Fifteen London: Penny Newman

The chief executive of Fifteen London tells us why social enterprise is the way of the future

It’s not just the streak of pink hair dye that makes Penny Newman stand out. The chief executive of Fifteen and former CEO of Café Direct is a trailblazing social entrepreneur, vocal in the belief that business with a conscience is the way of the future.


Penny is convinced that successful, socially motivated enterprises like Fifteen, which for the past seven years has been giving disadvantaged young people the chance to work and train in the restaurant business, can restore people’s belief in commerce: “People have lost faith in traditional business and institutions. Organisations that are helping society are going to capture the consumer imagination.”


With a background in marketing, Penny has worked with toiletry and cosmetics giants from Avon and Wella to Faberge. But it wasn’t until she was headhunted by The Body Shop that she discovered her true calling: “In my first week I realised that I wanted to work in an environment where social purpose was as high up on the list of criteria as financial effectiveness.”


After five years with The Body Shop, she decided to leave the firm to take time off. But her plans changed when she received a call asking her to join Café Direct. Initially, she wanted to work as consultant for a mere three months, but in the end she agreed to come on board as financial controller. From the very start, she was called upon to run the company, and ultimately, she consented to do just that. Under her ten-year leadership, Café Direct became a unique proposition.


Originally made up of four charities, the organisation, which trades in a fair way with developing countries, quickly progressed to become a public limited company with a groundbreaking ownership model. When the company floated in 2004, Penny led the largest public ethical share issue and some £5m was raised in just four months. But success really showed in Café Direct’s market share.


Penny explains: “The coffee industry is very big, and quite traditional. So to become the 6th leading brand was really something. And also we were 7th on the tea side. We were raising the game for everyone.”


After a good decade with Café Direct, Penny joined the Fifteen Foundation to take over from former CEO Liam Black. She says she feels quite honoured to have been approached to run the business, but the decision to move was a very hard one. The push came when she decided it was the ‘right time’ to take up new challenges: “I’ve never run a restaurant before. When I came here, I wanted to help young, vulnerable kids here in the UK. I wanted to do something in this country.”


It’s important to note there’s a well-run business behind Fifteen’s social cause. There has to be: Fifteen London – which has sister restaurants in Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne – has much higher overheads than a traditional restaurant. The business carries training allowances for the trainees, and 23 chefs are required to provide them with one-to-one and even two-to-one attention.


Still wearing her marketing hat, Penny is quick to point out that Fifteen is more than the socially conscious project that made a success of Jamie Oliver’s TV show back in 2002. She is very focused on ensuring revenue streams are strong – always a must in the restaurant trade. Fifteen is forever tweaking menu offerings, and Penny has also adapted the marketing strategy to promote the restaurant to tourists: “People need to be brought up to date with what the brand is doing now. We’re going to launch online shopping this month: we’ve got a retail range that nobody knows about. When they do know about it, they’ll buy it in bulk!”


Penny’s success rate speaks for itself but that’s not to say she doesn’t still face opposition. Some charities still aren’t keen on the idea of social enterprise and how it mirrors private enterprise; and some businesses are uncomfortable with its social emphasis. To this, Penny Newman (OBE), has this to say: “These are all words – charity, social enterprise, PLC. I don’t get too tied up with what we’re called. What I get passionate about is making it work.”


According to Penny, who is also non-executive director of Social Finance Ltd, and member of the advisory body for the Office for Third Sector, the social enterprise model only works if it honours what you’re trying to achieve. “We all have to be confident we’re balancing social and financial obligations. That’s the important thing.”



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