Ideals on wheels
This article demonstrates
the slippery slope of the courier industry and social goals. While
Turnaround is a worthy enterprise it shows how workers in the courier
industry are moving closer and closer to the homeless. The industry is
not challenged by technology it is challenged by price cutting to
illegal levels that is supported by illegal treatment of workers.
It's admirable that jobs
are offered to the homeless but we should recognize the danger of
cannibilaztion as more and more families supported by working couriers
are themselves at risk for homelessness.
The Toronto messenger
industry's competitive prices are in many cases illegal and not livable
for its couriers. That may be fine for those who get out after a couple
of months but for the veterans whose livelihood deponds upon the work
it often means sacrificing necessities like replacing lost teeth to pay
rent or buy food.
Turnaround would find it
much easier to turn a profit if Toronto's messenger industry [not
Turnaround but the industry] was
characterized by competitive real rates that were legal and
*Real rates are those that are actually
invoiced to the customer not the published rates. Published rates are
for one package to a first -time customer. Regular customers often
receive special contract prices that are below the legal rate permitted
by the Canada Post Corporation Act.
peddles his mettle
Toronto Star, March 20, 2005
My guess? Sometime Monday afternoon, Richard Derham will have his
Derham is the entrepreneur profiled on page A8 and A9 (below)
today whose bicycle courier company, aptly named Turnaround Couriers,
provides the first step on the employment ladder for homeless youth.
When reporter Chris Young visited the company's modest headquarters
this month, he found an inspirational man trying to move the theory of
social entrepreneurship from the pages of development textbooks to
action on the streets of Toronto.
"The more I learned about him," Young told me, "the more I could see
how he relished the challenge of it, even if it seemed to be driving
him crazy at times. This is a guy who went to university, holds a
combined English-French law degree and worked as a lawyer, then went
back and got his MBA in Paris. He could be doing anything, anywhere."
What Derham needs, he says — morally, and financially — is for
government to take an interest in his venture. He doesn't want
government grants or subsidies or special considerations; he wants
government business, straight-up.
Next week, we'll let you
know how it all turns out.
Now this is a Turnaround:
a company that tries to do well while doing good. Perhaps the only
for-profit social enterprise in the city, Turnaround gives jobs to
at-risk street kids looking for traction to a better future.
Toronto Star, March 20, 2005
By Chris Young
The future is unfolding in a third-floor walk-up over a Cabbagetown
doughnut shop. Several futures, actually.
A bike crusted with snow is parked outside the door. In the two-room
office of Turnaround Couriers, Johnathan Beales sits at a desk doing
paperwork, the mud still clinging to his rain pants. It's Monday.
There's a problem. Two of Beales' daily roster sheets that track
pick-ups and drop-offs are missing. "The Wednesday-Thursday, you need
to find them," says the boss, Richard Derham. "I can't pay you till you
have them. I need to see the signatures."
"I'll bring them tomorrow," says Beales. "They gotta be somewhere at
"Bring them in. You need some money?"
Derham lends him $50 against his pay. And he's gone, just another young
man off work and out on the town.
Six months ago, the whole story was impossible. Six months ago,
Johnathan Beales lived on the street.
Beales is 21 years old. After coming down from Elliot Lake, he did some
work in a film studio, but when a photography business that he co-owned
with a friend went bust, he had nowhere to go, and bounced from shelter
to shelter. Since August, he has worked as a courier at Turnaround,
taking pictures on his camera as he makes his rounds through the city.
He has ideas, among them to become a millwright, and to wash the glass
of downtown office towers — "I've always wanted to clean the CN Tower's
windows," he says.
The social sector is full of heartwarming before-and-after stories, the
sort that are unfolding at Turnaround Couriers and agencies around
town. It's what keeps them going.
But this could be the most difficult before-and-after of all: Can a
social mission function as a business while solving systemic
inequities? Can society's disadvantaged lift themselves toward the top
while they deliver bottom-line profits? Can an entrepreneur do good and
Turnaround is after all of that, employing youth from Toronto's mean
streets as bicycle couriers and getting them job-ready for the real
world, with half the profits — when there are any — earmarked for
charity and job-training programs.
There's no standard rule for hybrids like this one, or similar
non-profit businesses such as A-Way Express Couriers, staffed by
psychiatric survivors, or the Print Shop at Eva's Phoenix shelter,
which, like Turnaround, employs at-risk kids. Their position is
somewhere between private enterprises answerable to shareholders and
charities and agencies delivering purely social returns.
