting.  I retrained as a joiner 8 years ago, partly for the love of woodworking, but with the long term aim of training others. I had been teaching basic woodworking to impoverished Roma kids in Romania and realised the self esteem and future income a manual skill can provide.

Along the way its been a struggle, and I’ve often doubted my capacity to even earn a fair living for myself, let alone run a proper business to employ or train others. But I was learning and moving forward all the same.

Mo installing one of our first big shelving projects.

Early on we took on a Pakistani lad from the local community, since I met him in the park and discovered he wanted to be a joiner. I trialled him, saw potential, and it turned into a job for him. I think we made a difference in his life for as long as he was able to stay, and I also noticed that our friendship and working relationship broke down some barriers in our majority Pakistani-Muslim community here in Tinsley, Sheffield.

Before Mo had to return to Pakistan, I took on another young lad with potential, Brady, who had been looking for such an opportunity for years, and in the meantime working hard at college even after his course had finished, practicing woodworking with his tutor.

Isaac, 3 weeks after his traumatic birth

Just as things were starting to come together for the business last year we had a family crisis where it looked like everything would fall apart. Our son Isaac was born 12 weeks premature, with a bleed on the brain, almost died more than once, and our world was turned upside down (as they say), through 4 months of intensive care, special care, brain surgeries and general grief, sorrow and fear as we faced a future of disability.

But things didn’t altogether fall apart because of the many wonderful people who supported us, and our staff (it was kind of crazy but we forged ahead with taking on 2 new part time staff members in the middle of that period.)

Then as things were settling down and I needed to get properly back to work I slipped a disc, was in excruciating pain and couldn’t work. But there was a silver living as it forced me to grow into more of a managerial role, and I decided to start some proper training in management.

Brady installing a media unit with our new CAD draughtsman Graeme

Now Brady has won construction apprentice of the year after stepping up to the plate and keeping things going in the workshop through that difficult time, and we have put him on a team leader training course. Next week I am setting on my third apprentice, who is 17 and has has a tough time in recent years.

I have just met with the council’s Learning and Skills representative and he couldn’t seem to contain himself about how great it is that we are training youngsters like this. He said they usually can’t find employers or even colleges who will go anywhere near taking on young people without a good school record.

The thing is, I am not saying this to sing my praises, because I am not running a charity here. I am not out looking for the difficult ones, I am looking for individuals with potential and giving them a break because it will benefit my business as much as it benefits them. I look for character over competence. Teachability and a love for the work are the most important factors.

It makes perfect business sense for me to take on young apprentices because over these past few years I deliberately designed the business to produce high quality high value products that are, however, based on simple teachable methods of construction.

We do a lot of painted shelving work and I have deliberately stuck with hand-painting

The drying racks in our workshop.

rather than setting up a spray booth because, among other reasons, it is a safe starting point to assess the work ethic and attention to detail of new recruits. They do not need to meet any customers until I am confident they will represent the values of the business well.

I get subsidies from apprenticing funds towards wages, which all helps me afford the time to invest in people.

Since the press release about Brady’s award I’ve been asked to be interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield. And the man I met today from the council suggested they might like me to help promote apprenticeships to other businesses, which I would love to do.

Watch this space!

A recent batch of birds, and an old copy of the 4-stage apprenticing sequence I plan to implement for our trainees.

If you like what we are doing, write to me and let me know. If you ask me to, I will even send you one of the birds I make for all our customers. Put it on a shelf and if anyone asks you about it, tell them about what we are doing here at Freebird.

The bird means freedom:

– The freedom of a well-ordered and beautiful living space for our customers
– The freedom of skills, fulfilling employment, and income for our staff.
– The freedom of income and time for me and my family, to enable me to provide for Isaac and my daughter Abigail, whatever future disabilities Isaac may have to contend with.

Isaac and Abigail.

Thanks for reading.

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