Social enterprise founder in Bethnal Green says Olympics and Paralympics not enough to get people cycling
The only social enterprise of its kind in the country started from a bedroom in Bow but is now replicating its concept by setting up shops across London after just six years.
The Advertiser went to meet the man who started it all at Bikeworks on Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green where the business relocated to from Gun Wharf in 2011.
Starting from humble beginnings cycle enthusiast Jim Blakemore, 39 and originally from Cambridge, stacked up around 30 bikes for repair works on his spare bed back in 2006 before securing funding to provide cycle training for disabled people.
The enterprise now incorporates maintenance services, industry training, a retail shop, and a workshop for refurbishing recycled bicycles under one roof.
Bicycle courses are offered to everyone in the community with its disabled clubs riding in Victoria Park. The enterprise has also secured a number of corporate clients to which they provide bicycles and cycle training for staff.
Today the enterprise employs 25 full-time staff from bicycle mechanics and shop staff to office workers, along with 25 freelance cycling instructors and mechanics.
It’s projected turn-over for this year is expected to be around �1.2 million.
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This year more than 100 people, many of them homeless or former homeless people, long-term unemployed and ex-offenders are expected to complete City and Guilds VRQ qualifications after being trained at their workshop. Up to 400 people are set to achieve a basic qualification.
Half of those who train at Bikeworks go on to secure industry employment at bicycle retailers such as Evans and Halfords.
Jim said: “It’s a figure we are very proud of and a much higher success rate than for jobs centres dealing with marginalised people.”
This year the enterprise opened another shop with the same concept in Hammersmith, west London and more shops are planned for north and south London.
Jim said: “We would like to spread out like a compass. There are very few social enterprises which have managed to replicate, so we would like to try and scale out what we’re doing.”
The original idea for a social enterprise providing bicycle maintenance and cycle training came from Jim’s partner Zoe Portlock, whom he met after coming to the capital to study cultural studies at the University of East London.
Studying for a second degree in social enterprise in 2005 Zoe submitted a business plan entitled Olympic Bikes. During her research she was drawing on Jim’s industry expertise.
Jim had bought a bicycle hire company in Cambridge, which he worked for as a 14-year-old boy, as a way out of the DJing and club promotion career he pursued after university, after his hearing was damaged.
“I read Zoe’s business plan, and decided to sell my share of the business in Cambridge as I was fed up with the commute from London, and set up her proposed enterprise.”
With the help of Zoe’s expertise in social enterprise and funding, he managed to secure a �20,000 grant from Bromley-by-Bow Centre, where Zoe now works as director of services, to provide cycle training for disabled people in Mile End Park. They also obtained smaller grants from organisations such as the London Cycling Campaign.
Zoe previously worked for the Tower Project providing services to disabled people where Jim also gave musical classes. It was here he got the idea to target his cycle training at disabled people.
Jim said: “I could clearly see many disabled people live a sedentary life. I could see the bicycle as giving them a tool to exercise. If you have a balancing problem we could provide tricycles and for people with visual impairment the tandem is an option.”
The enterprise also secured work providing cycle training for local authorities in east London.
Another big break came in 2007 when Jim teamed up with his co-director Dave Miller.
“I had heard about this other guy working for Oxford House trying to set up a similar bicycle initiative, but which was more focused on offering employment opportunities and recycling bikes.
“We arranged to meet and he later asked me if he could join Bikeworks. He came with a lot of social entrepreneurial expertise but didn’t have my bicycle industry and small business expertise.
“He had also secured �20,000 of funding which helped us move from my bedroom into industrial units at Gun Wharf – giving us a public face.
“It also gave us the space to recycle bikes donated from local authorities, police and the public and we now had to start buying in labour to help us repair bikes.”
The pair reached a milestone after winning a Dragon’s Den type competition called Spark, run by government and corporate partners, to train and employ disadvantaged people worth �75,000.
“That’s when our training and employment really took off,” Jim said.
He puts their success down to them bringing their very different expertise together. And with a nose for business, Jim is aware public contracts under current austerity measures could dry up.
He said: “That’s why we now have a shop selling new and recycled bicycles and accessories as cycling retail is a growing market.”
He also hopes to expand their corporate clients and believes the Olympics led to a slight uptake in cycling when people feared public transport chaos.
“But I think it will take more than the Olympics to get more than two per cent of people in Tower Hamlets cycling,” he said. “The way forward is segregated cycle lanes, which have proved a success on the continent as people are scared of sharing the roads with cars, along with cycling training and access to affordable bicycles.”
While the Games provided some work for Bikeworks, which has been on hand to repair broken down bikes at the Olympic Park, Jim hopes they will have a larger role in legacy.
“The legacy to leave something behind for the community is really what we are about,” he said, and hopes to open a centre offering cycling training for disabled people in the park within the next two years.
It’s a Fact:
600 people have completed build a bike courses at Bikeworks earning them a bike of their own.
170 people at Bikeworks have graduated from their three months cycle into work programme.
50 per cent of people training at Bikeworks move into stable employment.
10,000 bicycles have been recycled at Bikeworks with 4,000 being refurbished and the rest stripped down and parts reused.
15 kilos is the average weight of a bicycle. That equates to up to 150,000 kilos worth of metal saved from landfill sites at Bikeworks.