It's a paradigm embraced around the developing world but hardly known
in Canada, where governments barely recognize it, established charities
regard it with some wariness, and the private sector considerers it a
Even Derham, the person who is most committed to Turnaround, finds his
belief rocked by day-to-day worries about survival.
Since opening its doors in October 2002, Turnaround has yet to climb
out of the red and establish a niche in Toronto's competitive courier
economy, where about two dozen companies [the reporter got this wrong –
there is actually well over 50 companies] scramble for business in an
age of email and BlackBerrys. It's hard enough just defining itself.
"We're not a charity, and we don't want to be perceived as a charity,"
says Derham, a former lawyer who emigrated from England in 2000. "I
want people to think of us first as an efficient, good courier firm,
and secondly with an interesting social mandate.
"It's simple, I think it's unique, and I'm quite excited by the fact
that it is new."
It's new, all right — the only stand-alone, for-profit social
enterprise in the city, and one of the very few across the country. The
much larger notion that underlies it, though — liberating poor and
marginalized populations from the bottom up via entrepreneurial
activity — has taken many forms over the past 30 years in just about
every corner of the developing world.
"Social entrepreneurs" spot a demand for a product or a service or a
better way of doing something, and a disadvantaged population that can
benefit while turning it into an endeavour that generates pools of
In Bangladesh, Zambia and Rwanda, for example, poor women in isolated
rural communities earn a living by operating wireless "village phones"
that allow customers to look for work, reduce costs and travel needs,
stay abreast of shifting markets, and increase trade networks. In
Kenya, small-scale subsistence farmers have formed collectives to get
into international markets, resulting in as much as a tenfold rise in
income, according to a 2004 CARE Canada strategy paper.
"It's about bringing business and making some trade-offs for profit,
and taking a risk essentially to employ or give ownership to folks who,
alone, under a normal market approach, don't have that opportunity,"
says Jesse Moore, director of private sector and development for CARE
Canada. "And it's not because it's a charitable thing to do — it's also
because they can actually add a lot of value. The best social
enterprises actually correct market inefficiency. They're good ideas
Delanie Padmore was 19 years old when she came to Turnaround via a
Covenant House training program in September. She'd been couch-surfing
and bouncing between shelters since leaving her Mississauga home three
years ago, after finally falling out irrevocably with her parents. She
and her boyfriend moved into their first apartment last month. This
week, she received a job offer from a pet store, and is preparing to
leave Turnaround. Perhaps she'll finish her high school diploma next.
"I'm happier with myself. I'm content," she says. "Maybe I had to go
through a rough sort of patch to prepare for these next 20 years of my
Every morning, seven days a week, Derham folds his lanky 6-foot frame
on to his bicycle for the 15-minute ride in from his east-end home to
Cabbagetown. By 8:30, he's first in the office. By 6 p.m. most nights
it's lights out, except on weekends, when he's in for half-days to do
This wasn't how it started out for the 36-year-old. Derham grew up just
south of Manchester. After university, there were law studies at King's
College in London and at the Sorbonne, six years with a Tower Bridge
law firm, then an MBA. All the while, he would take off to different
parts of the world, scrubbing pots and telemarketing in Australia to
keep the money and the travels going, crewing on a yacht that sailed
through the Galapagos, helping friends publish a map of Inca trails in
In 2000, he decided to make one more trip, relocating to Toronto to
work as a consultant. He met up with Bill Young, a former dot-com
millionaire starting up a social enterprise investment company, and
through their discussions wedded his idea for a courier company to
Young's principled principles.
"There have always been courier companies in downtown Toronto, and
there's always been at-risk youth, but it's taken a Richard Derham,
who's had the perseverance and the interest, to make this happen," says
CARE Canada's Moore.
It was a good idea, and it has made believers out of the toughest
audience of all — the kids themselves.
"There's a credibility attached to it that's quite different from the
handout of a non-profit or the government," says Gail Meats, employment
and life-skills co-ordinator at the Evergreen Centre for Street Youth.
"When kids get a job with Richard, they know it's real work."
