Fixing broken bikes, mending broken lives

A philanthropist is using bicycles to transform the lives of youngsters by getting them off the streets and into the repair shop

This is a story about delinquent kids, ambitious social entrepreneurs and a charismatic multimillionaire. It begins in a corner of London blighted by poverty and despair. It ends there too, but with a glimmer of hope that is on the cusp of turning into a blazing beacon.

This is also a story about the humble bicycle and its ability to transform lives, including that of Shenol Shaddouh.

When Shaddouh was 12 years old, he was thrown out of school for being disruptive. That was the end of his academic career. He kicked around the Islington estate where he had grown up with like-minded lads until, aged 14, boredom and a lack of money prompted him to go farther afield, in search of other people’s property.

He traces his criminal life back to the day that he wore a hole in one of his trainers. There was no point asking his dad, with whom he lived, for the money to buy a new pair. “My dad is a Class-A drug addict. Crack and heroin. I went to my mum. She was broke. They couldn’t help me. I starting nicking bikes.”

Sometimes working alone, at other times with a group of friends, and armed with an array of tools to pick or break pretty much any lock, he stole up to 10 bikes a day, selling them on to a range of shady customers. He estimates that he took “thousands” of bicycles across London over three years, with his earnings averaging £500 a week. “I was a career bike thief. That was what I did for a living day in, day out.”

Sometimes he got caught. “I ended up with a tag here and there.” He became well-known to police and his crime wave came to an end when he took a £4,000 bike from a parking facility where his face was caught on a CCTV camera. At the time he was on bail for possession of a Taser gun. He pleaded guilty to that and the bike offence and served four months of an eight-month sentence in Feltham Young Offenders Institution.

“When I went to prison I thought to myself: I don’t want to be in and out of here again. It’s time I turned my life around,” he says. After his release his resettlement worker shrewdly suggested he work with bikes. Only this time he was to fix rather than steal them.

Bikeworks is a social enterprise (a business that operates in order to tackle social problems) based in Tower Hamlets. It was founded in 2007 by Dave Miller, who has a background in social entrepreneurship, and Jim Blakemore, whose career as a small businessman had included being a director of a cycle-hire company. The pair had spotted a gap in the market. “There has been a huge growth in terms of the numbers of people cycling. But there is a lack of skilled technicians to fix the bikes,” Miller says.

Bikeworks runs courses in bicycle maintenance for unemployed people, including those struggling to find work because of criminal records. They also train prisoners so that they have a skill when they finish their sentences.

Some graduates of its courses work at one of its four locations across London. Shenol is one of these; his enthusiasm and knowledge of bikes has secured him a job in the Tower Hamlets Bikeworks store. “Shenol is one of Bikeworks’ very best members of staff. His enthusiasm, desire to learn and willingness to go the extra mile is an inspiration to all of us,” Miller says. “We firmly believe that he has an exciting future ahead of him with Bikeworks and beyond.”

Bikes that are recycled by Bikeworks, including large numbers received from cycle shops running part-exchange schemes, are donated to people needing affordable transport or sold at reasonable prices. Companies hire Bikeworks to repair their employees’ bicycles and the enterprise also offers cycling courses and sells parts. Its turnover has reached £1 million, and Miller and Blakemore calculate that they have helped 5,400 people.

Miller is convinced that the model of their business is well-suited to expansion. The Big Issue, Jamie Oliver’s 15 Foundation and the Eden Project are big success stories among social enterprises, but there are few other household names in the sector. “If we really want to change the world some of us have to achieve greater scale,” Miller says. “Otherwise we’ll always be on the margins of things.”

Enter Damon Buffini. Buffini is a partner and former chairman of private equity firm Permira, as well as chairman of the Social Business Trust. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates his wealth at £95 million. He grew up the son of a single mother on a Leicestershire council estate. He went to grammar school, studied law at Cambridge University and did an MBA at Harvard Business School before embarking on a business career that not only made him a fortune but also earned him a seat on former prime minister Gordon Brown’s business advisory committee and a place near the top of lists of the country’s most powerful businessmen and most influential black people.

He understands the power education and training can have in helping people to escape poverty, and the ability of businesses to help those trying to help the disadvantaged. “Yes, I came from a council-estate background, so I know something about the problems that social enterprises are trying to address. But what I hope I bring to SBT are business and entrepreneurial skills that enable us to grow those that we work with so they, in turn, can help more and more people in their communities and fufil their social mission,” he says.

He founded the Social Business Trust almost two years ago and has just agreed with his partners at Permira to reduce his commitments at the private equity firm in order to spend more time on not-for-profit work. It is a charitable organisation composed of Permira and five other corporate heavyweights: Bain & Company, Clifford Chance, Credit Suisse, Ernst & Young and Thomson Reuters. At a time when budget cuts are forcing the Government and local councils to withdraw funding from many social projects, the gaps that need filling are wider than ever.

“What is important now in the UK, given the situation we are in, is that you have these great enterprises — and being a business person I am a supporter of this — and there is huge opportunity to access the incredible skills that UK business has and get it into these sectors. My ambition is to take business skills and apply them to social enterprises and through that get to improve a million people’s lives.”

