If you’ve ever ordered from Great Green Systems your product will have been packed and distributed by staff from Enabled Works, the not-for-profit social enterprise that fulfils our orders.
Enabled Works was founded in 2012 when staff at Remploy factories in Leeds and Pontefract, West Yorkshire, learned the Government was closing the nationwide programme of more than 90 factories. Remploy had been founded in 1945 to provide work for disabled ex-soldiers following the Second World War. The definition of disabilities was later widened to include various health conditions.
Staff were devastated at news of the closure because they wanted to carry on working, so a group of them got together to see if there was a way they could continue by starting their own business, rising from the ashes of Remploy.
The Managing Director of Enabled Works, Tina Brown, was the Factory Manager at the Leeds Remploy factory. She and 12 other staff members decided to put £5,000 of their redundancy money into a start-up pot to fund their own co-operative, owned and run by its own disabled workforce. A local warehouse owner heard they were looking for premises and said he would help out with whatever the group could afford.
‘We asked customers if they would be willing to continue to give us work and it snowballed from there,’ says Tina. ‘We found we were getting more and more work by word of mouth as people recommended us. That’s the best method and something we’re really proud of. You’re only as good as the last job you succeeded in.’
Tina, front right, with other members of the start-up team and Ed Balls, their MP at the time, who helped them to secure some funding.
But the early days weren’t easy. ‘We struggled at first and didn’t know if we would be able to continue for more than a year, not because of lack of work but just managing to balance cashflow.’
The staff of the fledgeling enterprise started out on minimum wage, working more hours than they paid themselves for.
‘Everybody we contacted for help was really supportive. People helped us with things like paying us early to help us until we got going,’ says Tina.
Those days now seem a long time ago. The company’s large factory and storage workspace on the outskirts of Leeds is a busy hive of activity covering many different operations, including contract packing, mailings, distribution, order fulfilment, pallet storage and electrical assembly work. A diverse variety of customers range from major companies, such as Haribo, to smaller concerns such as packing duck food for Roundhay Park in Leeds.
The enterprise also makes hand-spun urns and vases for funeral directors, as well as distributing books for the adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys and the Adventurous Ink book club.
It’s obvious that staff take great pride in their work; Tina says they love to look out for products they have worked on.
The working premises also include offices where training and advice sessions can be offered to help staff to expand work and life opportunities. These offices are also home to the Great Green Systems team, as well as Digital Energy, the web development and design agency who manage our website.
Students from local schools and colleges volunteer with Enabled Works for work experience and might be offered work once they leave education, helping them to get a foot on the work ladder.
When Remploy was closing, Tina spent a lot of time helping staff with interviews and consultations to help them cope with the next stage of their lives. The fact that she went above and beyond her role was recognised by a Director she worked with who nominated her for an MBE, which she was awarded in 2013 for services to disabled people.
‘Just being nominated was enough for me,’ says Tina. ‘I thought that was as far as it would go. I could not believe it when I learned I’d been awarded an MBE. I was just doing what I could to help. I can’t see people struggle, it just breaks my heart.’
She received her award at Buckingham Palace from Prince William at his first awards ceremony, along with Andy Murray and Aled Jones.
Tina swapped the warehouse for Buckingham Palace when she received her MBE.
Tina wears her pin-on medal for formal occasions and might add the impressive initials behind her name on a letter or email ‘if I think I need a bit of extra clout! ‘
The positive attitude of the Enabled Works team is obvious as soon as you walk on site. A poster in the entrance says: It’s amazing what can be achieved when no one cares who gets the credit.
The website also states: Each of us has an important part to play and we are reliant on each other. Great Green Systems can vouch for the customer-centric culture; everyone goes out of their way to help. As one member of staff said to us, ‘You’re our customers; we want to look after you.’ There is no attitude here of ‘That’s not my job’; everyone pitches in.
This ethos was vital during the pandemic when the team encountered more challenges than most companies because some of the staff were particularly vulnerable.
Tina recalls that with fewer staff at work and of course, lest we forget, the social distancing measures that were in place, life was challenging. This coincided with a particularly busy time for Great Green Systems as people working from home decided to get into composting and orders went through the roof.
‘It was a case of all hands on deck; we were all flying around packing up Green Johannas!’
A memory that stands out for me of how people were affected by that time was a customer who complained at Easter 2020 that her Green Johanna had not been delivered. When we looked into the complaint, we saw that the customer had ordered on Good Friday and was making her complaint on Easter Monday. When we pointed out to her that there had not been a full working day since her order, she was horrified and very apologetic, saying she hadn’t been aware how little time had passed. Those three days had obviously seemed much longer to her as she waited isolated at home and, since every day had become the same, she literally wasn’t aware what day it was.
The Enabled Works team help people who are dealing with a wide range of challenges and often get referrals from employment agencies. When it comes to health, most people these days are aware that many conditions are not obvious, such as mental health issues. A person facing such challenges and feeling fragile may struggle to return to the normal working world, which can seem too pressurised and unsupportive. The Enabled staff know exactly how to help in such circumstances.
Coming back from rock bottom
‘We let people look around and choose what they feel comfortable with and what they would like to have a go at,’ says Tina. ‘It could be working as part of a team or on their own. It could be office work or in packing. They’re given the chance to see if they like it. Some people have hit rock bottom and tried several times to get back into work, or their lives might have taken a wrong turn and they need a bit of support to get back on the right path. Its more than just a job to us, we like to help people to develop. ‘
Anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health, or knows someone who has, knows that a supportive environment is essential to someone whose life has capsized.
Talking to Tina made me feel this is exactly what would have helped me some years ago when anxiety attacks derailed my life. Difficult periods come to every single one of us at some time or another, and when they do you need the kind of support that Tina describes.
A recent report showed that mental health problems are the most common condition among people who are unable to work. As well as the individuals themselves, the economy is suffering as a result too. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way. For some of those people a route back to normal life lies in the supportive environment found at Enabled Works.
The Government could do worse than to listen to the Enabled team, who know from years of experience the kind of support that people might need to get them back on their feet.
As their staff and customers will agree, Enabled Works stand for a lot more than work.