But it's a tough idea, too. Take Padmore, for example. She has been an
exemplary receptionist since being hired through the provincial
government's Jobconnect program — the only government assistance Derham
says he has accepted. But now, having been at Turnaround for six
months, she's got a job offer and it's time to leave. It's someone
"It's not the easiest target population," says Young. "It's almost
counterintuitive. You have to almost rely on a quick turnover of
Turnaround has employed about 50 couriers to service their base of 130
regular clients. Of the 25 or so that have stayed longer than a month,
Derham says nine have gone on to work for other courier companies, and
six others are in school or other jobs.
"Wearing my business hat, I really don't want them to leave, because it
makes my life simple and they're good at their jobs," says Derham.
"Wearing my philanthropic hat, I'm conscious they're ready for bigger
and better things, and really, the position that they are filling here
could or should be done by someone who is less skilled, or needs an
opportunity to get those skills."
There are other challenges. Derham relies on shelters such as Evergreen
to send him job-ready candidates, the only proviso being no
substance-abuse problems and a record that indicates punctuality. He
trains them and supplies them with a bike, if necessary, along with the
tools to keep it going — as much as $150 worth of gear, which is paid
back sans interest out of their weekly cheque ("Nick it and it comes
out of my pocket," he tells them. Only two have been stolen.)
On some occasions, he has had to juggle courier schedules around bail
hearings or bicycle breakdowns, which leads to the only real hurdle:
having enough couriers.
"I've changed the company policy as a result, but there was a time when
someone got into trouble with the police one night and ended up in the
holding cell and weren't available to work the next day. Then the call
comes in that little Johnny's bike is down and all of sudden we're
short of couriers, and that's the day we're very busy. That makes me
really angry, that people don't necessarily think through.
"Now I've got five couriers, though I need four. When we get a bit more
(busy) and need five, I'll get six."
The couriers are paid on commission, so staffing issues don't bite into
the revenues. These are all minor notes, though, compared with Derham's
major concern: acceptance. The company's rates are competitive, it has
delivered reliable service, and it has endorsements from many major
downtown clients, including heavyweights like Royal Bank and some big
law firms. Yet some city politicians and departments don't even bother
to answer his emails.
"One night in a shelter costs the taxpayer $50 or so. Then there's the
other costs of living on the street," Derham says. "They come here,
they're off the assistance — it should be obvious that we're doing
something to help."
Mark Lafleur is 22 years old. Last year, after a falling-out with his
father, he survived by painting houses while living in shelters. "All
you had to do there was wake up in the morning," he said. "It just gets
annoying." Now he shares a west-end apartment with Johnathan Beales and
Sean Speer, another courier at Turnaround. He likes the freedom of the
road, setting his own lunch hour and whether it will be a burger or a
sandwich — even if it's almost killed him a couple of times.
In March of last year, Prime Minister Paul Martin was in New York at
the United Nations, announcing the release of the United Nations
Development Program's Unleashing Entrepreneurship report. "For too
long, development specialists have overlooked or downplayed the role of
entrepreneurship in creating economic growth, providing employment and
in increasing productivity," said Martin, co-chair of the commission
behind the report.
But while he talked of the need for "partnership on the domestic and
international levels," Canada's social-enterprise sector has stood
still, or even contracted, despite a well-established tradition of
community investment in the form of co-ops and credit unions,
especially in B.C. and Quebec.
A September, 2004, report by consultants Coro Strandberg and Brenda
Plant noted the sector is about 1/20th the size of its U.S.
counterpart. Its assets and contributions actually shrank between 2000
and 2002, while the American sector was nearly doubling in size.
Canada, says the Strandberg-Plant report, "lacks a strong government
role, banking presence in CI (community investment), investor awareness
and a significant donor base, limiting its ability to capitalize on the
lessons that can be learned from the U.S. CI sector. (It is interesting
to speculate, for example, on how a fraction of the five big banks'
$128 million in Canadian charitable donations would boost the fortunes
of the Canadian CI sector.)"
Into this underdeveloped sector, University of Toronto MBA students
have set up Rotman Nexus, a consulting service to help non-profit
clients establish social enterprises. But its $25,000 start-up funding
came from the U.S. — the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skoll Foundation.
Rotman Nexus is seeking more funding, but there just aren't that many
According to Bill Young and several commentators, the fault lies with a
government that has traditionally been chief philanthropist to the
nation, and hasn't established incentives, modified tax models and
created a system for social enterprise to flourish.
"We don't have a framework," says Young. "Organizations like ours get
orphaned, because we're not contemplated."
