17th December 2015
Chris was sitting in a coffee shop with his son Dale, on the way back from a holiday in Cornwall, when they came up with the idea for SoFab Sports. Dale had just finished school and was in the process of choosing his A-Levels.
"Me and my son were talking and he says: it’s bizarre that I’m choosing what my next steps are but for a lot of lads at football they might have 60 years on the scrapheap,’ says Chris, ‘There’s nothing out there for them. I think we should do something about it."
A factory worker by trade, Chris had already been running community football sessions - accepting people that might otherwise not have a chance to play the sport. They accepted anyone, whether they were a person with a physical or mental disability, or faced economic or social disadvantage.
Chris had got involved in running the sessions almost by accident. He wrote a strategy for a football club he was Club Secretary for, including the sessions, and because no-one was available to run them he started them himself.
He had no clue about the impact they would have on people’s lives. "One of the dads said to me for the first time in 35 years my son is off drugs to control his behaviour," he says, "He said, I’m telling you this as you’re a large part of the reason. It amazed me; I had no comprehension that that sort of thing could happen from a sporting experience that happens once a week, but it did."
Dale had been lending a hand in running them. When he suggested doing more to help it never crossed Chris’ mind to say no.
"Once you open a door into a room you’ve either got to get in the room and have a bit of a go, or shut the door and know that you could’ve changed something in society but chose to walk away."
Off the back of that conversation, Chris and Dale set up SoFab Sports. It aims to give young adults with physical or mental difficulties the skills, self-esteem and confidence they need to find employment.
"The way we do that is to have a sports shop in central Gloucester and we have created 13 paid employment opportunities," Chris explains. "We also run community football and cricket sessions. We’re the largest providers of disability football in the UK, including all of the professional sides who are funded through the FA and the Premier League."
The journey that SoFab Sports has taken is slightly different from how Chris imagined it. "When we first started out I thought our incomes would be higher and our social outcomes would be less."
A big part of why their social impact is so high is that they put supporting people first. When they recruit for their sports teams they make it as open as possible, rather than getting players that’ll enhance the performance of their teams.
"If you judge our teams’ success on elite performance we don’t do that well, but if you judge it by the number of people we’ve helped access a sport they’ve never accessed before we’ve got twice the number of players."
It’s that focus on people first that recently led them to win the Grow Gloucestershire Outstanding Contribution to Youth Employment award, beating a FTSE 100 company to the title.
While Chris and Dale put people first they understand the realities of running a business. Speaking to Chris you get a sense that he thrives on this competition, particularly against mainstream businesses.
"We compete on the high street with the biggest retailers in the country, we’re literally 20 yards down from Sports Direct," he says.
For Chris the best way for social ventures to compete with mainstream businesses is to act like one. "You have to focus on standard business practices. 99% of the customers come for the first time because you’ve got what they want at a price they want to pay. Once they’re a customer you can start telling a bit of your story to build that feel good factor."
Competing as a social venture hasn’t been without its challenges. One of the biggest ones that Chris has faced is a lack of understanding around social enterprise.
"I remember ringing up my accountant and saying that I need to set up a CIC (Community Interest Community) and him turning round and saying he’d never heard of it," he recalls, "I phoned up my bank manager and got the same response. All of the professional people you thought you could get advice off 3 years ago knew very little about CICs and social entrepreneurship."
Beyond this Chris sees one the the next big challenges is that of changing the attitudes of mainstream businesses to vulnerable people. "We’re doing a great job at starting to change bigger picture thinking - but like with foodbanks the answer is not more foodbanks, it’s to end poverty," he says.
"We want to drive social change, and while we’re doing great things for the people we interact with we’ve got to change the mindset of mainstream business and who they employ."
Helping people, making a difference to people’s lives is what it comes back to for Chris.
"I’m nearly 50 and getting to that point in life where it’s a little bit about legacy. Seeing the development in people is fantastic," he says, "Once you get guys into a job and find their strengths - everybody has them - you see a blossoming that’s hard to describe."
"I include myself in that. I’ve learnt so much in the last three years. I see the world completely differently now."
You also get the sense that a large part of his love for what he’s doing comes back to his co-founder and son, Dale, "the engine room behind it all". Dale has been crucial in their success, managing the shop and teams as the only full time employee. "It’s quite remarkable that an 18 year old has achieved this really."