The Social Business Trust has committed an initial £10 million of cash and in-kind expertise to its projects. A third of the contribution comes in money and two thirds in the form of man hours; the sort of blue-chip expertise, from senior partner down, that social enterprises can’t afford. “The money is important but it’s not the most important thing. It is the people,” Buffini says. “Credit Suisse or Bain employees go in and realise that the skills they have been using for a big corporate client are very useful in the social environment.”

Among the five projects that the trust has already worked on was a nursery provider that wanted to expand provision for poorer families and drew on the expertise of a Permira team that had in-depth knowledge of a for-profit chain of nurseries. The IT division of Credit Suisse was deployed to a company providing affordable loans and financial advice. By reorganising the computer system they made it simpler and cheaper to make loan offers.

Adele Blakebrough, the chief executive of the Trust, says that social enterprises are held back by the quality of their managers. “The social sector is fantastic at chief-executive level — the visionaries. And we are fantastic at foot soldiers, the brilliant people who do the work. But the thing that the social enterprises don’t have money for and don’t have experience or expertise in is management.”

Without managers they cannot grow. “There are 62,000 social enterprises in the UK,” Buffini says. “There are very few that are of scale. And they should be of scale because the issues they are dealing with are national.” He has big ambitions for Bikeworks because of the cycling boom that has swept the country. “It’s not even a growth market — it’s a growth social phenomenon.”

But while he is a keen leisure cyclist himself, pedalling along towpaths from his home in Weybridge with his wife and three children, when it comes to enterprise he is not terribly interested in the blokes in Lycra dreaming of the Tour de France. “This is more than just about the trend and everyone getting on their bike, fantastic though that is. It is great that Bradley Wiggins won gold and all this sort of stuff.

“But these guys [Bikeworks] started in their community in Tower Hamlets, refurbishing bikes that are given to them because they are discarded, training people up to refurbish them so they can go and get jobs. It’s about people from prisons, Neets (not in education, employment or training), the disadvantaged, disabled. And working in the community to encourage people to cycle. They are incredibly successful. They realise they have massive growth potential, but how do they execute that? Which markets do they establish first? It’s a big wave, they could go anywhere.”

Even as we talk, at Permira’s St James’s offices, a senior partner at Clifford Chance is at Bikeworks talking through their expansion strategy. The plan is to saturate the London market, adding another three to four stores/workshops, and then open in six other British cities by 2017. The aim is that within five years their £1 million annual turnover will become £5 million. “They will be going from very small to medium in a very sustained way so they don’t fall over,” Blakebrough says. The trust will inject £200,000 worth of cash and advice.

That means a lot more young people (mostly men, but some women) will be learning how to replace bearings and tension spokes. People like Sam Whiteley, 24, and his friend Jack [who wants to remain anonymous] , 23, who graduated from the Bikeworks course and now work in the team repairing the 100-150 Boris bikes that come in each day for repair at Serco’s control centre for the cycle-hire scheme in Islington.

Both left school without finishing and have criminal convictions. Sam spent years involved with gangs, and was fined and did community service for causing criminal damage to a taxi after an altercation with the driver. He believes that “everyone deserves a second chance” and is determined to seize it. “I’ve got a six-year-old daughter. I want to see her grow up. I don’t want to be talking to her on a phone in prison. I just want to get on with life.”

Jack was already on the Bikeworks course when he appeared in court for his part in a smash-and-grab raid on an office in the West End. He thinks that the character reference Bikeworks wrote for him helped to keep him out of jail. “The judge said that it was my last chance. This is where I want to be. I didn’t think it would ever happen that I’d get a job.”

Life is clearly not easy for Shaddouh. He describes his father’s failed attempts to wean himself off drugs by taking methadone; his cold sweats when he hasn’t had his fix. “It’s not nice to be living with someone like that,” he says.

He also has to resist the powerful undertow of the street and the company of his former criminal associates. He tries to avoid bad influences by spending time with his girlfriend and putting in long hours at the shop. “I would say I have changed a lot. I’ve distanced myself from them mates.”

Watching his cheerful manner as he serves customers in the Tower Hamlets Bikeworks shop, it is clear that he has found a job he enjoys. “I love it. It’s a pleasure to be here. The alarm goes off and I think: ‘Oh good, got to go to work.’ When I was doing crime, if people said ‘What will you be doing in five years time?’, I’d say ‘nicking more bikes’. I was young, dumb and stupid. Thank God I found Bikeworks.”

Now 19, he has ambitious plans. “I strongly believe in karma. I have got a lot of bad karma behind me. To level myself out I am in the process of starting my own business to design and create a bicycle lock to revolutionise bicycle security. There wasn’t a bike that we couldn’t nick. If you can find a lock that can stop me it would stop the majority of bike thieves.”

The future of cycling

Nearly a year ago, Mary Bowers, our friend and colleague at The Times, was hit by a lorry while cycling to work. She is making slow progress and has yet to regain full consciousness.

Since the accident, this newspaper has campaigned for better and safer cycling provision in our cities. More than 35,000 people have joined our campaign and 3,500 have written to their MPs to demand safer cycling provision.

Now, £30 million in extra funding has been released by the Department for Transport to improve dangerous junctions. Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, has slashed bureaucracy to help councils fix life-saving mirrors at junctions and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has floated the idea of creating cycle lanes in the sky. There is still a long way to go if we are to make cities fit for cycling, and so as party conference season begins The Times has teamed up with Sustrans, the cycling charity, and the Freight Transport Association (FTA) to address the future of cycling.