THE chief executive of Bryson Charitable Group, Northern Ireland’s leading social enterprise, is retiring after 33 years of service.
John McMullan began his career with Bryson in 1985 and has gone on to dedicate almost half of his life to delivering social change.
And his contribution has been significant to the company’s growth from a traditional local charity to a large scale organisation.
When he first began working for Bryson, the company had around 50 employees and a turnover of only a few hundred thousand pounds. Now, the group employs 830 people and turns over around £27 million.
“It’ll be a change, an absolute change, but I have much to keep me occupied. I am sure there’s a list of things on the home improvement front that are required,” John says.
“I have a personal commitment to social enterprise. I have some work to do with the guys there to build support for a social value act in Northern Ireland which enables social enterprises and private companies to grow. I' m also going to remain a board member of my very favourite credit union."
Before he started his career in the third sector, John spent over a decade in manufacturing, first with Tyrone Crystal and later with the old Michelin company in Mallusk. Both ended with redundancies.
“It’s interesting, my first two jobs were in the private sector and I was made redundant in each of those after five years, so getting a job in Bryson and getting beyond five years convinced me that I wasn’t the problem why these companies had closed.
“But redundancies challenge you to think differently, and as a result of that it enabled me to grow, change and indeed educate myself.”
John went to school during the Troubles and for him, getting an education wasn’t easy. When he was studying for his A levels he didn’t even have a set school to go to.
“In 1969 we ended up sharing the school with the military and we weren’t compatible, so eventually we had to vacate the school.
“They opened old schools around the Falls Road and we used to go from school to school. The old schools they opened were so old that they still had a fireplace in the corner.
“Belfast was quite disruptive at that time, so often you didn’t end up at school. There was so much to do and so much temptation not to go to class.”
It wasn’t until John got employment with Bryson House that he went to university and gained a number of qualifications over an eight-year period.
He started work with Bryson through a programme called Action for Community Employment (ACE), where he offered work experience opportunities to those who were unemployed for up to 12 months.
John found that he made more money through benefits with having a family and a mortgage, than he did in Bryson. So he made a deal that if he were to work for the organisation they would support him in going back to adult education.
“So that was the deal, I ended up going to Ulster University for eight years. That contributed significantly to growing my experience and understanding. It also improved my qualifications from being more than just A levels,” he said.
At University of Ulster John did a HNC in business and finance, then an honours degree in business studies before completing a masters degree in business administration.
With John as CEO, Bryson House has piloted a number of what are now known as common services such as fuel poverty and recycling initiatives. Interventions such as insulation and draft proofing measures across Northern Ireland started with John and his team.
“If you look to the modern organisation we have developed an approach to recycling which is leading the way right across the United Kingdom. It’s called Kerbsort,” he said.
Kerbsort is a way in which the group get people to sort their materials, they sort them on the kerb and then sell them back into Northern Irish markets.
“It’s much better for everybody, better for the environment and society. There are many stories in Bryson on things we have led the way in.”
John believes that social enterprise is of major importance in making a difference and changing things.
“Society needs organisations like Bryson because they do things in different ways. They show you better ways and provide better outcomes. There is always a role for social enterprise in the third sector.”
Bryson House have won many awards including the Ulster Bank social enterprise award and the private business UK Social Enterprise Award. The group also holds a gold level Investors in People accreditation.
“I'm particularly proud of that award because that’s somebody else coming into that organisation and checking with your staff and your processes and confirming that you’re demonstrating and investing in people.
“I think making a difference to people’s lives is really rewarding but also seeing the people you work with grow and develop themselves and their confidence. I think that’s really special.
“What you get in this organisation and our sector you may not get anywhere else. Enabling people to do things they thought they couldn’t do.”
When asked about any regrets he may have had, John replied: “Yes, that I didn’t start this sooner.”
Over 33 years he has realised that what makes an organisation work is the team within it.
“I think it's easy to say that one person has made an organisation. The reality for me is organisations are good because the people who work in them are good.
“It has been a privilege to work here and a delight. I have grown and learned a lot and I have seen a lot of other people grow and learn a lot at the same time.”