Realise Futures delivers work with a social benefit

From left, Jane Sutton, Jane Goodchild, Paul Pepper, Lee Caraccio, Sarah Sharlott of Realise Future

From left, Jane Sutton, Jane Goodchild, Paul Pepper, Lee Caraccio, Sarah Sharlott of Realise Futures. - Credit: Archant

The Ipswich-based fulfilment business run by Realise Futures is an inspiring example of how enterprise can be used to deliver social benefits. Ross Bentley went along to hear more about the philosophy of the company and how it is helping to change lives.

It’s all go the day I visit the fulfilment site of Realise Futures on the Whitehouse Industrial Estate in Ipswich.

Workers are busily placing stickers on make-up products and packaging them neatly for transport. There’s an upbeat and friendly atmosphere while people get on with the job in hand.

But this in no ordinary workplace. Realise Futures is a community interest company where around half of the 80 employees are classed as either vulnerable or as having a disability. And while the firm provides a professional fulfilment service for numerous local businesses, as well as a sign writing service, any profit that is made from these ventures is ploughed back into the company to pay for equipment and training.

According to chief executive, Sarah Sharlott, the company has developed from its origins as a sheltered factory for disabled people run by the local authority around 30 years ago to the thriving and business-focussed company it is today. Managers from production and engineering backgrounds have been recruited to improve processes, so the firm has been able to secure high-quality customers and ensure it can compete with the best in industry.

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“We are wedded to the principles of social and enterprise – there has to be enterprise in order to deliver our social aims,” says Sarah.

“We are a business first and foremost – we have all the quality accreditations and are competitive price-wise. We have never wanted to trade on the notion of ‘Ah Bless.’ We want to show people that we you can have a social impact and still be a successful business.

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She continues: “That’s the big thing for us - proving that this model is one that works and can be replicated. The combination of a good business together with disabled and disadvantaged staff that make a difference to our bottom line. In fact, we consider that we have a double bottom line – not only are we making a contribution to the economy, we are also contribute to the well-being of a lot of people.”

Key to Realise Future’s model is an emphasis on training and development. The company receives government-funding to deliver literacy, numeracy and lifestyle training to some of the more vulnerable staff while others are offered NVQs and vocational development. Some employees use their time at the company as a springboard into the wider world of work, while others stay there for many years and in some cases progress within the firm.

Employees at the site are drawn from Ipswich and the surrounding area and are made up of people who are disabled, long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, as well people coming out of the military services. The company also has a close relationship with Chavasse House, the Army’s recovery centre in Colchester, and takes on wounded and injured servicemen as part of their rehabilitation.

I hear inspiring stories: one about a triple amputee who learnt about computer-aided design during his time with Realise Futures and has now gone back to college to train to be an architect. Another serviceman, who had sustained profound head injuries and struggled to retain information got involved in the sign writing side of the business and discovered he was good at art. He has since left to set up his own website for design and drawing. Other employees include a veteran stonemason who can’t do any more heavy lifting because he has damaged his back.

I meet a charming man called Lee Caraccio, who is fulfilment manager at the factory and I put it to him that managing all these people with different and often complex needs is a tough job. If it is, Lee underplays it.

“It’s the same here, as at any company – we treat people as individuals,” he says. “The last engineering firm I worked at there were 700 people. No-one had a badge that said ‘disabled’ or ‘disadvantaged’ but they were all different. That’s what makes life interesting.”

Lee says to fit around all the numerous capabilities and requirements of employees, jobs roles are carved up and a whole array of shift patterns offered.

“We go beyond what most employers do and work around the needs of employees,” he says. “A lot of people have a learning disability and we build them up to 3½ hours a day. That is the number of hours they are permitted that won’t interfere with their benefits. It might not sound like much but those 3½ hours paid work can have a huge impact on their self-esteem and their relationship with their families. It may only be £20 -30 but they feel they are contributing back into the family.”

According to Sarah, despite the fact that many employees have long-term physical conditions and mental issues, sickness and absenteeism levels are surprisingly low at Realise Futures.

“For many of our employees, the work gives them a purpose and a reason to get out of bed in the morning, so they make an extra effort to come in,” she adds.

“We even have some who won’t take their statutory holidays and we have to tell them to. Some of our people really don’t look forward to the weekend - one worker always says: ‘Oh it’s the weekend, roll on Monday.’ It’s a different way round to most firms- at work our employees find a social life.side.”niceenvironment, which they miss when they are not here.”

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