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'We've brought a new approach to recycling'

By Lisa Smyth

Published 05/01/2016

John McMullan of Bryson Charitable Group
John McMullan of Bryson Charitable Group

Most people know Bryson Charitable Group through its work collecting recyclable material from homes around Northern Ireland. Certainly, their yellow lorries and recycling boxes are an instantly recognisable sight. But it may come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the organisation actually has seven subsidiary companies - of which Bryson Recycling is just one.

Bryson Charitable Group was established in 1906 by businesspeople and the churches with the aim of doing permanent good for the deserving poor.

Fast-forward almost a century and the organisation has expanded into a range of services, including domiciliary care, recycling, training for long-term unemployed and advice and support for asylum seekers arriving in Northern Ireland.

It also lobbies politicians in an effort to change and improve legislation for people who are living in poverty in Northern Ireland.

To do this, the organisation has transformed into a social enterprise.

Chief executive John McMullan (62), said: "It was quite forward-thinking for its time when it was set up, but it has evolved over the last 15 years.

"We moved from a grant-aided model to a charity that competes for public service contracts and now 92% of our revenue comes from contracts we compete for.

"We became a social enterprise so that we could deliver scale of services.

"In essence, if we wanted to make a difference at scale, to do that we needed to change to a social business model.

"Social enterprise is growing as an economic driver in Northern Ireland; in fact a recent list of the top 100 SMEs here showed four or five per cent were social enterprises."

Learning how to tender for business was one of the main challenges involved in the new approach, according to Mr McMullan.

But it has obviously been a success - annual turnover has risen from £6.7m in 2002 to £34.1m this year.

Similarly, the number of employees has increased from 326 in 2002 to 620 in 2015.

"We now deliver 23,360 services per day, anywhere from Letterkenny, across Northern Ireland and Conwy in Wales," Mr McMullan said.

"We deliver services under contract in a range of areas, from recycling to training people who are living in long-term unemployment and delivering care to older people living at home.

"We have Bryson Care West, which delivers domiciliary care and operates in the Foyle area, and Bryson Energy which delivers services in relation to addressing energy efficiency in fuel poverty.

"One scheme it is running at the moment is bringing groups of people together to purchase home heating oil in bulk so that the price is lower than if they were to buy it separately.

"Bryson actually negotiates the price and some of the groups work with credit unions so they can save up for the cost.

"We also have Bryson Future Skills, which provides training and employment opportunities to people in long-term unemployment.

"We have found over the years there is best success where we place people in training with employment.

"We also have Bryson Intercultural which works with the travelling community, Roma community and asylum seekers.

"We're actually working with the refugees who are working in Northern Ireland at the moment. That work is as a result of a contract we won from the Home Office.

"Then there is Bryson Lagan Sports, which is a water sports centre in Belfast, which provides access to watersports to people who would not otherwise be able to access such a facility, at a lower price.

"Of course, we are dealing with a client group that cannot afford the cost of participating in water sports so we had to look for ways to make that possible.

"We invested in buying a building which was significantly bigger than required and then sub-letting office space as a revenue stream. We also offer the facility out at a higher rate to those who can afford it."

Last year, 7,500 people made use of the water sports centre.

Then, of course, there is Bryson Recycling.

"We have brought a whole new approach to recycling and have developed and produced 9,000 wheelie boxes that allow users to separate materials into separate containers," said Mr McMullan.

"This ensures a higher quality of material is recovered and quality is important because then you get a premium price for it."

Profit is important to Bryson, as it allows the organisation to continue to grow and deliver services to those most in need.

However, Mr McMullan stressed that a high quality service is even more important.

"We still measure pounds, that is critically important, but our primary purpose is social impact," he said.

Bryson Charitable Group works hard to assess the level of service it delivers.

It has even joined up with Ulster University to develop a way of analysing outcomes for service users.

"We are a socially driven organisation in that we will go above and beyond the contract to support those people who find themselves in a difficult position," Mr McMullan said.

"That's the difference between a social enterprise and a private enterprise. We have to remain profitable but at the end of the day the service we deliver is the most important thing."

Belfast Telegraph

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