As an original investor in his cousin's telcom, Red Hat, Young cashed
out at the top of the dot-com boom. He took his windfall and
established Social Capital Partners in 2001. SCP has funded five social
enterprises in Canada, including for-profit "double bottom-lines," as
they're known, in Turnaround Couriers and Inner City Renovations, a
house-renovation company in Winnipeg that employs inner-city
"There's a huge gulf between the people we're hiring and the skills
required," says Young. "If our employees can bridge that gap, they're
going to be economically set for life, they will have skills that are
very much in demand, and be very well-paid. That's a hugely robust
"But it's hard to make the business work. We lost $350,000 its first
year, lost $200,000 its second year, and will likely lose around
$140,000 this year. So we're getting there, but oh, it's been hard.
"It's a tough profile — more than half have criminal records, there are
substance-abuse issues. You're trying to manage those tradeoffs, figure
out what will work and what doesn't work. We didn't expect this to be
an easy road."
Last year's federal throne speech identified social economy as a
priority for the first time. Programs were allocated $132 million over
five years, and a national framework for the sector is the aim of the
ongoing Social Economy Round Table.
Advocates say it's not enough, and have a long shopping list of needs:
a national regulatory system, a way of consistently measuring social
return on investment, a buoyant social capital market with the capacity
to handle large-scale investments, and a government that is less about
handouts and more about bridge-building.
"Our real goal is to change the landscape — if nothing else, we'll die
trying," Young says. "On this thing, we're going to fall on our sword."
Michael Boucaud is 19 years old. He has a booming voice, is quick to
laugh and loves to be making money. Boucaud has been at Turnaround for
almost two months and still lives at a shelter, but he has impressed
Derham with his drive and hustle, which are not the words Boucaud uses
to describe himself growing up. "I was depressed, I was asthmatic, I
felt like nothing mattered and I had no willpower," he says. "Then last
year, I hit the Ecstasy pretty good and smoked too much weed ... but
I'm 20 now, I gotta get going. This place has helped me. I started here
pretty much with what I'm wearing. Now I've saved nearly $500 in the
bank. It's fantastic."
At the end of each business day, Derham takes a black marker and writes
the daily tally on a calendar on the wall of his office. Whatever the
number is, it's not enough. Turnaround Couriers may well be a great
idea — that's what his clients tell him; that's what the stories of
former employees gone on to bigger places tell him — but it is
Some months, Derham hasn't taken a salary. Right now, he's at $1,750 a
month. His wife is on maternity leave. All his savings have gone into
the business. He teaches English on the side, and a weekly soccer game
amounts to his getting-out time. He wants to make a profit, "even if
it's $40, just so I could give $20 back and keep the bargain." He knows
this can't go on much longer.
"The things I don't like are when I'm fearful for surviving — when I'm
staring at the bank statements and I'm thinking, `How can it be that
we've got this sort of momentum going?' when I know we're running this
all on a shoestring, when I know how many months I've gone without
salary," he says.
"Hopefully it's just an unfortunate phase. I don't think that's unique
to Turnaround Couriers. I hope it's not.
"But there's self-doubt — can we survive? I feel passionately about it,
but am I just being blinkered and silly? Should I be more realistic and
drop it now? It's that close. But I'm staying with it because of the
many good things that continue to happen."
Good things? Evergreen has referred 10 of its street kids to Turnaround.
"It's a little community over there," says senior employment counsellor
Debbie Nunes. "I've seen some hard-nosed kids do well there. Richard's
really influencing their lives."
There are new clients, too — or at least, new promises of clients.
Trouble is, those wheels move a lot more slowly than a courier on his
rounds. A "maybe" is not a "yes," and meantime there are matters like a
GST bill to reconcile at the end of the month.
In Toronto, there are plenty of charitable agencies and non-profit
businesses, and plenty of courier companies. Why should we care about
Turnaround Couriers? It's a complex question, one that author David
Bornstein explores in his book How to Change the World.
"Social enterprise is an avenue, a growing field where people can
integrate all the elements of their personality — their talents, their
temperaments, their values, their ethics — and approach their work as
whole human beings," says Bornstein, who is speaking at U of T's Hart
House on Wednesday.
A couple of months back, a federal minister's aide dropped by
Turnaround to see the office, pledge support, and ask Derham what he
needs. We've heard about you, said the aide. What do you want?
"I'd like to get the courier work off the government," answers Derham.