Next time your train pulls in at its destination, think of the veterans and people with disabilities who showed it the way thanks to Network Rail’s inclusive supplier

Rail industry suppliers come in all shapes and sizes. But few of those working in the industry, let alone its passengers, will be aware that one key provider, whose work enables nearly every rail journey made in Britain today, is rather unique – a social enterprise, owned by a century-old veterans’ charity.

With increasing focus on corporate ethics and how public and private sector organisations promote inclusiveness, diversity and sustainability, Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company (BBMC) is a clear example of how those social and business values can go hand in hand.

BBMC holds the exclusive contract to supply Network Rail with the trackside signage that helps drivers to get their trains, passengers and cargo safely to their destination. It also counts several other large public and private sector organisations among its clients. So far, so normal – but here’s the key difference; around 70 per cent of its 100 staff are armed forces veterans and people with disabilities – with many falling into both categories.

‘People with disabilities and armed forces veterans often face complex cultural and physical barriers to employment’ says Kate Bull, Managing Director of BBMC. ‘And sadly, they are significantly more likely than the general population to be out of work.’ 

While Bull is proud of the opportunities that BBMC gives these groups, she says the organisation ‘is very much keen to be judged primarily on the quality of our products and services’. The calibre of its clientele rather suggests there is no problem on that front. 

While the BBMC brand itself is just four years old, you need to go back a further 97 years to understand its roots and values. For many soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War One, another personal fight was just beginning. In total, 55,000 soldiers were discharged from the services with tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial infection mainly affecting the lungs, which was often seriously debilitating, with no known cure at the time.

As these veterans recovered, they wanted to have more independence and needed the chance to provide for their families. An organisation named Industrial Settlements was created in 1919, providing accommodation to ex-servicemen and employing them to make items including wooden toys and boxes from a site in Aylesford near Maidstone in Kent. It would later become Royal British Legion Industries, though today operates as an entirely separate and distinct charity to the Royal British Legion. 

Over the century since, that organisation has expanded both its range of activities, and its physical premises – its village in Aylesford now provides supported and independent living accommodation for more than 300 ex-servicemen and women, and their families.

As the products and services supplied by veterans at RBLI evolved, and its customer base grew, it was decided to create a new brand for the enterprise and so Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company was born in April 2016.

Kate added: ‘What is often gravely misunderstood about social enterprises is that we are parochial operators or cottage industries – providing a few products on a small scale along with a little bit of support to those who need it. 

‘Actually, as is evident with Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, we can be genuine industry leaders. We have more than one hundred years of active experience – not only in providing crucial support to our country’s veterans but also first-class, quality products, which see people return to us time and time again. Organisations of all sizes should be looking to include social enterprises in their procurement processes.’

BBMC’s main facility in Aylesford includes a metalwork shop, where metal sheets are cut to size. On the other side of the factory floor, a modern graphic design and production team prints signs onto vinyl, with an assembly team putting the two parts together, and a dispatch team getting the signs where they need to be.

In addition to providing relevant training for new recruits, the manufacturer makes adjustments to accommodate employees with disabilities. These personalised measures can include pastoral care for individuals suffering from PTSD or other conditions, providing the necessary lifting aids, varying processes where an employee needs to tackle a task in a different way to the usual, and making sure to pair people with complementary abilities.

But those are no barrier to quality and speed of production. Trackside signs can be turned around in a couple of days, and most Network Rail orders are dispatched within a week. These are all manufactured to Network Rail’s product acceptance criteria and the even more exacting standards of ISO9001. BBMC is also a member of the Railway Industry Supplier Qualification Scheme, giving customers confidence in the quality of its product.

BBMC worked for Network Rail for more than two decades before signing its current contract, and many of its other clients are longstanding relationships. There are some clients, Kate says, who ‘like the fact that we’re a bit different, but don’t engage as much with our social purpose – they just use us because we provide a good service’. 

She continues: ‘Others very specifically see working with us as fulfilling corporate responsibility criteria, and the fact that our profits are invested back into RBLI’s charitable work makes them more likely to buy from us, so we have something of a competitive advantage with those clients – although of course they wouldn’t do so unless our product was up to scratch. We’re very comfortable with both situations, with the fact that there can be mixed motivations for working with us.’

Network Rail is among the many signatories of the Armed Forces Covenant, which pledges ‘that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society they serve with their lives’. There are plenty of other voluntary schemes and codes encouraging ethical business practices, many of which focus on how these are not just a philanthropic add-on, but can often increase employee engagement, resonate with customers and, by dint of looking after the natural environment and societies in which they operate, help create a more sustainable future for the business.

Since 2013, the Social Value Act has required people who commission public services to think about how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits. While it doesn’t currently apply to goods (unless they are provided as part of a services contract), and lacks a meaningful method of enforcement, the Government has been eyeing up reform.

Kate comments: ‘Whether this is through legislation, or because of shareholder or customer pressure, it’s clear that more and more organisations are going to have to think about what the money they spend on suppliers is achieving. It’s never been a good option just to go for the cheapest bid or the most convenient provider and ignore the consequences, and I think more and more companies are realising that.’

Network Rail isn’t alone in that. BBMC also supplies wooden pallets to a variety of industrial supply and construction firms; fruit bins to nearby farms in Kent, the Garden of England; road signs to Highways England and various councils; and has provided fulfilment and mail services to Kent County Council, BMW and toymaker K’Nex. And with RBLI having recently established new facilities in Renfrewshire, it is looking to add to its client list.

‘We hope that more organisations in the rail industry and beyond want to talk to us about how we can provide a quality product, with the added bonus of social value’ adds Kate. ‘And as we spread the word about what we do, the whole team at BBMC loves the idea that more people will get off a train and know that our signs helped get them there.’

Steve Hammond, metal shop team leader at BBMC, joined the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Guards in 1977 and served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. Having been medically discharged in 1989 aged 40, he found it hard to find work in his native Shropshire, and was told he could not have the operation he needed for his injured leg until he was 55. He was invited for an assessment at RBLI, which was able to arrange for him to get his operation within six weeks. It also helped him relocate his family to Aylesford, giving him work at what is now BBMC, where he now plays a key role in supplying that trackside signage.

Anil Gurung joined the Army in 2006 as a rifleman with the 2nd Royal Gurkha Regiment. Aged 24, less than a month before he was due to finish a tour of Afghanistan, he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), suffering multiple injuries, with his leg later amputated. Having struggled to imagine a way forward in life after discharge, RBLI helped rebuild his confidence, and he was soon taken on by BBMC. In addition to his day job as a sign manufacturer, he has won Invictus Games gold as a member of the sitting volleyball team, and in November 2017 climbed to Mount Everest Base Camp, raising more than £11,000 for RBLI.