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EXCLUSIVE: Devon Disability Collective on start-up to Europe

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Devon Disability Collective is a social enterprise that provides quality employment and training for people with disabilities. It does so through its own commercial enterprises and has managed to steadily bounce back since closing down four years ago AMP caught up with commercial director Luke Rogers to find out more.

It seems Devon Disability Collective has a real story to tell, can you give an insight into that?

Devon Disability Collective is disrupting the mobility retail sector through its reupholstery services in a move it hopes can expand its service offering to those who need and use it.

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As a social enterprise, DDC gives employment and training opportunities to people with disabilities and those furthest from the labour market.

It does so through its own commercial operations and has come a long way since it took over from where The Pluss Organisation left off over four years ago. After Pluss closed its retail and enterprise operations down in Exeter in 2015, DDC secured a £120,000 loan from Devon County Council and now, operating as a social enterprise, wants to make sure that people in Devon don’t pay more than they really should when it comes to their mobility equipment needs.

After the shut down, the communities union with our local MP Ben Bradshaw and also the local Devon County Council ended up stepping in to help us get going again.

There was a lot of support within the business because obviously, no one wants to be unemployed so we got up and running within the space of a couple of months without losing the premises or any of the equipment. It was a bit of a race against time because all of the equipment was going to be taken out, and that was when we formed in 2015.

The majority of the staff here have disabilities so that is predominantly what we are about, and that is creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We are working on becoming a charity but in our present form we are a company as well as a social enterprise.

So how does the business model work now?

The main problem for us in the early stages was that we had to get going from day one, we couldn’t spend time with solicitors, we didn’t have the money for that either to form that perfect structure. The structure that we saw we could form was that of the company we are operating now. We have been lucky with our non-execs. We have always had someone from Exeter City Council working with us.

A chap called Peter Brennan, he has brought a wealth of knowledge to us as well so we’ve got a strong non-exec team from that aspect too. They donate their time to us which is really good and then our board is chaired by the former deputy of the community union. So we have had tremendous support from day one but ultimately, we’re not donated money, the money we make is from the products we sell.

We are competing with the best of them out there, and we are dealing with the cheapest of them out there as well but we do make a great product so we’ve been very lucky since the start with growth year on year. We feared in the early stages that we were going to fail which we have completely turned around and done tremendously.

In terms of areas, we have the mobility showroom. Then we have the wheelchair products, it could be canvasses, stump boards, brackets, good quality British-made wooden trays and all of that probably makes up around 40% of the business.

We then do a lot of other things as well, we make covers which go on military equipment so that’s quite a big new thing we are doing. Parking machine covers, if you see one of those the chances are it is made by us.

You have a huge offering, do you also work with CCGs and the NHS from an equipment point of view?

Yeah, absolutely. From Cornwall up to Scotland we supply wheelchair services. We supply the majority of them, obviously there are areas we are still working on.

There are a lot of private contractors out there, as I’m sure you appreciate, and the NHS as well. With them it is predominantly the wheelchair products like cushions, wheelchair straps and all of that kind of thing. We also do the covers which go on the side of beds as well, so we are not just limited to wheelchairs, with that, comes reupholstering as well and when doing that we make sure we are using the best products and best fabric for the job. We have one for that, especially made for us that is anti-bacterial and anti-MRSA because we see that vital for the healthcare market.

How much of the business does that make up?

With wheelchair services, it is probably around 65%-70%. Because predominantly, we are actually based in the original factory for the Wonder Bra in Exeter, we’ve got a 10,000 square foot factory, the majority of the machines we’ve got here are industrial sewing machines. Those sewing machines are all for heavyweight application so when it comes to wheelchair products we obviously do very well and anything else also comes under that bracket.

You mentioned the showroom, how does that fit in with the work you do at DDC?

We have our own cushions and canvasses and stuff like I said but a lot of what we manufacture goes out to the NHS while our showroom is more for the public. We’ll have the likes of Pride, Electric Mobility, Invacare we do have the full selection of products which the public are looking for. We are also NHS approved so the showroom is very much focused on the public and the local area.

Is it just the one Exeter-based showroom that you have?

We have just the one showroom but we serve quite a large area. We have an in-house guy who looks after things and repairs things when things come in. We are very lucky because we have a factory and for those that work in there, no two days are the same. We could literally be all packing boxes one day, then the next the guys could be called out to do deliveries, it is really varied work.

With all of us here, everyone has different sort of things which they can or can’t do but there is no mundane work.

Where do you see the business going now as you look to move forward?

We’ve had a lot of success since the start-up, from a business which was failing, it has just gone up and up and up since it was created by five people.

If it continues to be successful I could definitely see expansion and look to the potential of opening other sites and other showrooms.

This would enable us to spread the philosophy and the offering of something which we see as very different from other companies in that we are there to support the people. We are not out to make big profits, we are just out to offer a great service and employ people with disabilities so we would very much like to replicate the showroom in other areas.

Talking of expansion, I also would like to expand into Europe.

What are you doing to ensure business progresses smoothly?

The biggest thing we need to think about is just making sure that we are operating a solid business because of our employees and that is the top of our agenda. Obviously, as a social enterprise everyone has voting rights, it has given people the security they need for the future.

Tags : Devon Disability Collective
Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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