Our Chief Executive, Tony Ferrier, retires on Friday 30 November after eight years with the community. To celebrate his time at Emmaus, we spoke to him to find out all about his role and what highlights he experienced during his time with us...
Before Emmaus, I was Director of Manufacturing for a £90 million turnover company, running two 24/7 factories and working on special projects for company growth. I worked my way up in that company for over 25 years, but at 52, I accepted voluntary redundancy with plans to semi-retire and possibly do something in the third sector.
I had volunteered with Greenpeace in the mid-1980s when they were very active in anti-whaling and opposing seal culling and nuclear power station waste. I ended up developing and running six counties of fundraising and support groups for Greenpeace on top of my full-time manager role, and I loved it. I wanted to stay in the third sector, but at that time there weren’t many paid jobs, I was in my 20’s and I had a mortgage and bills to pay.
Twenty-five years later, retiring gave me the time to volunteer again, and I started at Emmaus Hertfordshire in 2010 in its Batford shop working three or four times a week. I worked alongside one companion, who taught me everything I knew having never worked in retail, and we started to build the place up, got more volunteers, and began to make money. I really took to the Emmaus model, and got to know the companions and some of the trustees well.
Back then, Emmaus Hertfordshire was not in a good state – I didn’t know the full extent at the time as I wasn’t involved in that aspect, but the General Manager, (as the CEO was known as then) would call up every Friday to ask how much was in the till and send someone to collect it so he could give the companions an allowance; it really was hand to mouth. When that General Manager left a few months later, the chair of trustees, Alec, asked me tongue in cheek if I knew anyone ‘stupid enough to take the role’, and within a year of volunteering at Emmaus I was hired as the Chief Executive.
The biggest challenge taking on the role was the situation that Emmaus Hertfordshire was in. The community had two shops in St Albans and Batford, but was not covering costs month, about to drawdown £30,000 from Emmaus UK, had four vehicles all off the road, and only 17 companions, but 24 rooms. Some charities back then didn’t think business wise, so, looking back, it was a bold move when I started the role with a similar approach I would in my previous job. I viewed the accounts and created a five-year strategic plan to present to the trustees which included not taking the £30k from Emmaus UK, filling all our companion rooms, expanding the social enterprise and community house, and buying two new working vans. The trustees really got on board with everything which, looking back, was also brave.
We began to make simple changes in the shops, like only holding reserved items for 24 hours and not for one week, improving customer service, and we began to see an increase in sales. We purchased the two new vans, and trustee, Alec created the van design using the over-sized Emmaus logo, which has now become the Emmaus standard for vans across the UK. We moved more companions into the community to fill all of our 24 rooms, taking a similar approach to a hotel with the aim to have no room empty for longer than four days including redecoration.
Within three months of joining we were well on the way to a full community house, sales were up, and we were balancing the books.
Over the next two years, we were beating all our plans and started to expand. We opened our Hemel Hempstead shop, which went really well from day one. Next, came our Barnet shop, which was completely run by volunteers and then a successful temporary pop-up shop in Hertford which later moved to its permanent home on our Foxholes farm site. The Tring and Harpenden shops followed - we saw a lot of activity in those two years.
In the third year, we began to expand the community house by converting what had been staff flats. Back then, we had support staff living on-site, which works well to immerse someone in the community, but the staff couldn’t always cope with it, lost their work/life balance which became stressful for them. Most moved on to other jobs, and after we decided we wouldn’t have any more live-in support. Eventually, the new support team and operations staff developed into what I call the dream-team, and they really are the backbone of the community.
Instead of providing live-in support, we empowered the companions, showing them that they had the capability to live independently. Companions on night duty were trained in first aid, on duty until 10pm, and would lock up the shop, set the alarms, and make sure the vans were in. This is how it still works today, and each member of staff takes it in turns to be on-call - I have only been called out once in the past five years. This trust shows companions that they are adults and can look after the place as it’s their home, not ours.
