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Holbrook at the helm

26 January 2010
Peter Holbrook

Life on the good ship SEC with Holbrook

The Social Enterprise Coalition has a new boss with a unique way of doing business and ambitious plans. Tim West talks to Peter Holbrook about treasure hunts, tattoos and turbulence

You don't normally get an invitation to a treasure hunt from your boss. Unless they are the captain of a pirate ship, of course.

But then, Peter Holbrook, new CEO of the good ship Social Enterprise Coalition, is not your normal kind of boss.

On his first day at the helm in January, he gave his new crew a set of clues to locations around London. At each spot, surprise guests from Sunlight Development Trust, his previous command, were waiting to spill the beans on his past.

'I thought it would be really nice to have a relationship between the teams,' says Holbrook. 'We also did some strategic thinking at the CAN Mezzanine and then went ice skating at Somerset House.'

The Sunlight staff's unconventional leaving present to Holbrook is also telling: a tattoo with the Latin words, 'Non nobis solum nati sumus,' by the Roman philosopher Cicero, meaning 'We are not born for ourselves alone.'

In the ten days of his captaincy, Holbrook has also joined staff in a snowball fight and had so many meetings he reckons he has spent only three hours behind his desk. Everybody wants a piece of the new boy. He claims to have taken 50 phone calls from people offering advice, 'most of which contradicted each other'.

The look in his eyes indicates he is pleased to have so many enthusiastic offers of help - but is perfectly confident in finding his own path, thanks all the same.

It is a turbulent time to take the reins at the Coalition. Economic instability, political uncertainty and spending cuts threaten. Does he have the skills and experience to navigate the storm?

Holbrook was brought up in Mitcham, south London. After school he worked on the checkouts at M&S, then as a supervisor. He turned down management training as 'it wasn't what I wanted to do in my life', and swapped a place to study retail management at university for environmental management.

'Originally I just wanted to go out and make money but I found that wasn't enough. I had concerns about social justice that made me feel angry and upset.'

In hindsight, he says, he was looking for a career in social enterprise. 'I could see there were opportunities to build different types of businesses.'

Following his degree, Holbrook worked for the Body Shop, in retail, then PR. He moved to Oxfam, where he focused on branding. At the time, this pioneering charity was being overtaken by competition and needed to change. Holbrook helped to treble the income of Oxfam's flagship bookshop and, as brand manager for the London region, saw the income of its Soho shop rocket from £400 to £2,500 a week.

To the sunlight in Kent
A short spell in marketing for another charity wasn't a success. 'It was a very traditional charity and the culture didn't quite work for me.'

So Holbrook took some time out, went to see his sister in Australia, then to Kent, where his mother had moved following her divorce from his father.

It was here he got involved with an initiative called Project Sunlight and was encouraged to become its first manager. Nine years saw Sunlight grow from a Lottery-funded project into a thriving social business, selling services to public and private sector purchasers from catering to parenting skills. 'It's a real mix of consumer markets and public sector contracts,' he says.

Holbrook knew generating income was crucial. 'I used whatever experience I could to think about how we could actually start trading. I didn't identify it as social enterprise at the time - it was survival.'

He was also clear that his job was about listening. 'The community was keen to have a café and I knew it was a nightmare. But what the community wanted I had to deliver,' he says. 'We could not go down the usual community café route. It had to be a comparable offer to Starbucks.'

The strategy worked. Sunlight turned over close to £1.5m last year, has won several awards, and Holbrook joined the elite squad of Social Enterprise Ambassadors, appointed to spread the word of social business across England.
So why, when he's enjoying such success as a frontline social entrepreneur, has he been tempted by a job running an umbrella body?

'The opportunity to influence social change nationally and internationally was just too big to miss - and I love a challenge,' he answers.

Holbrook, 38, also gets a salary increase of more than 15 per cent, to between £75,000 and £85,000 a year. But I believe him when he says his motivation has never been money.

'For me social enterprise is primarily about achieving social or environmental mission,' he says. 'That doesn't mean you have to be entirely selfless in achieving that goal.'

It's very early days, but what can we expect in the coming months?

'You can expect me to be a safe risk-taker - I don't take stupid risks,' he says. 'I have seen what taking risks can achieve. But I am not going to damage the organisation. It's about being brave and aspirational but equally being open enough to take on the views and opinions of other people.

'The changes in governance structure have meant the Coalition is a good place to access some incredibly able members in our movement.'

The Coalition board has recently been stripped down with fewer members from other umbrella bodies and more social entrepreneurs. But I put it to Holbrook that there is still a lack of representation from the private or public sectors.

