Shetland social enterprise part of an international success story
Social Enterprise of the Year boss on the success of her company and its ethical model.
It is set in one of the remotest corners of the UK – but social enterprise boss Ingrid Webb sees her firm as part of a movement which can transform the whole globe.
Her company COPE Ltd is truly one of the Scottish business community’s most welcome success stories.
Founded in 1998, the Shetland-based firm sells goods and services to individuals, local authorities and private businesses.
So far, so typical for a business. But it has found success by staying true to its social enterprise purpose – with all profits or surpluses always reinvested back into the company to fulfil its social and environmental goals.
The company makes and distributes soap, garden equipment and runs a catering arm across five bases (including one on Orkney) which offer adults with learning disabilities the chance to gain skills which they can use to advance into employment.
It is truly on the up and up – currently employing 45 workers and providing more than 100 volunteer places.
It achieved recognition last year when it was named Social Enterprise of the Year 2015 at the Highland Business Awards and the Social Enterprise of the Year Scotland 2015 organised by Social Enterprise Scotland.
Webb is now looking forward to another year of success – but says she places her company’s success firmly in an international context.
The social enterprise model, she believes, is one whose time has come. She said: “The Social enterprise community is strong and vibrant across the globe. It is the very best way to help achieve a fairer society and promote social progress worldwide.”
By combining financially sustainable businesses with ethical, social and environmental responsibilities we can work towards creating a fairer society
So in what way is COPE playing its part? Webb believes everything starts from having the right ethos and building from there: “We believe that everyone regardless of their disability, should have the opportunity to work if they so wish. Given the right conditions, all adults have the potential to contribute to our local economy and in doing so will learn to value themselves and others," she says.
“We believe that people with a learning difficulty achieve great things, and that as a team, we support, learn and encourage each other to be better, more ambitious and thoughtful people.
“We operate in a rural environment and are geographically isolated. Shetland is situated 180 miles off the north coast of Scotland and as such has barriers to accessing the larger market for its products.
“We provide services and a number of products which are unique to the local economy and enjoy a strong customer base while promoting a social purpose.”
Thinking locally is one of the keys to success, insists Webb: “We are passionate about working alongside our local community to seek out ways in which our organisation can form relationships with others in bringing products to market whilst assisting them to grow and thrive. We now have good supportive working partnerships with other smaller social enterprises and commercial businesses and can clearly evidence how working together can be beneficial for them, our participants, our staff and the wider community.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. In 2013 it hit trouble when in suffered a 22% hit on grant funding. This entailed a major re-think which laid the basis for its current success.
Webb said: “It was clear that we needed to fully reassess what it was doing to ensure that best value and quality were not being compromised.
“We rose to this challenge in a positive way by making clear decisions. This included re-structuring the staff team, increasing its knowledge regarding pricing and costs, re-branding the company to reflect a more modern and engaging organisation. All these changes were made with the aim of making the organisation more sustainable while never losing sight of its social purpose.
“This was a particularly challenging time but one which was necessary to allow COPE ongoing success into the future. Over the past two years we learned to be innovative and make challenging decisions. We have seen these changes have a positive effect across the whole company with our self-generated income increasing significantly.
Webb and her staff are proud of their ethical model. She said: “We strive to be as self-sustaining as possible. COPE aims to promote a legacy of empowerment for people with disabilities that promotes social inclusion for all while demonstrating that this can happen within an enterprise culture and commercial activity.
“Social enterprises make up an important part of Scotland’s economy. There are now over 5100 Social enterprises across the country all actively working to strengthen their communities. By combining financially sustainable businesses with ethical, social and environmental responsibilities we can work towards creating a fairer society.”