In December 2014, my fourth year, the community really began to take shape when we started our Calais distributions – it was like a fever pitch. One morning I turned the radio on to the CEO of Doctors of the World talking. I remember the moment well – he was talking about refugees living in squalor and children living in ditches, how it was worse than Darfur, but I didn’t know where he was referring to. He spoke with a lot of passion, but I thought he had changed subjects when he spoke of Calais. I soon found out that he hadn’t and thought how ignorant I was to not know any of it, just 20 miles from our coast. I was severely affected by that interview and started thinking about what we could do to help. It was so obvious in the end – they needed donations, and we had vans, people, and donations.
When I relayed the interview to the companions, the majority wanted to help so we started to collect clothing, then one companion and I took the first trip over to Emmaus St Omer community near Dunkirk. We got to the community without seeing a single migrant and dropped the items off. When we left, we were both disappointed as we didn’t know how our donation was going to help and they didn’t tell us much. On the way back, we got stuck in traffic for eight hours and it was then that we saw what was like a scene from a movie. Running along the grass by the side of a dual carriageway we saw roughly 20 migrants, and police cars coming in all directions. The police got out, began to chase them, and we could see batons. We saw these migrants beaten to the floor – it didn’t seem real.
I have been on 25 trips since then and taken around 40 different companions, staff and volunteers and seen migrant numbers grow to 10,000 and back to 1,000. It is a life changing experience to get involved with a distribution and talk to migrants about their sometimes-horrendous experiences and share their hopes and fears.
One of the main highlights from the Calais trips for me was with one particular companion. He came across as a confident, alpha male, with a lot of swagger. He joined me on one trip, and when we arrived at the camp in Calais it was -4 degrees. We could see little faces peeking out of frozen tents, then two guys told us to come over for a cup of tea and share what little they had. The companion I was with burst into tears and said something to me, which I have never forgotten:
“When I was sleeping rough, it was bad. But I knew that I could find a night shelter, or a soup kitchen, and I knew it wouldn’t be forever. But these people? They don’t have any of these things.”
He really felt for these people, and when he brought that story back to the community, I had all of the companions wanting to go – it really was something special.
During the past eight years at Emmaus, my highlight without a doubt is the companions and their successes. On average, we get 65 companions through the door every year, so I’ve got to know at least 230 companions. To be able to create something that can, and did, help to change these people’s lives is why I’ve been at Emmaus for so long. When I would meet a new companion, it always surprised them that I didn’t know the nitty gritty of their life. I’ve always believed in empowerment, which is why I didn’t have much to do with the referrals – I would tell the companions that I want to know who they are now, and what they want to be and not judge them on their past.
You never stop learning at Emmaus and everything is an experience, which is something that I will miss when I retire in November. It’s the most flexible job possible, mixing with MP’s, Lords and Ladies and driving a van with companions on the same day! When I joined, the St Albans community had a bad name – losing money, chaos, staff leaving – we were a poor example of an Emmaus community. I wanted to turn it around and within that I learned the bigger meaning of solidarity. When Calais came along, it opened that possibility and we were doing real solidarity acts abroad and more locally which showed everyone in the community that they could support themselves and others.
People tell me that I saved Emmaus Hertfordshire, but my answer to them is no, I didn’t - the companions did. I was just a facilitator giving them the means to do it, and without them, the trustees, and the staff, I wouldn’t have been able to build Emmaus Hertfordshire up.
I have seen many people join Emmaus and develop a passion for what we do - I don’t think it ever leaves you. I will miss so much but fortunately will be continuing my role as a trustee of Emmaus UK and keeping in touch with Emmaus on a national level along with the colleagues and friends I‘ve made all over the federation.
I am looking forward to seeing Emmaus Hertfordshire succeed and grow and I wish the very best of luck to the new Chief Executive, to the amazing staff team, the trustees, volunteers and, of course all the companions.