Small Business - Co-operation is at the community's heart

Good causes right across the region have received support from a North-East business.

Good causes right across the region have received support from a North-East business. Helen Logan found out more.

The sea and the stage may not seem to have a lot in common. But the thread which binds them here is that they are the focus of projects which have been helped by the North Eastern and Cumbrian Co-op's Community Dividend fund.

It assists a wide range of organisations - community, self-help and voluntary groups and community charities or local branches of national charities.

Cash is generated via the Co-op's profit-share scheme.

Here members of the Co-op can either donate the odd pence, a percentage or all of their share of the profit.

In 2005 369 projects were supported in the North-East and Cumbria with a grand total of £180,262 handed over.

Grants of between £100 and several thousand pounds can be awarded.

But in practice the sum is usually for a few hundred pounds so as many groups as possible receive help.

Grant applications are considered by elected committee members in eight areas - Northumberland; North Tyne; Tyneside; South Tyne and Wear; Mid Durham; South Durham and Dales; Teesside and North Yorkshire; and Cumbria - every other month.

The rule of thumb is that any project applying for financial support must:

Benefit the community where one of the Co-operative Group businesses trades.

Be in line with co-operative values and principles such as social responsibility and caring for others.

Have a charitable purpose - but does not need to be a charity.

The North Eastern and Cumbrian Co-op is part of the Co-operative Group.

Its business interests in the region comprise more than 250 outlets, covering food retail, banking, travel, pharmacy, funerals and insurance.

The co-operative is a democratic business owned by its customer-members, who are able to participate by attending regional members' meetings, organising member events on issues such as fairtrade and climate change, or by seeking election to local committees. Geographically, it covers the North-East from Berwick down to parts of North Yorkshire, along with the whole of Cumbria.

Suzanne Heron, North Eastern and Cumbrian Co-op regional secretary, said: "Social responsibility and caring for others are two of our co-operative values and the Community Dividend fund was set up to help put these values into action.

"The scheme's aim is to make a real and lasting contribution to local communities where the business trades."

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Success sees events company in the pink

The growing trend of celebrating achievements with awards and swapping ideas at conferences is proving big business for one small North-East company, as Iain Laing found out.

An events company is poised for national expansion after winning business including corporate videos, backing up the Royal Shakespeare Company and turning the Baltic pink.

Newcastle-based R&B Group started life in 1991, following on from a management buy-out of the city's branch of national audio-visual hire company Viewplan.

In the early years, the company focused mainly on the conference and video production market, working for clients across the UK on a variety of roadshows and sales conferences.

It wasn't until 1998, with the acquisition of another North-East firm, that group really started to grow its business into four clearly defined areas - conference services, equipment hire, set design and build and video production.

And, after a few years of winning big name clients including Royal Institution of British Architects, Sage and the Royal College of Nursing, it is now stepping up its expansion plans.

It saw turnover reach £1m in 2003. That has grown to £1.5m, and it is expected to be £2m by 2007 and £4m by 2010, largely, it says, on the strength of offering a `one-stop shop' for its various services.

R&B, which currently employs 25 staff, has just added a new unit to its base in Walker Road, Newcastle, and opened a Harrogate office to cope with its growing slice of the spa town's busy conference market.

Managing director Antony Crerar said: "Our strategy was to acquire other businesses or to open branch offices around the country. We were originally expecting to expand outwards from the North-East.

"But now we are looking at going into other areas where they are under-served. We are looking at the south of Wales and the North-West of England for our next branch offices.

"We originally intended to open in Harrogate early next year. But, because of reasons including the amount of business we are getting in from Harrogate International Conference centre, we were able to move in there earlier than intended.

"So, now we are looking at opening the next branch early in the next year. There does seem to be a very strong demand for our services.

"The conference market is very strong as a whole. The number of corporate awards seems to be growing constantly and I think companies realise that we can deliver a broad range of services which cover all their needs for these events."

He says one of the challenges of the expansion has involved redrawing operating strategies that have evolved over years in Newcastle, formalising them to enable the firm to "hit the ground running" at its new bases.

As far as acquisitions go, the business is still circumspect, at present, while it focuses on organic growth.

Mr Crerar said: "We haven't investigated acquisitions. There are one or two opportunities around and we have a few open book discussions on-going, but not outside the region."

Although the vast majority of the company's work is for conferences and award ceremonies, it also tackles more unusual areas.

Mr Crerar's theatrical background - he was technical manager and then deputy manager of the Newcastle Playhouse before joining R&B eight years ago - means he still enjoys involvement in matters artistic.

The company provides lighting and production services for the Royal Shakespeare Company when it visits the North-East, works with artistic projects for Dance City in Newcastle and is hired for large-scale outdoor promotional work, such as drenching the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in a pink light for a bank celebration.

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We're back to nature

Teesside-based Preston Lane Allotments Association - a voluntary group managing a 47 plot site in Eaglescliffe - has been given £250.

The money is for a basic allotment gardening course with the subjects covered including choosing vegetables, flowers and fruit, soil preparation, seed sowing, transplanting, growing on, pest and disease control, supporting growing plants and irrigation.

Its aims include raising awareness of ways to grow food using sustainable methods and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

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Lessons from time gone by

Children from schools across Durham have been finding out how we used to live.

The Durham Heritage Centre and Museum provides activities for children based on local history and £500 from the Co-op was used to organise a Mining Heritage Day to help the youngsters learn about the area's mining history.

The cash bought costumes for the museum's school, props for drama workshops and arts and crafts materials.

A grant of £1,400 has been helping adults with learning disabilities to tread the boards in Northumberland.

Blyth-based Headway Theatre Company was awarded the money to help set up the Out and About arts project which involves a group working together to produce a stage show to perform at theatres around the area.

A charity dedicated to keeping Sunderland's shipbuilding traditions alive was given a cash boost of £600.

Sunderland Maritime Heritage based at South Docks, was set up six years ago to preserve the city's shipbuilding heritage.

As well as carrying out restoration work, members keep an archive of photographs, documents and artefacts recording the maritime history of the city.

Newcastle Bangladeshi Association, which runs a centre in Elswick Road, has benefited to the tune of £750.

The money was to provide educational taster courses, which included digital photography, word processing, food hygiene, yoga, reflexology, and dress making.

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