Case Study: From business to social enterprise - with a little help from a housing association

Thorpete started life as a small, family-run business offering gas maintenance services to local communities in the East Midlands. Founded by Pete Thorp, a former British Gas engineer who was made redundant in the mid 1990s, the company was never conceived as a social enterprise.

The Process

Within six months of its founding, Thorpete was bought by the Trees group, one of the largest social enterprise groups in the region, who converted it into a social enterprise.

The approach from Trees (which stands for ‘Training, Regeneration, Education, Employment, Sustainability Services’) came at an opportune moment since Thorpete was in need of more business expertise. Following the takeover it grew quickly, thanks in part to favourable market conditions.

“Thorpete was formed when legislation was changing. Suddenly people had to have annual gas checks”, explains Trees chief executive John Montague, referring to a 1999 law which meant landlords had to ensure gas equipment was inspected every twelve months.

Trees capitalised on Pete Thorpe’s contacts with the Leicester Housing Association, developed during his time working for British Gas, to sign the association up as Thorpete’s first large-scale client.
“How did we get that housing contract?” asks Montague. “Well, the then chief executive of Leicester Housing Association had balls and he took a risk. He believed in the concept and believed social enterprise could work. He said: ‘you’re a one man band, you’ve no money, go ahead and do it’.”

Securing a contract with a housing association was a smart move for Thorpete, providing it with instant access to over four thousand homes. The housing association was also able to champion its investment in the community through its involvement with Thorpete. The company provided jobs for mature engineers made redundant by British Gas, invested in traineeships for local youngsters and boosted business for local suppliers of gas maintenance equipment.

“The benefit for the housing association was a very competitive price, high quality of service and that they were supporting the organisation in a true sense,” says Montague. “Housing associations are not just about bricks and mortar. It’s about people as well.”

Results

Since winning its first contract with Leicester Housing Association, Thorpete has become the primary supplier of gas maintenance services to 15 social landlords across the East Midlands, serving more than 11,000 homes. Its turnover, which stood at £300,000 in the mid-90s, has grown to £1.6m. “Our sales are extremely competitive across the board,” says Montague.

He says the key to Thorpete’s success has been its focus on delivering a good service, rather than relying on its social credentials to win it business. “You have to understand that clients will still measure you on time, quality and cost,” he says. “The social enterprise hat is a nice hat to have but the business has to come first.”

He also says it is important to keep moving with the times.

“We realised two years ago that the market was changing and the one thing we’d fallen behind on was information technology,” says Montague. He now wants to introduce a digital ‘pen and paper’ system for the company’s mobile gas servicing units.

“You can’t stand still,” he says. “If you’re not up there with the pack you ain’t gonna survive and if you don’t get the enterprising part right, you’re dead.”

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