Caring, sharing co-op

Hannah Davies discovers how one ‘Little Woman’ built up a business empire against the odds of education, experience and gender.

Hannah Davies discovers how one ‘Little Woman’ built up a business empire against the odds of education, experience and gender.

IN the 1970s, Sunderland men expected their wives to be there at home every night, and their dinner on the table. Fighting against that expectation was one of the biggest battles we faced.”

Margaret Elliott, 57, has a quiet aura of control and confidence around her.

She is petite and softly spoken, quick to smile and engaging, but there is no doubt this is a woman in full knowledge of her abilities.

These abilities have seen her rise from housewife with young children to a business woman at the helm of a £2m turnover business, Sunderland Home Care Associates.

The home care package business’s location in Hendon, Sunderland, with a burnt out pub at the bottom of the road and numerous boarded-up houses dotted around, is less than salubrious.

But it is a rejection of snobbery, a belief in normal working people’s abilities and tight community links which have made Margaret’s business the success it is.

It was Margaret’s builder husband Peter, from whom she is now separated, who got her thinking about starting her own business when he returned from joining a Sunderland Co-operative, Sunderlandia.

Curious, Margaret, who is from the Hylton Road area of Sunderland, took a look at his papers to see what it involved.

“I’d never heard of co-operatives but when he brought home the articles about it, I just thought it was a fantastic idea.

“I loved the fact everyone who worked in a place, from the bottom up, had a say about how the place was run.”

At the same time, Margaret knew she was not going to be happy spending the rest of her life as a mother and housewife. “You just know,” she explains. “So I started looking out for something else to do.”

Margaret had met her husband Peter while working as a barmaid in South Hylton Working Men’s Club.

“It was like having 20 fathers all looking out for me,” she laughs. “It was amazing he managed to chat me up.”

They fell in love, got married and before too long they had two young children, Victoria, now 37, and Christian, 33.

“All the time, I knew I wanted to do more than just raise my children and keep the house,” Margaret says.

“I loved being a mother but I was on the lookout for something else.”

With the idea of a co-operative in her head, Margaret decided to take it further and enlisted other women she knew in the same situation.

She had two young children to raise, and many of her friends also had children they needed to look after if they were to work.

So in 1974, Margaret came up with the idea of a shop, with a nursery for the children on the top floor.

“I asked around my friends to see who was interested in joining up and we started to meet up and talk. Everyone came forward with lots of good ideas.”

The women, seven in total and friends and relatives of Margaret, decided to call themselves “Little Women” and they looked into what it would take to start their own shop.

“We needed £8,500 to buy a shop and to stock it,” Margaret explains. “It took us two years to raise the money.

“None of us had any cash so we had to get our husbands to guarantee bank loans.

“In December 1976, we opened the doors so we could get the Christmas trade.

“Then the seven of us started to learn the business. I began with doing the books.”

Margaret’s dream of a properly-functioning co-operative had started, although there were a few teething problems.

“Because initially I did the books, people would come to me with questions,” she recalls. “I was worrying a bit about why they came to me all the time.

“I said ‘it’s a worker’s co-operative, one person shouldn’t be the only person with all of the knowledge’.

“So I taught one of the other women how to do the books and she taught the next woman and so on, so the whole seven of us knew how to do everything from stocktaking to bookkeeping, everything so we all learnt all aspects of running the business.”

These are the principles Margaret has worked on ever since, and they began paying off immediately. She recalls: “I saw a change in these women from having low self-esteem and thinking they couldn’t do anything. They changed and I saw their self-esteem grow and they became more confident.”

As part of their co-operative, the women initiated a fortnightly meeting, which they went to despite firm resistance from home.

“The men still expected their women to be at home whenever they wanted them,” Margaret smiles firmly.

“We fought hard for our meetings, and from 1974 to today we have met every fortnight – you don’t stop something which has been won with difficulty.

“In our first Little Women meetings, we were only in our 20s. We have grown together and experienced all of life’s problems together and they have still continued.”

The Little Women shop on Hylton Road, Sunderland, was an immediate hit with the local community.

They put seats in for people to rest in and have a chat. They sold pensioners small portions, a little bit of butter, a few eggs at a time and encouraged people to come in and use the place as a community resource.

