Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

John McMullen

The CEO of Bryson Charitable Group is aiming for continued growth in 2013 and expects social enterprises to play an increasingly important role in the economy across the UK and Ireland.

Mention a business with a turnover of close to £35m and a workforce of nearly 700 and you might think we are talking about one of Northern Ireland's elite corporates rather than a social enterprise.

But Bryson Charitable Group is no ordinary social enterprise. It grew turnover by 12% to £34.4m last year and increased employment to over 660 staff across its seven business units.

Though Bryson Recycling is perhaps the most familiar part of the group it focuses on a range of socially important activities, including social care, energy advice, training young people for employment, water sport activities, caring for the elderly and supporting ethnic minorities.

It delivers 25,700 services each day across Northern Ireland and into Donegal, providing direct care to over 4,200 people; half a million homes have benefited from its recycling services; it has increased energy efficiency for 115,000 households and 34% of young people found employment through its programmes. Bryson recently won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development – a first for a Northern Ireland organisation.

"We're using a business model to scale up our social impact. You have to do that profitably to make yourself sustainable. Without a profit you've nothing to reinvest in the work. The difference with a social enterprise like Bryson is the profit never goes anywhere, it goes back into our work," said CEO John McMullan.

Some 94p in every pound spent by the charity is invested into the services it provides and development of those services.

"The modern organisation is still driven, as a charity ought to be, by its objective to address poverty in Northern Ireland. It now just does it a different way," added John.

He puts much of Bryson's recent success down to the organisation's ability to be flexible and adaptable to keep up with the times and deliver social impact efficiently and profitably.

Bryson House has a long history in Northern Ireland, having first been founded in 1906 as a charitable institution, before changing its name to Bryson Group in 2006.

John has been at Bryson for 29 years. He arrived on a training programme after being made redundant from roles at Tyrone Crystal and Michelin, subsequently gaining an MBA part-time at the University of Ulster.

The organisation has similarly invested in a lot of its other employees as their careers have developed, with half of its Executive team first coming to Bryson on programmes to help the long term unemployed.

"It tells you there is a lot of talent out there if you can find a way to support it and unlock it," said John.

"The feedback we get about the commitment of our guys is really really positive. The reality of an organisation of our size is that if it isn't populated with good people it doesn't work."

Bryson has grown its business by being cost competitive and John sees scope for further expansion. The organisation already works in Donegal and is now looking at whether some of its services might work cost effectively in other parts of the UK.

"We are now putting in place a five to seven year growth strategy and we're trying to identify where the opportunities are. The big challenge in that will be funding the investment. We are willing to borrow if we need to or invest from our own resources. In depends on how capital intense the areas are," he said.

The areas in which John expects growth are the ones where there is growing demand for its services – namely in the support of older people to keep them out of residential care, helping tackle youth unemployment and addressing fuel poverty caused by rising energy prices.

"One of our huge problems is youth unemployment – we've got to find programmes for work that enable the people who are not going to go into the high end jobs to experience work, not worklessness. The clever guys and girls will get on, but we can't forget this other group because the social consequences of doing that are frightening," he said.

Where Bryson shines is in thinking smarter about how it delivers services to ensure added social and economic impacts. For example it supplies 35% of its mixed recycling materials directly to Northern Ireland manufacturers to put into their products, indirectly supporting their exports.

The concept of social enterprise is catching on in the UK and EU and John is confident it will grow in Northern Ireland too – in time.

"I think some of our politicians get it but there is a lot of old thinking – that the economy is the interaction between the public and private sectors. There's no CBI for social enterprise but I think that will start to emerge with the new Social Enterprise NI group being formed."

Bryson competes with private sector players in most of its divisions, particularly on contracts for training programmes, energy efficiency and recycling. But while the Social Value Act in Westminster could mean those tendering for certain services will have to demonstrate social impact, that is not the case here.

"We would argue that procurement should measure social impact and give it a score. If it did it would encourage the private sector to think more about it. What you'd get out of that is hybrids of private and social enterprises," said John. "I think you will see new things emerge. Big Society Capital has £600m of investment capital in it. It is charged with creating an investment market for social enterprise and the third sector. And across the UK there are 10 social impact bonds in place. So there will be a move away from substantial grant aid support. The challenge is for Government to create a market for us to do this in."

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