Acumen, a registered charity and group of social enterprises based in Peterlee, was established in May 2003 by local entrepreneur Kate Welch with the aim of effecting change within communities to help local people find employment. In its seven years of operation Acumen has grown quickly expanding its reach across the whole of the North East, and this year will generate a massive £3.2 million turnover.
During its start-up phase, Kate initially ran Acumen as a volunteer and the enterprise quickly found success turning over an impressive £400,000 in its first year of business. Annual grant investments of £250,000 from the Northern Rock Foundation from 2005 to 2007 allowed Acumen to grow to its current level, employing 60 and a volunteer force of 25 who run the core charity and its four trading social enterprises, each of which work to achieve Acumen’s main aim of increasing employability and entrepreneurship in local communities.
Delivery of contracts for welfare to work services generates the majority of Acumen’s income, contributing £2.5 million to the organisations 2010 turnover. The approach of operating as a recruitment agency engages individuals who may not normally engage with a typical recruitment service, offers literacy, numeracy and employability skills with the aim of putting people on the path to employment. Acumen has to date helped thousands of individuals find employment.
Acumen has also achieved commercial success with social enterprise Horticultural Acumen, a bedding plant business that operates from a 10 acre site in Hartlepool and offers individuals disadvantaged in the labour market training and employment opportunities in the field of horticulture. The enterprise was recently awarded a £80,000 loan from The Social Enterprise Loan Fund which has enabled it to employ 11 staff and achieve a turnover of over £200,000 in its first year of trading.
Acumen has spun out two social enterprises, The Green Leaf Café and IT Acumen – both companies limited by guarantee. The Green Leaf Café located in Horden offers employment for local people, acts as a meeting hub for the local community serving up healthy, wholesome and affordable food and provides a meal delivery service for elderly residents in the area. IT Acumen provides a comprehensive and cost effective IT support service for community organisations, start-ups and local businesses. Acumen is currently in the process of developing a fifth social enterprise from its Easington Youthbuild Project – a scheme with dual benefit, providing both supported housing for young homeless people and construction skills training for young people who renovate the properties the scheme houses people in.
Acumen’s hard work to effect positive change in local communities and its success as a business over the past seven years has achieved recognition both regionally and nationally. In 2006, Acumen was awarded the Enterprising North East England title. 2008 saw Kate receive both the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year title and an OBE for services to Social Enterprise in the North East. An award that Kate is particularly proud of is Acumen’s 2007 BT Essence of the Entrepreneur title; “I consider this award a particular achievement for Acumen. The awards do not focus specifically on female entrepreneurship or social enterprise, and recognised Acumen purely as a business.” Acumen was recently awarded the Social Enterprise Mark – and is one of just six social enterprises in the North East region to demonstrate they adhere to the Marks’ specific criteria. Acumen is also currently one of three finalists for the Director of Social Change awards with voting taking place now.
Yet despite Acumen’s clear success the organisation has met with adversity in the past. Acumen has had to cope with downsizing and was forced to make inevitable redundancies brought about in part by massive changes in the Department of Work and Pensions’ commissioning processes – a similar situation to that being faced by many social enterprises and third sector organisations today. Acumen’s ‘payment by results’ contracts have also posed a problem for the organisation’s cash flow. Though these past challenges may have actually been something of a blessing in disguise considering the current economic climate, as Kate says, “It is always hard facing up to change, though with Acumen’s past experiences I am confident that we are better prepared, more resilient and able to weather the challenges facing our sector.”
With regards to Acumen’s future plans, the organisation is currently in the process of moving its trading enterprises into Community Interest Company structures, which will allow Acumen to explore equity investment as means of financing its enterprises. Acumen intends to develop Horticultural Acumen further by investing in improving the training facilities and production and developing a more focused marketing plan to expand its commercial success. Acumen will also concentrate on helping the voluntary and community sector at large by focusing upon its role as host body for Contracts Matter, the skills and employability contracts supply chain that enables VCS organisations to work collaboratively to bid for, win and deliver contracts.
While the current changes in government commissioning and the likelihood that large, private sector companies may win contracts does indeed pose a challenge for Acumen, the organisation intends to take advantage of this situation by aiming to become a ‘super sub-contractor’ in Welfare to Work contracts, and also seeks to explore replication through licensing as a means of generating further income in the challenging times to come. Broadly, Acumen aims to increase its reach and essentially grow each part of the organisation, as Kate says, “We will bring our expertise together to ensure that each individual part of Acumen works better over the coming years. No matter what challenges we face, we will always keep our eye on the ‘big goal’, on what Acumen is really trying to achieve.”
Kate Welch on 0191 587 8000