The Rehab brand has become so pervasive in Ireland that it almost disguises the scale and breadth of the organisation which has 80,000 clients, a turnover of €189 million and employs 3,800 staff in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Poland and the Middle East.
"We are a very broad church covering a lot of different activities and everyone has their own view of what the Rehab Group is," notes chief executive Angela Kerins. "There is the Rehab lottery, our care services, our training and employment services, recycling and other commercial activities."
She believes the strength of the brand can actually be a weakness in some ways. “It’s a very complex organisation when you get behind it and the brand doesn’t really do justice to the totality of what we do. But everyone loves the brand despite the fact that it can sometimes present a challenge to the way we communicate the type of organisation we are.
“The challenge for us is to manage all of these areas – one minute we are talking about the very important question of the funding and development of our care services to our clients and the next minute we might be talking about a major item of capital expenditure for our recycling business.”
According to Kerins, the best description for the organisation was given by a UK local authority some time ago. “This customer described us as a company with social values with commercial underpinning. This sums up the Rehab Group very well. About 60 per cent of our activities are in the commercial sphere and are spread across Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Poland, the Netherlands, and the Middle East.
“The other 40 per cent is the not-for-profit charitable side mainly in Ireland and the UK. But our focus is on providing top quality commercially competitive services in everything we do. The only difference between us as a not-for-profit social enterprise and a private company is that we have no shareholders to distribute our profits to. All our profits are reinvested back into the business to help it grow and provide services to our clients.”
Much of the focus of the group's activities is on employment. "Rehab started out helping people recovering from TB to get back into the workforce and helping people with disabilities remains at the core of our activities.
“Our National Learning Network has a conversion rate of 91 per cent for people either moving into employment or further training. Back in the early 1990s, there were not many opportunities in the mainstream labour market for people with disabilities, so we set up Rehab Enterprises to address this.”
Rehab Enterprises includes Rehab Recycle which is now among the country's largest recycling concerns; Rehab Logistics which provides services to customers such as Dell Computer, An Post, the Department of Social Protection, Eircom and Sanofi-Aventis; and Rehab Retail which runs the Smiles retail outlets in the premises of a number of corporate clients including RTÉ, Vodafone Ireland and Paddy Power.
Each subsidiary within Rehab Enterprises runs on what Kerins calls the 50:50 principle whereby the staff is made up roughly of equal numbers of people with disabilities and people without disabilities. In this way people with disabilities work alongside those without disabilities on equal terms.
And these companies have to be fully commercially viable – as does every other part of the group which has to compete for contracts. “We don’t get any grant aid,” Kerins points out. “All of our service contracts have to be won through open tenders. The care services we provide for the HSE are won through a tendering process with full service level agreements which are rigidly enforced and agree every year.
“But I believe we have an edge when we are competing in the market because of the support we have from the communities we serve and because of our hugely talented and professional staff.”
Innovation is also at the heart of the group. “The Rehab Group has always had a very entrepreneurial and pioneering attitude. When we see a problem we find a solution and this is what has driven our growth over the years.
“I firmly believe that being a social enterprise is all about creating and sustaining jobs and that’s the difference between us and purely commercial organisations. It’s what I call our double bottom line. It’s not just about making a profit it’s about using that profit to create jobs and growing the organisation further.”
And she contends that the application and innovation and new thinking could generate a lot more jobs from the social enterprise sector in future. "Forfás has estimated that there are up to 33,000 people employed in 1,400 social enterprises in Ireland. These are mostly very small but together they make up a large sector," says Kerins.
"When Horace Plunkett started up the co-op movement in Ireland there were hundreds of small dairy co-ops around the country but they rationalised and amalgamated over the years to produce world leading companies in the form of Glanbia and Kerry Group. I believe there is the potential there for the sector to create a further 33,000 jobs if the sector can work together imaginatively and is give the right supports."
She also believes the sector can do more for itself. “We encourage innovation in Rehab and we have annual innovation awards for our staff. But the sector also needs to develop its leadership skills. And leadership is not the same as management. Managers are essential to a successful business as they make sure that things get done, but leaders are the people who bring organisations in new directions and help bring about change. We are actively developing leadership in Rehab and have added leadership to the innovation awards – this is something which other social enterprises should consider.”
Her final point is that the private sector can help social enterprise in a mutually beneficial way. “One of the greatest supports that corporates could give would be to set aside a small percentage of their sub-contacting budgets for social enterprise. We are not asking for preferential treatment in terms of price or quality of service – we believe we have to measure up to full commercial standards on these and earn our living properly.”