The past, present, and future of one of Britain’s longest running social enterprises
Nuneaton Signs was opened by the Local Authority in 1982 as a sheltered workshop providing meaningful employment for people with disabilities. In this way, Nuneaton have been way ahead of their time, as the importance of supportive employment of this kind has only recently gained widespread attention. Even today, the employment rate for people with disabilities sits at only 50.7%, showing that the work of the Nuneaton Signs team has a continued urgency and value.
Then, as now, the organisation’s entire raison d’etre was to support and upskill differently abled people, and the organisation continues to reinvest its profits in order to expand the number and quality of opportunities for those it supports. This deep authenticity came up when we spoke to them team, who reminded us that when the project began ‘in the ‘80s, no one had uttered the phrase ‘social enterprise’. They also admitted that they only realised that they were a social enterprise following their work with Wates, in 2018!
The unique value of Nuneaton Signs, to the community and to their employees, was tested and reaffirmed during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Given the increased needs of some of their employees and their families, they made the difficult decision to close the shop in April of this year. But within a week, staff members were getting in touch and asking to come back for work. This decision was equally difficult, as the management had to balance the physical wellbeing of the team against the emotional and social support that Nuneaton Signs provides them.
Ultimately, it was decided that the organisation would make it work: despite having no orders on the books, they spent a week making the office and factory safe, and reopened their doors on a phased basis. In order to get business back up and running, they established Nuneaton Signs’ first online shop, and raised awareness amongst new and old customers by designing a new range of signs related to the pandemic. Through this mixture of dedication and innovation, Nuneaton Signs was able to support its staff during a period of increased isolation and strain for differently abled people in the UK.
This instinctively professional and principled approach is reflected in the products, as in the business itself. The team tell us that just as they’re pleased to meet customers who have come to support their social mission, they also love it when existing customers find out about their work as a result of being drawn in for professional reasons:
Some customers are surprised to learn that we’re a social enterprise when they have been trading with us for quality and value for money. They are often delighted to learn there is more to us than that- this also helps to cement the truth that it does make business sense to trade with a social enterprise! - Michelle York, Commercial Director
Indeed, Nuneaton Signs are living proof of the commercial (as well as the social) potential of social enterprises. Last year, they celebrated hitting their long held target of becoming a £3 million a year turnover company. Now, they’re aiming for £5 million, and with their impressive longevity, and the strength and diversity of their customers (the NHS, Fiat, MSF, Wates, to name a few), they look set to succeed and change even more lives.
And the team is already planning how they’ll do this. They want to begin actively increasing their customer base so that they can increase the number of work placements on offer. From there, they want to set up an apprenticeship scheme that specifically supports young people with disabilities. This strong sense of purpose, combined with proven and longstanding commercial viability, marks out Nuneaton Signs as a model for the potential of social enterprise. The company’s unassuming focus on supporting people in their community, whilst also prioritising standards of excellence, has established a social legacy spanning several decades. On top of this, their exemplary response to the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in no doubt that they will continue to lead the social enterprise movement, by example, for decades more to come.
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