Entrepreneur with lofty ideals

Olive Quinton, who is celebrating the first birthday of her loft clearing social enterprise company

Olive Quinton, who is celebrating the first birthday of her loft clearing social enterprise company

Olive Quinton could have stayed working in public health - she’d definitely have been better off - but, she asks, what is life for if it’s not to follow your dreams? Sheena Grant reports

Derrick Duberry and David Olding on a decluttering job in Felixstowe

Derrick Duberry and David Olding on a decluttering job in Felixstowe - Credit: Archant

When she talks about her vision for the future it’s all to do with improving the lives of her staff and her many elderly and vulnerable clients.

David Olding, Shahab Ali and Derrick Duberry, who work of Lofty Heights

David Olding, Shahab Ali and Derrick Duberry, who work of Lofty Heights - Credit: Archant

She’s yet to draw a regular wage from her company and although she admits that can’t go on in the long term she’s not aiming to get rich from Lofty Heights, the loft, home and garden de-cluttering service she founded after leaving a job in public health.

As long as it can provide a living for her and those she employs into the future she will be happy.

Olive couldn’t have come up with a better name for her business. It neatly encapsulates not just what it does but also its ideals and ambitions.

Lofty Heights is a social enterprise company. It exists to help elderly and vulnerable people who may be spending a disproportionate amount of their income on heating because their home is inadequately insulated, while at the same time providing training and jobs for young people, some of whom have never worked before or lack formal qualifications.

The environment wins too because once lofts are cleared, homes decluttered and better insulation put in place, less heating is needed, meaning a cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

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What Olive has achieved so far is, in many ways, remarkable.

Unlike most employers, who would instantly reject prospective staff with little experience or skills, Olive actually sought them out.

Her selection process was long and rigorous and training has been ongoing but she has been rewarded with a team of young staff whose lives have turned around, who are hardworking, personable, trustworthy and courteous.

“I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved,” she says.

It’s a bright, blustery morning in late September when I visit Olive and her team - Shahab, Derrick and David - as they declutter the home and garden of an elderly man in Felixstowe who has been in hospital for months following an accident. Their work will mean he can be discharged, freeing up a hospital bed and allowing him to live independently, in his own home again.

The guys, as Olive calls them, are working hard, cutting back vegetation from the garden path before they move on to tackle the house.

As we chat, it becomes obvious Olive has never been short of ground-breaking ideas, even before the possibility of forming Lofty Heights occurred to her.

While working in public health she set up Suffolk’s first health walk, an initiative that has gone from strength to strength and a decade later has spread out across the county.

“It’s a bit of a legacy, I suppose,” she says.

Her vision for Lofty Heights began to take shape in her mind later, while she was working as a health improvement manager with disadvantaged groups affected by so-called health inequalities.

“There were two pieces of work I got involved in that sowed the seeds for Lofty Heights,” she says. “One was around trying to address fuel poverty and cold homes in Suffolk and how that impacts on physical and mental health. We did a project, trying to raise awareness of loft insulation after we identified there were a lot of vulnerable people missing out on getting insulation because they couldn’t get their lofts emptied.

“We did a pilot scheme to empty 10 lofts. One belonged to a lady who was 93 and we found not only was she entitled to loft insulation but also full central heating and a range of benefits she had never claimed.

“I also did some work with a group of homeless people and learned how they had ended up in that situation through a range of problems such as family break-up, drugs or problems at school. What came across loud and clear from these young people was that the thing that would make the biggest difference to their lives was work.

“But because of their circumstances many of them were not work-ready, not good at getting up in the morning or getting somewhere on time. That’s obviously an issue if you’re an employer.

“There’s lots of talk about youth employment and the fact that jobs exist but sometimes young people haven’t got the right skills to do them. So, I thought, why don’t we, in Suffolk, grow our own, as it were?”

As she pondered those two issues Olive began to see the need for a service that would tackle the problem of cold homes, fuel poverty and poor insulation while also providing much-needed jobs and training for young people who were desperate for a hand into the working world.

She contacted the Eastern Enterprise Hub in Ipswich and enrolled on its social enterprise programme to develop her idea into a business.

“They hook you up with business mentors,” she says. “It wasn’t long before I thought, ‘I am going to leave my job in the NHS and public health. I feel committed to this and I want to give it a go’. Twelve months on we’ve celebrated our first birthday and I am very clear about what I want to do, what I want to achieve and how I want to do it.

“It’s really important to me that we have the right people on board, especially as we’re bringing young people into the homes of vulnerable people so for me, the initial recruitment was quite lengthy, as any further recruitment will be.”

