The Journey To Becoming A Social Enterprise

For many companies, the challenge of becoming a social enterprise would be a distant dream and something of a long-term strategy – no matter how passionate they may be about it. It comes as a surprise to many when I say I am CEO of the oldest security company in the world, and that we have social enterprise status. In fact, we believe we are the only security company currently approved as a social enterprise in the UK.

The questions I am often asked are how difficult was the process? What does it mean for the business? Was it worth it? 

The surging significance of ESG

The growing emphasis on environment, social and governance (ESG) has seen a mindset shift for all of us in business. Having spent years focussing on the policies that are right for our businesses, and our position in the supply chain, it is now that ESG is beginning to open doors to more and new opportunities for our businesses. Moreover, we are also beginning to see successful companies losing opportunities to competitive firms because they are unable to prove their standpoint on issues that matter to a purchasing organisation. 

As a company, we had always been aware of the importance of ESG, but our biggest learning was not what ESG stood for, or what policies would prove our credentials. In fact, it was cultural. For ESG to offer success for businesses, every stakeholder must fully engage with what you are trying to achieve. A one-team approach, a culture of improvement, commitment and engagement that runs through the beating heart of the organisation.

ESG is not a set of policies, it is a commitment, a pledge, and a foundation for a better and brighter future.

Corps’ founding mission of supporting ex-servicemen returning from the war in Crimea was the starting block but also became the foundation for our business as it is today and was the light that led us on the journey to social enterprise status.

Our history and journey of discovery

Corps of Commissionaires, known more commonly as Corps Security, was founded in 1859 by Captain Sir Edward Walter with a primary mission, to provide gainful employment to ex-service personnel returning from the Crimean War. A mission as relevant today as it was then when we consider recent conflicts and the current situation in Ukraine. Veterans, returning from active service, will often suffer physical and psychological impacts that many of us would find difficult to understand. Corps was founded to offer employment, in a sector of business not unfamiliar to their training, to offer those that served our country a lifeline, a focus, and a sense of purpose. The company follows this same philosophy over 160 years later.

However, I cannot take personal responsibility for identifying our qualification as a social enterprise. It was a long-standing and trusted client – who has a strong engagement with ESG across the supply chain – who proposed that our company philosophy, goals, and achievements across the business would qualify us for social enterprise status. It was at this juncture that our journey began.

How we achieved social enterprise status

Like any other CEO, from any organisation, I must admit that I hadn’t really considered whether we qualified, or truly understood the requirements to become a social enterprise. When your entire organisation lives and breathes the values and visions of your business, it can take someone outside of it to open your mind to the possibilities. 

Following the intervention from our client, the team and I began to explore the possibilities and educate ourselves on the requirements for social enterprise status. Social enterprises are businesses that:

  • Have a clear social or environmental mission that is set out in its governing documents
  • Are independent businesses and earn more than half of their income through trading (or are working towards that)
  • Are controlled or owned in the interests of the social mission
  • Reinvest or give away at least half of their profits or surpluses for their social purpose
  • Are transparent about how they operate and the impact that they have

Admittedly, we were in an incredible position compared to many businesses with over 3,000 employees. A typical social enterprise, as you would possibly envisage, tends to be a small coffee shop, food production company or charity. For Corps, our founder had a vision all those years ago that many would say suits the social change we have seen in this country in recent years. This includes, but not exclusively:

  • A dedicated social mission: Our absolute focus is to support veterans and this remains the driving mission of our business today.
  • Trust status: Our business operates as a trust. We do not have shareholders and thus no dividend payments.
  • Profit re-investment: As a business, we reinvest any profits into business development with the remaining funds benefiting charity projects including our commitment to combat stress.  

Benefits to the business

With the ongoing development of ESG strategies within business, we are all aware that suppliers are being scrutinised more than ever. Having social enterprise status has afforded our clients enhanced ESG credentials, we have a proven commitment to Diverse Supplier Spend, and we are a charitable organisation with our ingrained social mission making Corps a more attractive investment in bid and tender situations.

Social enterprise status provides business opportunities in our sector. We are unique in our offering, and for many other security companies, the time, and requirements of achieving social enterprise status would take much longer to achieve, leaving us with an opportunity to enter and secure more bids than our competitors in the market. 

Employee engagement

The benefits of social enterprise status offer more than just business advantages. Our retention of employees, many with decades of service to us, is influenced heavily by the social mission on which we were founded. The team lives and breathes our vision and values, which are much more visible and clearer than in many businesses.

By reinvesting our profits, we are in a constant state of development of the business, but moreover, we can invest more in our team. We are proud to have most of our workforce, and growing, on the Living Wage – with the full support of our clients.  

Should your business consider social enterprise status?

As aforementioned, for Corps, the process was much faster than a typical business would experience. However, we firmly believe that the benefits of achieving the status would outweigh any effort afforded to achieve it.

It is worth educating yourself on the process and requirements of a social enterprise. Consider your business structure and shareholders’ reaction. To provide a snapshot of how your business will need to adapt, these are a few of the required caveats:

  • The business must provide gainful employment to an underrepresented group in society
  • The business must reinvest its profits, and give away any remainder to charity
  • The business will need to pass a “Special Resolution” with 75% of shareholders in agreement
  • The business will need to have a definitive and robust ESG strategy

Moreover, the business will need its own social mission. Whilst Corps focuses on veterans, other minority sectors of society, such as those with physical or mental disabilities, need additional representation across the business sector. A social mission is more than a statement on paper, it must be something that you believe in, your employees will engage with and have a positive influence on your relationship with customers or clients.

We broke the mould

Corps is proof that any business, of any size or income, can become a socially ethical business. Your business may never be in a position to achieve the status, but the guidance and support provided by Social Enterprise UK can, at a minimum, help you to mould your business into one of which you can be proud. Sometimes, the smallest of steps will make the largest difference to those in society.

About the author: Mike Bullock is the CEO of Corps Security.

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