He strongly refutes this. 'The Coalition has to be owned by the movement,' he says. 'Of course we will work with the public or private sectors but I don't accept that idea; I don't think you can say our board does not have those skills.' He points to new board members such as Andrew Croft, CEO of social enterprise support organisation CAN and a former top executive at easyGroup, and Caroline Mason, operations director at the social investment business Investing for Good CIC, who also has a strong private business background. He also claims that the Coalition has 'great relationships' with the corporate social responsibility organisation Business in the Community, as well as with the British Chambers of Commerce and Institute of Directors.

Moving to politics, Holbrook says one of the 'great legacies' that his predecessor Jonathan Bland has left is 'that there is enormous support for social enterprise across the political parties'.

He says: 'There's a real consensus across the parties that social enterprise is a way of tackling the social and environmental challenges we face as a country that we have failed to effectively deal with for decades.

'We have been having breakfast meetings with all the parties and working to influence their manifestos.' He is confident that social enterprise will be covered in all three main party election manifestos. But while Bland dedicated much of his role to political lobbying, Holbrook hints that his time will be apportioned differently.

'There's a need for the Coalition to be in London but you will see much more of me in the regions and other countries than perhaps was seen of my predecessor,' he says.

'In the next year, I hope people will recognise a different Coalition. I would like to see the membership develop, and for people to say, "We see a change and we feel something is different." I want to be more accessible, more transparent, with more partnership working and more visibility.'

Holbrook is also clear that the Coalition must become less dependent on government support. 'You want to be close to government because you want to influence policy and legislation,' he says.

'But we will have no credibility and no mandate in the movement if we are seen to be just an extension of government.'

To achieve this, the organisation must be more financially sustainable. In addition to increasing the membership, this means thinking about other forms of revenue.

The Coalition is quite 'asset poor', he says, so he wants to address this quickly by acquiring a building, through asset transfer, or by taking advantage of low prices due to the property slump.

The building, which would need to be in London, would act as a community hub and be more than 'just rented office space'.

Other key initiatives include the future of the Ambassadors programme and the new Social Enterprise Mark, being launched this month at the Coalition's conference, Voice10.

Ambassadors and awareness
I suggest there are exciting opportunities in these but also difficulties, and a lack of co-ordination between the two.

He disagrees.

I ask if former Fifteen CEO Liam Black, booted off the Ambassadors programme when he left Fifteen, might be invited back, since he is at the forefront of promoting social entrepreneurship to the corporate sector.

'This has not been at the top of my priority list and if it was I probably would not be right for this job,' he says.

But he is concerned that there is no commitment from government to continue funding the Ambassadors programme, despite some 'incredible outcomes'.

'I think it's been incredible to have very inspiring entrepreneurs out there raising awareness to people who have not heard of social enterprise. It would be a real shame to waste that investment.' He adds that each school group he worked with in his Ambassador role rejected the traditional private sector model in favour of social business for their enterprise projects.

'The seeds have been sown and we are on the verge of a real growth in our movement,' he believes.

Even hard-nosed folk like BBC Newsnight journalist Jeremy Paxman are giving air time to social enterprise, Holbrook adds.

When I point out that a recent example involved Paxman roasting Tory social policy guru Phillip Blond just for using the term 'social enterprise', Holbrook says, 'The next trick is the understanding. But the door is open.'

Recent government research found that even among those most likely to support social business only 20 per cent of those people knew anything about it. A major weapon in the Coalition's armory for widening understanding will be the Social Enterprise Mark - a logo and campaign to promote the benefits of the business model

Sunlight was the first to take up the Mark outside the south west of England, where it was piloted.

Holbrook will now be one of four directors of a community interest company set up to run the Mark, a joint venture between south west regional social enterprise body RISE and the Coalition. He wants 'several thousand' organisations signed up within five years.

I ask if the rules defining social enterprise might be too strict. 'We know that the criteria need to strike the right balance and finding that balance is quite tricky,' he answers. 'What we don't want to do is stifle creativity and innovation... If people feel they are a social enterprise but don't meet the criteria they can apply and if necessary take the case to an independent panel. If they make a strong case, the panel has the authority to award them the Mark.'

'I would like it to do for social enterprise what the fair trade mark did for fair trade,' Holbrook says.

'In five years, I hope the Mark is becoming an internationally recognised symbol. In ten years I hope public awareness of social enterprise has shifted to 70 or 80 per cent. Only if you are living in a nuclear bunker will you not know about social enterprise.'