Olive wanted to take on three staff and identified 12 potential recruits through the Job Centre. Otley College agreed to run a four-week tailor-made training programme for all 12, dealing with areas such as health and safety, customer service and equality.

“It was easy finding people to fill those places on the training programme but I had to find the right people,” she says. “I didn’t want to be another one of those people who raises expectations and gives false promises.

“Some people told me I would be lucky if three of the 12 stayed for the full duration of the course but I told the trainees that whoever did complete it would be guaranteed an interview for two weeks’ work experience and from that I would choose my team. I interviewed 10 of the original 12. Of the two that dropped out before the end of the course one went to be a games maker at the Olympics and the other was severely dyslexic.”

Olive kept a close eye on the trainees during the course so she could get a feel for who was applying themselves to the work and might have the most potential as a trustworthy employee. In the end, she recruited four people, rather than the three she originally planned to take on. And those who weren’t successful had had the benefit of the training course when it came to seeking employment elsewhere.

“Some of the trainees were from the homeless project, some had never worked or were sofa-surfing (without a permanent home) and others had not done very well at school or had been long-term unemployed,” she says. “They were all aged between 18 and 25.

“I want to have a social impact as opposed to making lots of money. I obviously have to make money to pay wages but I myself do not take a wage at the moment. For nine months I personally did not earn a shilling.”

A successful grant application has made the finances a little easier for Olive since then but she admits that without a husband who was in work and able to support her, she would have found it difficult to pursue her passion.

“My husband has been very good to me,” she says. “He knew this was something I wanted to do and has supported me so I can do it. Our household income has dropped drastically but you’ve got to follow your dream. Whatever happens the guys will be paid. That is my priority. They get the minimum wage at the moment and are employed for 16 hours a week but I would love to get to the stage where I am able to pay them more.

“A year on the guys are good to go. It’s been a challenging and interesting year. We have taken a bunch of people who had never worked, may have had very few boundaries at home, poor experiences at school and not much discipline and knocked those rough edges off them.

“I’ve had to be hard on them at times, telling them that if they didn’t turn up on time I would go without them and they wouldn’t be paid, and giving them boundaries they have probably never had but they have needed to know I am not their mother or support worker. This is a business.

“Lofty Heights is about taking people who want to work but are not quite ready through these first stages and making them work-ready, with communication and customer-service skills, who can turn up on time and be part of a team.”

The training doesn’t end with work skills. Lofty Heights paid for one employee to do his driving theory test and the recruits have even done food and nutrition courses to help improve some of their eating habits. Also, says Olive, they regularly chat about issues such as drugs, alcohol and parenting.

“Employers have to take the health of their workforce seriously,” she adds.

All this attention to detail not only benefits the staff but her business as well.

Lofty Heights aims to offer a whole range of decluttering services from emptying lofts and spare rooms full of possessions to garden and outbuilding clearing.

“We do the jobs that are difficult, dirty and time consuming,” says Olive. “Once the area has been cleared we arrange all the contents so the householder can sort through them easily. Then we help find the best way to re-store possessions or pass on items that are no longer wanted. Many schemes are available to install loft insulation free of charge or at subsidised prices but most companies will only install insulation when the loft is empty.”

As well as elderly or vulnerable people whose lofts need clearing for insulation purposes and those whose homes need decluttering for other reasons, clients have included people who have hoarded so many possessions their homes are almost unuseable.

“We had one that took five days solid to work through,” says Olive. “Issues around this sort of thing can include debt, domestic violence and psychological or emotional attachment to things. It’s a massive subject. Often we can set aside the time to do it and then the person might not let us in when we turn up because they’ve had a change of heart.

“We are not a charity. We are a business but we are a social enterprise. If we ever make a profit it will go back into furthering the aims of Lofty Heights, creating employment and training opportunities to create warmer homes. I am working a 60-hour week and in time to come I hope to be in a position to take a wage but it won’t be more than I am able to pay the guys.

“I have no regrets. I’m exhausted but I absolutely love what I’m doing and it would be nice to think that by the end of this week there will be someone who can finally get home after months in hospital, because of the work we’ve done here. That’s job satisfaction.”

? Modern loft insulation is reckoned to save between £160 to £220 on heating bills each year.

Through the provision of grants, Lofty Heights can offer reduced clearing prices to some householders, including 50 family carers.

? To find out more about Lofty Heights visit www.lofty-heights.org, telephone 07745 215114 or email olive@lofty-heights.org