A Sparkling Success
Wednesday, 16th October 2013 at 9:55 am
A member of the ‘old guard’ in the Australian social enterprise community continues to shine in this week's Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
|Social enterprise Clean Force Property Services has been running for more than a decade.|
Clean Force Property Services has been sweeping and scrubbing for over a decade – long before social enterprise attracted the profile it does today.
The Melbourne cleaning company enables people with mental illness to achieve some of the life milestones often taken for granted.
Located in Preston, Victoria, Clean Force is awarded cleaning contracts from businesses and community-based organisations in and around Melbourne.
These contracts are filled by staff in supported training and employment, putting those with mental illness on a path towards self-sufficiency.
Now with a customer base exceeding 60, including Not for Profits like Berry Street and corporates like Telstra, Cleanforce has proven a rarity, achieving sustained success in both social and financial terms.
At Clean Force’s heart is the enterprise's team of employees, says Matt Lambelle, General Manager for WISE Employment, the organisation overseeing the Clean Force brand.
He says about 50 per cent of Clean Force’s staff have enduring mental illness, where their everyday lives are severely inhibited.
54 per cent have psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia, while 19 per cent are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Employees have disability across the spectrum of mental illness and not all are high functioning people who can pop a pill, Lambelle says.
“This gives them a reason to get out of bed or money to buy mum and dad a Christmas present.
“They’re productive, good, loyal employees.
“There wouldn’t be too many cleaning businesses that are as open as us about mental illness.”
The enterprise has gone from employing one person then to employing 90 today, and has assisted more than 200 workers since 2001.
Yet it is the qualitative, not that quantitative, that stands out for Lambelle.
“Our economic ratio is good but it’s really about the personal story of the employees,” he says.
In a 2012 staff satisfaction survey 95 per cent of employees said they felt valued, supported and encouraged in their work at Clean Force.
The opportunities provided have proven well targeted and effective for those previously falling through the cracks.
An Employment Support Officer provides each employee with on the job training and support, and the industry provides workers with versatility – something that may be key in their circumstances.
“Cleaning can be done early in the morning, during the day, or at night – it’s very flexible,” Lambelle says.
The social and interpersonal aspects of the job are also beneficial.
“It’s integrated into the everyday office environment – they’re not working in a factory in the backstreets,” he says.
“What’s really good is with customers – with our customers we work with them and interact with them.”
Employee loyalty appears to be a hallmark of Cleanforce.
“They do tend to stay,” Lambelle says.
Yet moving on may mean the mission of Clean Force has ultimately been achieved – where its workers are able to move into more mainstream employment.
A success story
Clean Force became profitable after four years. After nine years turnover hit one million, and three years after that, three million.
In 2005, Cleanforce merged with WISE employment and became its commercial contract cleaning arm. The business grew further when the cleaning social enterprises of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Adult Multicultural Education Service were also transferred to Clean Force.
Its financial success has come from diversifying its customer base, Lambelle says. It now covers 90 per cent of its costs from revenue with the remaining 10 per cent coming from government.
Balancing the financial and the social has been important.
“We promote equally value and social benefit,” he adds.
“The social aspect does help. Some of our customers really believe what we believe about giving people opportunities.”
The social benefit can also be a downside though.
“Not for Profit can conjure up ‘not good enough’ or ‘not commercially relevant,’” Lambelle notes.
Yet the service they offer, he says, is ultimately the primary concern of customers.
“They want their cleaning done and the key principles of service apply to us.
“Price is still the king. They want a comparable pricing point,” he says.
Cleanforce has recently compiled five years of financial data and cases studies of employee experiences. They have also undertaken a comprehensive quality of life impact study and are working with Social Ventures on an ongoing basis to monitor their progress.
Lambelle says there are key factors to which he attributes the success to date.
“We have very good people and management. We’ve also been really financially disciplined. It’s a balanced seesaw between financial and social returns,” he says.
“We feel we’re in a very privileged position.”
Cleanforce has proven a beacon of success with a business model that has a high startup failure rate.
They are active participants in the social enterprise community and were shortlisted in the inaugural Social Enterprise Awards earlier this year in the medium/large category.
The enterprise is now in a position where it is providing advice and consultation to other social enterprises.
“As an industry, it’s still very embryonic. Sharing stories and showcasing examples is really important,” Lambelle adds.
“We’ve been so busy trying to build something and have some scope to showcase.”
He is clear about the priorities for the business going forward.
“We need to remain relevant to the marketplace. We have to earn more than we spend,” he says.
“We intend to grow, to scale up, we have aspirations to maintain the integrity of our business model.
“It’s about giving someone a go, and helping them gain personal satisfaction. Everyone’s got the same basic needs.”
Lambelle says that a world with social enterprise in the mainstream could be a while away.
“It will take years and years – I wouldn’t like to guess how long it will take!
“As enterprises start to scale up, I think that will make a difference. Right now, the reality in the mainstream is that it’s still very boutique.
“It’s an open secret.”