Furniture Resource Centre was created in 1988 as a grassroots furniture charity, relying on volunteers to help people by distributing unwanted, good quality furniture to those in need. Funding came from small amounts of grants, and from fundraising to cover the costs. The charity was limited by an unsustainable operating model and the decision was made to become a social enterprise.
BEGINNING TO GROW
In the 1990s we created two new social enterprises to generate business profits to support our core aim – getting furniture to low income families, something we now call tackling furniture poverty.
We changed our name to FRC Group to bring our new businesses together but we kept Furniture Resource Centre as the name for our new one stop furniture service.
The new Furniture Resource Centre provided, and still does, everything needed to turn an empty property into a furnished tenancy. It also campaigned to increase the provision of furnished tenancies and built up a strong business selling furniture, even manufacturing upholstered items for a time, and employing, as well as training, people in logistics and upholstery.
Our second new social business was Bulky Bob’s. We convinced Liverpool City Council to create a separate contract to collect bulky household waste which we then won. We created a waste management operation, while still keeping our original intention to collect reusable furniture and sell or donate it as preloved to those in need.
By now FRC Group had created a turnover in the millions, making us self sufficient and sustainable.
DEVELOPING OUR SKILLS
The next phase of FRC Group’s history was a period of learning and developing. We crystallised our values and began using them to recruit, motivate and reward people – something we have continued to do.
We also clearly set out how we wanted to do business and developed our ‘Four Greats’:
- Great to do Business with
- Great for People
- Great for the Planet
- A Great Place to Work!
We wanted to prove the difference we were making to people’s lives and develop our own way of accurately measuring our social value. Because we had begun to be financially independent we were no longer proving ourselves through grant funding applications. So we wanted to make sure we were continually testing ourselves and demonstrating the difference we were making to people’s lives, and the fact that we were achieving our objectives.
We became evangelists for social enterprise and carried out a great deal of work showcasing the social enterprise business model and helping other social enterprises to grow and develop, through Cat’s Pyjamas and FRC Solutions.
We also learned a lot about growing from core skills, not always in a totally positive way as our experiences with opening a Ben & Jerry’s outlet in Chester. It seemed the perfect fit in terms of our training ethos, but it proved to be too far away from our core knowledge and skills of furniture and logistics so was a relatively short-lived venture.
WEATHERING THE CRUNCH AND THE AGE OF AUSTERITY
Recent years have been challenging for all businesses, social or otherwise. However FRC Group has proved its resilience time and time again by being creative, flexible and strategic. We have grown into new markets, diversified our product range and built on our relationships with our Housing Association customer base.
We have launched a new brand – Buckingham Interiors – to suit the new high quality design led care in the care and extra care markets, showing that as housing markets have changed, we have adapted our offer. We have recognised that while the Furniture Resource Centre brand may not work, we have the necessary skills and expertise to meet the needs of that market with a new brand.
Bulky Bob’s has retained its existing contracts and managed to keep hold of the core values of our model, retaining our opportunities for trainees which offer long term unemployed people the chance to gain logistics skills. This is despite a very tough operating environment. The demand for our preloved furniture has also greatly increased, creating its own pressures on the business.
However FRC Group has not just focused on steadying our own ship, we have also responded to the worsening situation for our communities of interest.
We have expanded our campaigning activity, offering a clear voice on the issue of Furniture Poverty.
We have developed another new business, Our House, offering another solution to furniture poverty that is directly accessible by customers and does not rely on a third party public sector conduit. Although we are still working closely with those public sector organisations to help us to reach our customers to help as many as we can.
FRC Group is now a leading social business, running profitable commercial businesses and giving people in poverty and unemployment the opportunity to change their lives. We are continually looking for new ways to create practical solutions to get furniture to people who need it and to create sustainable livelihoods and futures for people.