Little Women’s annual general meeting was attended by everyone who worked or went there, and became legendary as a good knees-up.

However, the state of the economy in the 1980s took its toll on the shop. Recalling that difficult time, Margaret adds: “Everything was going well for a good while but in 1980 inflation was going mad and the takings had suffered. We were also in competition with the supermarkets by then.”

Scared of losing the £8,500 people had put into the venture, the difficult decision was made to sell the shop.

“We didn’t want to let anybody down, so we sold the shop and vetted who was going to buy it and we wanted to let it continue,” Margaret adds sadly.

Although they continued their monthly meetings, everyone drifted off into other jobs and Margaret decided to do some further education. “Working for other people was a very different situation. We all found ourselves frustrated by people looking over our shoulders and talking down to us. Going from running your own business to that was exasperating.”

While most of the women found part-time jobs and Margaret did a diploma in Community and Youth work, the group still continued to meet every fortnight and in 1982 were approached to see if they would be interested in starting a home care co-operative.

Margaret said: “We were all interested in the new venture – I think running the shop had set something in motion in all of us and changed us for ever really.

“We became more confident in our abilities and less fearful of taking on new challenges.”

The group launched Little Women Household Services, providing support for people who couldn’t get local authority home help, which ran successfully for three years. But it was the Griffiths report on Care in the Community in the late 1980s that proved a turning point for Margaret.

She said: “I saw it as a real opportunity for the development of workers’ co-operatives – if the private sector was going to be used to provide care, what better way to go forward than to set up a worker’s co-operative business where the members would have a say in the decisions that affected their working lives.”

Margaret travelled to New York and Philadelphia to look and learn from the American care co-operative organisations that had been going for some time and found the trip inspirational.

“It was amazing going to New York, I thought it was great, here I was from Sunderland in The Big Apple! And I learnt a lot. We went and spent three days in the Bronx and then we went to Philadelphia to see how their care providers worked.

“When I got back, I put together a business plan and went to the Tyne and Wear Corporation, as it was then.”

In September 2003, out of over 100 expressions of interest, Margaret’s business got picked. “Someone told us later it was due to our record with Little Women’s Care Service as well,” Margaret recalls. “The corporation gave each organisation £10,000 so they could operate for six months, so we haven’t even borrowed a penny since.” Home Care Services began on January 4, 1994, and today has 215 staff and provides over 4,000 hours of care a week.

Around 215 care workers now own the business, with each worker allocated shares according to their length of service and the hours they put in.

On a day-to-day basis, they help older, frail and disabled people to stay in their homes for as long as possible.

Typically, the work involves getting people up, washed, dressed in the morning, giving them breakfast and then clearing away, and the service is tailored to suit the level of dependency of each client.

Margaret says: “Everyone is local, from Wearside, most are women and many lone parents. Most of the staff live in hard-pressed communities and many lack formal education.

“I learnt early on how important it is for staff to feel valued and have a sense of responsibility.

“There is no them-and-us environment. And I’ve stuck to the co-operative principles.”

Margaret separated from her husband Peter 15 years ago but says they remain best friends. She has a new partner.

Her children have grown into confident adults, another reason for her to feel proud. She says one thing she instilled in them was a value for education.

Margaret adds: “I thought their education was the key for them to get a better life. I used to say to them ‘I know it is three or four years out of your life, but a degree can never get taken away from you’.”

It obviously stuck. Victoria studied at Manchester University but now lives in Shoreham-by-the-Sea where she is a youth advocate.

And Christian went to Sunderland University and now lives in Maidenhead in Kent where he works for BAe Systems and is studying for a law degree.

“They say they are proud of me and that’s a lovely thing to hear from your children.”

There are now North Tyneside Care Associates, Manchester Care Associates among others and the Sunderland HQ gives comprehensive advice and support to the other companies across the country.

Margaret adds smiling: “Looking back, it’s been hard work but it’s great to really see things happen.

“In so many ways it has been my life’s work and something that has driven me, it still does today. I really have a passion for what I do.”

I learnt early on how important it is for staff to feel valued and have a sense of responsibility

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