Altus – A Social Enterprise Success

Social enterprises have been operating in New Zealand for years even if the term, confusing to many, is quite new.  What is the essence of a social enterprise?  For me, these are the core components:
  • the mission has a social purpose
  • the organization earns some income from a trade operation; this income gives the organization a degree of independence from public or philanthropic requirements
  • ownership is structured to assure that profits are channeled back into the core mission and invested to improve quality, expand scale or innovate

Neil Porteous, Executive of The Elevator Group and Altus Enterprises based in Auckland, is a burly man with kind eyes.  He graciously spent a few hours with me explaining about their operations and giving me a tour of Altus.  These two operations, recently re-branded, have helped in excess of 10,000 disabled people enjoy the benefits of employment.  Altus Enterprises employs approximately 200 people with disabilities and Elevator Group assists disabled people to work in careers of their choice.

When you walk around Altus with Neil his passion for the mission and the employees is palpable.  He knows everyone by name, and a few employees give him a hug and share a bit of news.  He asks about their family members and transport issues.  Some employees have 25 years of tenure.  It’s clear watching one crew retrofit Air New Zealand headsets that they know what they’re doing and take pride in their work.    Air New Zealand has contracted with Altus for 35 years and they retrofit 12,000 headsets a day. 


Neil explains some of the challenges of employing people with disabilities.  “They really need to feel it’s a safe environment.  We work hard to make sure they know that we care about them.”  When new jobs require training, it takes extra time to make sure the product is top quality.  When Elevator Group places employees in new jobs, they provide support services to make sure there’s a good fit with a prospect of long term success.  Altus is a business, not a social service agency, and Neil emphasizes that they focus as much on operations as on supporting the special needs of their employees.  Like any successful business, Altus understands its customers and delivers on its quality promise. 

I asked Neil if he considers diversifying to work with ex-offenders, youth or other constituencies needing employment support.  “We have to stay focused on our mission,” Neil explained.  The Elevator Group and Altus have developed core competencies and there is plenty more work to do to serve people with disabilities.  Neil explained that their next step is to consider options for growth.  They recently purchased new equipment which opened up new contracts, and they are in the exploring options for new facilities.

Neil came to this role from the private sector.  He emphasizes that you can’t underestimate how hard it is to run a profitable business whether it’s a social enterprise or another SME (small to medium sized enterprise).  The key to social enterprise is weaving together clarity and commitment to the mission with discipline and skill to run a savvy business.  The Elevator Group and Altus have demonstrated that it can be done.

87 thoughts on “Altus – A Social Enterprise Success”

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