There's still too much guff talked about corporate social responsibility. COINS is a shining example of a company that walks the CSR walk
“If you have an excess of wealth, or intellectual resources, or any other physical capability, then you have an obligation to do something with it.”
There's no fluffing about with Larry Sullivan, the founder and chairman of construction software company COINS (or Construction Industry Solutions Ltd, to explain the name).
I'll be writing about COINS in a series of articles. Sullivan's personal story, which includes selling ice cream to Americans and personal computers to Poles, is a remarkable untold one among Britain's entrepreneurs. How the company has secured its market-leading global niche and is adapting to the structural changes in the IT sector is a fascinating one.
But I'll start with one of the most striking aspects of the company, its founder and the team who work alongside him - it's the commitment to making a difference to others.
It began back in 1987 after Sullivan had started a company called CSB, the precursor to COINS. Within a year he had organised a 10k fun run for a number of charities. Over the years, it's evolved into a series of Challenge events across the UK and USA – two “3 Peaks”, a “24 Peaks” and a “Coast to Coast” (a west-east cycle ride from Whitehaven to Tynemouth).
Sullivan initially saw this as a means of galvanising an aggressive and litigious construction industry - “it's an industry that has been based on argument” - to come together as a force for good.
Today, scores of companies in the construction industry – including many of the giants such as Taylor Wimpey, Keir and Vinci - participate, marching up mountains at ferocious and not-quite-so-ferocious speeds.
The COINS Foundation has become a fundraising juggernaut, having raised more than £2.5m to date.
The scale and variety of things being done is breathtaking.
There are several projects on the go across Africa. In Uganda, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the Foundation has committed £100,000 per annum for the next five years to starting a mortgage-backed lending scheme to create long-term, sustainable housing for hundreds of homes. In partnership with Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS) and Build It International, two secondary schools have been built in Zambia and many others in Uganda. A skills training programme has been integral to these projects.
In Haiti, funds have been channelled into building permanent homes for those still affected by the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
But perhaps the most eye-catching project is one closer to home – in the leafy glades of Hindhead in Surrey.
Here the COINS Foundation has led the creation of a social enterprise – the Stepping Stones Cookie Bar. It's a business run by Stepping Stones, a school founded for children with hemiplegia. (Another result of Sullivan's passionate and energetic problem-solving temperament, tackling the issues faced by his own daughter.)
The Cookie Bar provides an opportunity for the school children to experience and learn about running a business, as part of their school curriculum but also as a step into employment. It's a fundamental point that the Cookie Bar will help the children become economically active and social contributors. “It's about teaching real enterprise,” says Sullivan.
He is planning a whole chain of such Cookie Bars, where schools will have the opportunity to locate one near (but, importantly, not in) their grounds. “They need footfall,” he points out. He's also pushing companies to buy the cookies on a contract basis; a workforce ought to feel much better about eating biscuits, cakes and cookies from such a source.
So here is a 130-employee software company based in Slough, changing the lives of hundred of people in several continents. It's a remarkable contribution to social change. Much of it, of course, is down to the leadership example of Sullivan himself. But it goes much wider and deeper within the organisation.
The phrase of Sullivan's that sticks with me, after a fascinating conversation (and which leaves me with a variety of books to read and cookies to eat) is: “You have to be a participant in your own salvation.” It could be the mantra for every successful social enterprise.