Chip off the old block. My Dad, social mission and me.

Posted by Jo Ashburner-Farr on

Dad championed social business ethics over forty years ago – and I’m the chip off the old block.

During the Social Value Summit in London this February, I asked the conference what it would take for those with purchasing power to prioritise buying social.  The reply was that if the product or service on offer was viable, then it would be a level playing field. Something along the lines of “if you’re worth looking at then being a social enterprise will get you additional brownie points.”

I wasn’t allowed to join the Brownies – I was too rebellious apparently and setting up a business with social goals probably wasn’t the easiest way of getting our products in front of decision makers either.

For me running a social enterprise has definitely come from deep sub-conscience and with hindsight is a way only for the strong-willed.  Starting and succeeding in business is all relative and undoubtedly hard; but it doubles when you do everything with social values in mind.  It takes double the effort to make it work which in the end, happily, reaps double the rewards.  

So why set yourself up for ‘more’ work, potentially a harder sell and more visibility? As we say by ‘ear in Wales – ‘that’s why’.

My father and hero set up the original flag making business at the farmhouse table in 1969 when he was commissioned to make the flags and banners for the inauguration of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle.  Dad was a Welsh hill farmer back then. A forestry commissioner, land owner, shepherd, horseback cowboy, maverick, adventurer and gentleman. He was and still is a flag nerd.

Robin and Jo Ashburner

He built up many businesses in South Wales over the years, employing a thousand or so people in and around the UK in one way or another. He set up the Boys Club of Wales and housed the homeless in 40 caravans on our family farm. He is also the top bloke who taught me my ‘can do’ attitude, my ability for rationale and my mantra of ‘don’t over react, over analyse or over engineer’.

I believe Dad to be one of the original social entrepreneurs – he was one even before the term was coined. He has never received public recognition for his efforts but he says that’s OK because the mavericks, the trail blazers, the selfless entrepreneurs seldom do.  So when I made the decision to restart the flag making business after it had fallen foul of mismanagement after his retirement, it could only have been as a social enterprise – a business with people and society at its heart.

The old flag making business had become a money-making venture for the Directors of the business after Dad had gone and like so many that eventually go to the wall it had lost its raison d’etre, its original focus on employment, welfare and community. When the doors closed, the team of loyal staff – some of whom had been with the business for 30 years - put down their scissors, tabards and coffee cups and had no choice but to walk away.

It was therefore a no brainer that I pick up where Dad had left off, and so we did, together. I put the word out that we were reopening and set about creating the business again, this time at MY kitchen table.

I’d come across the ‘third sector’ in passing while setting up a leadership and management programme at a Welsh university in 2009 and I came to realise it to be a wholly misunderstood and under-represented sector. It carried a ‘cap in hand’, do good vibe that was rather underwhelming from a business and recruitment perspective, and in my opinion, largely inaccurate.  

New thinking that challenges the status quo usually and predictably gets a bad rep but I believe – bravely perhaps – that social profit is the foundation on which to build a sustainable and successful business.  We question how it is that big business is increasingly dysfunctional – benefitting the few not the many – and suddenly the term ‘third sector’ – previously equalled with third rate - is the more attractive way to do business and people power wants a social value return on their spend.

Red Dragon Flagmakers is basically a creative business, a sewing business, concentrating on the production of customised and bespoke world class fully traditional sewn flags, banners, coats of arms, regimental colours and corporate brand livery.  We leave ‘economy’ products to the retailers and instead focus on teaching traditional skills for sustainable and real jobs in the production of our great products.

We’re a business built on proven best practices and ethics and we’ve incorporated our SEUK registration, branding and mission statement into our image, our message and our delivery. We’re not stuffy or complacent, we thank customers for buying social, even if they don’t know they have. They then become curious and read up about it and importantly, they become customers and buy our products and into our brand before they know about our social objectives.

God forbid that social impact and enterprise be termed as a trend, but it is safe to say that social profit is very topical – and very necessary – and suddenly, by the way, the third sector isn’t perhaps so cap in hand after all. Suddenly it’s a real alternative to the imbalance we see all around us and yes, thanks for the challenge, I do believe we have in fact earned a place on that level playing field.


Share this post



← Older Post Newer Post →


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.