‘Upcycling’ enterprise brings community together

Strip the Willow upcycling centre and cafe: Volunteer Andrew Quinn (left) and apprentice Alex Greaves checking  a bookcase made from a reclaimed fence
Strip the Willow upcycling centre and cafe: Volunteer Andrew Quinn (left) and apprentice Alex Greaves checking a bookcase made from a reclaimed fence

Here’s something we don’t expect to hear from directors of new business start ups: “Money doesn’t bother me that much. I’ve never been someone to go out and make money for the sake of making money.”

Nevertheless, over the last 17 months, former South Yorkshire Police inspector Jon Johnson has turned a derelict tyre showroom off Abbeydale Road into a furniture ‘upcycling’ business, a cafe, a music venue and art gallery, a training centre, and a meeting resource.

Strip The Willow already employs five people, and Jon’s plans include a new centre in Sharrow, links with the universities, an online shop, and exporting his business model to other entrepreneurs with no interest in making money.

When he took early retirement after 26 years as a police officer, Jon admits he had no real intentions of working 10 hour days seven days a week setting up a Social Enterprise.

“I just wanted to broaden my horizons and do different things,” he said. “What happened in the force, seeing what’s wrong with society, shaped what I’ve gone on to do - the way communities don’t gel, the lack of opportunities for people to meet.”

After his retirement in 2011 Jon put his DIY skills to use by helping people with household repairs and clearances. “Vulnerable or older people who couldn’t afford a lot but wanted a good job doing. It’s nice to help people if you’ve got the time and ability.”

An unwillingness to see ‘something serviceable go to the tip’ meant that his post-retirement cellar, shed and garden filled up with furniture, ironmongery and pieces of wood, and on their way home one evening Jon and his partner spotted the empty tyre showroom on South View Road.

“Before I knew it, we had the keys and six weeks to get it up and running.”

The building was semi-derelict, but contained a workshop used by a previous owner, a large cellar and a ‘quirky’ space upstairs, as Jon put it, that could become an art gallery and maybe more.

Once it became clear that the new operation would be a community space and recycling organisation run to benefit the local public, the volunteers and help just kept coming. A coffee machine was donated, a friend wrote Jon a business plan, and a team of volunteers helped turn the ‘quirky space’ into a cafe serving coffee, 65 teas and home made cakes and soup (along with a wood offcut burning stove and denim lagging from local company Recovery Insulation), an exhibition space and now the ‘Bouquet of Steel’ vinyl record shop.

Downstairs, a team of joiners, apprentices and volunteers (including Jon) turn out a stream of ‘upcycled’ furniture made from reclaimed skips, fences, and wood scavenged from businesses and public donations. Free raw materials - and keeping costs down by using volunteers and apprentices - means that the bespoke furniture can be sold fairly cheaply, including an option for pieces to be made to a customer’s own design. All of which would be very difficult for a business driven by profit.

Strip the Willow turned over £50,000 in its first year - which Jon wouldn’t have believed if asked 17 months ago, he said, adding that he and his team have learned as they’ve progressed, with support from many other local groups and organisations.

The idea of being a Social Enterprise ‘crept through the back door’, he said, but now he’s become secretary of Sheffield Social Enterprise Network: there are already over 120 Social Enterprises in Sheffield, whose primary business aim is to provide a useful service to the public, rather than being purely driven by profit.

“The Social Enterprise landscape is really taking off,” said Jon. “It might seem a bit radical to set up a business that’s not about making money, but nowadays people like that idea, about doing business so that it provides something for people.”

His police pension has helped him personally, he said (he takes no wages himself), but the Social Enterprise model can work in all kinds of situations.

“We say to people come and see what we’re doing, and learn that Social Enterprises are a good way to do business. They’re only going to get bigger. For me, as long as I can pay the wages and bills at the end of the day, and provide what people want, I’m happy.”

Visit www.stripthewillow.org for more information.