Thursday, 29 May 2014

IFLAS public lecture: Making a success of social enterprise

Dave Bowden speaking at IFLAS

Dave Bowden is a selfish man.

He runs a social enterprise company, Cumbria Recycling, which prevents thousands of electrical goods from going into landfill each year.

Many of these items are resold at affordable prices in the local community. Dave has provided employment and support for people who had previously been unable to find work.

And when they’re having financial problems Dave has been known to help them out from his own pocket.

But he does it all for selfish reasons; he finds running a social enterprise good fun, and he says it makes him feel good.

Speaking as part of the IFLAS open lecture series to an audience of members of the local business community and Leadership and Sustainability MBA students from the University of Cumbria and Robert Kennedy College, Dave explained how he became involved with the company, and how it changed his perceptions of social enterprise.

Dave's first career was in the newspaper business - starting out as a distribution driver, he worked his way up to become a managing director within the Carlisle-based CN Group.

He retired six years ago, took a week off, and then started his new role as MD of Cumbria Recycling.

He said: “When I heard that Cumbria Recycling was a social enterprise, my heart sank. I had rather a dim view of what social enterprise was.

“I thought they soaked up grant funding, and had good objectives but weren’t sustainable once the funding had run out. I was very wrong.

“In the first few days there was nothing to change my perceptions. I thought the company faced a genuine struggle to survive and that I would be there for six weeks. But having written a business plan, I was happy to stay on. I fancied the challenge.”

Dave brought all of his business experience to bear in his approach to running Cumbria Recycling. The company was started with a £50,000 loan (since repaid) and now makes a healthy profit, with income streams including a major council contract, supported by manufacturer funding for collection and processing of electrical equipment and a local retail operation.

He said: “Doing good within the community is fine but it’s only sustainable if there’s a strong commercial model. It’s no different to any other successful business."

Cumbria Recycling holds the contract to collect discarded electrical goods from Cumbria County Council’s recycling sites.

Old-style cathode ray tube TVs are tested, repaired and then exported through approved companies overseas for resale. Cumbria Recycling works with carefully-chosen partners to ensure that they are sold for reuse and not simply to be stripped of their re-sellable materials.

Washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, laptop computers, flat screen TVs and other items are tested and repaired before being resold in the company’s own retail outlet in Workington.

Sales staff have discretion to negotiate prices with customers and the company even offers a mobile repair service.

The job has opened Dave's eyes to the extent of our throw-away culture. An astonishing number of electrical items recovered by Cumbria Recycling are in perfect working order - thrown away because the owner decided it was time for an upgrade. Others end up on the scrapheap when only minor repairs are needed. On one occasion the company received a 'broken' £800 washing machine that was repaired with a part costing £4.

Items that are beyond repair are sold to other specialist recyclers who recover the precious metals, steel and plastic for reuse.

The end result is the total elimination of electrical goods going to landfill and a steady supply of affordable, safe second hand goods on the resale market.

Staff at the company – many of whom Dave has helped to overcome problems in their personal lives – all receive 25 per cent of the profits on top of their salaries.

Dave said: “People like me who have retired should come into a business like this.

“I’m proud to be called a social entrepreneur, something I would never have dreamed of. Six weeks has turned into six years and I don’t know if I’m ever going to leave, because I’m having so much fun.”

Helping the planet; supporting the community; promoting sustainability: the world needs more people as selfish as Dave Bowden.
  • To find out more about courses offered by IFLAS, including the new Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Leadership, visit

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