The last time I spoke to Cemal Ezel, he was attempting to steer his company through a potentially disastrous Covid lockdown. Founded with the express aim of serving up coffee from carts and shops across London while also training homeless people to work as baristas, Change Please found itself in a situation where the streets were empty of customers and restrictions prevented all but takeaway sales. The company’s business model – and along with that, its expressed social purpose – was in danger of being swept away.
That was 2020. In many respects, 2021 has turned out to be an equally difficult year for many businesses, but Change Please has not only weathered the storm but is now pressing ahead with the expansion of its retail coffee sales business through the acquisition of a nationwide chain and a contract to serve National Health Service trusts. These developments should boost revenues and underpin the training mission. But the company is doing something else as well. It is working with three corporate partners is taking medical, dental, and other services out to rough sleepers via an initiative dubbed Driving for Change.
So is this overreach? In normal times, news that social purpose startup had partnered with banking group, HSBC, toothpaste manufacturer, Colgate and credit card company Mastercard to offer haircuts, dentistry, access to IT and other services to rough sleepers might not raise too many eyebrows. But these are not normal times. With the pandemic not yet over shouldn’t a business that relies on trade rather than charitable aid be focused on taking care of business.
Striking A Balance
So when I spoke to Ezel, I was keen to talk about the balance that has to be struck between running a viable commercial company while also expending time and resources not only maintaining but also extending a social mission.
Announced today, the Driving for Change project is a major undertaking. Under the program, three repurposed London buses will be deployed across the capital – essentially taking services to rough sleepers. “We’re looking at helping 40 people a week, per bus,” says Ezel. That might not sound like a lot but the assistance on offer to individuals will potentially be extensive, ranging from the aforementioned dentistry and access to computers through to showers and haircuts.
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But how does this exercise in altruism align with the need to ensure that Change Please itself remains in commercial good health?
The Rewards of Altruism
But sometimes a degree of altruism generates its own rewards in terms of potential for higher sales. For instance, last year – as the trading side of the business shrank – Change Please donated coffee to National Health Service workers. “After we did that, some executive said we should bid for a contract to supply coffee to NHS trusts, “ says Ezel. “They said they didn’t think we would win the tender. But we put together a bid and we won.”
Meanwhile, the company has been pursuing commercial opportunities and has acquired the business of AMT – a company that operates coffee stalls in major stations across the UK – in a pre-administration deal.
The acquisition aligns with a commitment to rough sleepers. Homeless people often congregate around stations (and indeed hospitals). Coffee stalls at these locations provide the company with a means to interact directly with people who need help. Thus, AMT – previously a purely commercial business – will now have a social role. “What are doing is changing AMT into an impact business,” says Ezel.
What this means is that ultimately Change Please will be able to continue training homeless people – first putting them to work in its own business and then helping them to find jobs elsewhere. And that’s where the Drive for Change comes in. As Ezel explains, it keeps the company connected with potential trainees.
“Around 44 percent of homeless people want to work and are ready to work,” says “Ezel. “Another 33 percent would like to work but aren’t ready. And the rest don’t want to. What we’re setting out to do with Driving for Change is stop people from the 44 percent group becoming the 56 percent.” In that respect, Drive for Change feeds back into the company’s trading and social impact model.
Ezel says the three corporate partners are playing a crucial role. It’s partly financial. “They advertise on the side of our buses,” he says. “And we have money coming from their CSR and their advertising budgets.”
But equally, if perhaps more important is the fact that all three partners are bringing something other than cash to the party. HSBC has launched bank accounts for those with no fixed address – an initiative that will help to loop rough sleepers back into more normal life. Colgate has arranged the Dentistry and Mastercard is helping with digital access and literacy.
Due to be launched in Winter this year, the Bus for Change initiative is – on the face of it – all about impact and not about trading. But perhaps one lesson of the pandemic is that trading success and impact can be two sides of the same coin. Arguably, the companies that go the extra mile to “put something back” stand to be rewarded with greater customer loyalty.