Allan English On Social Enterprise, Philanthropy & Getting Funded To Hunt Down Big Dreams As An Entrepreneur


Allan English is the Founder and Non-Executive Chairman of ASX-listed, and B-Corp accredited, Silver Chef Limited.

Founded in 1986, Silver Chef’s core business is equipment funding for small to medium sized businesses across a range of sectors operating in 3 countries and employing 450 staff.  In 2010, he created the English Family Foundation to support local and overseas social entrepreneurs tackling some of the more challenging issues facing our society.

Allan currently serves as a Council Member of Philanthropy Australia and on the Advisory Board of QUT's The Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies. He is a former recipient of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.  

In 2012, Allan was recognised by Queensland Community Foundation as Philanthropist of the Year and in 2014, he received Philanthropy Australia’s inaugural Philanthropy Leader Award. In 2017, Allan was included in the Australian Financial Reviews list of 21 True Leaders who are changing Australia for the better.


Allan talks about purpose and provides some great insights and tips for social entrepreneurs. Allan also discusses the growing impact investment space, changes in the philanthropic sector, collaboration and social procurement.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work as an entrepreneur and further down the line as a philanthropist? [2:26]

[Allan English] - Okay it's obviously a long history, so I won't take all the steps that were in between. In my working life I've had two years where I was working for someone else and the rest of the time I've been an entrepreneur. My early stage in the hospitality industry was bringing pizza ovens into Australia for the home delivery pizza industry, way back in 1986. I found that people struggled to find the capital to pay for these $27,000 pizza ovens I was selling. Particularly a lot of people were young, trying to get into the industry and capital was a real problem, so I developed a rent, try, buy model where I'd buy the equipment and put it into the café or restaurant. They'd pay us a weekly rent for the use of it, and once it got successful they could get a 75% rebate if they decided to purchase it. But if it didn't work out at the end of 12 months you could just hand it back and walk away.

So we removed all the traditional banking structures of saying you've got to have a house, and it's got to be a big house before we'll lend you money. Fortunately they referred customers to us and the business grew.

Fantastic, so you've seen the business organically grow over this time?

Yeah certainly, I mean I built a large sales business where I was taking the profit from the equipment sales business to fund the rental business in the early days. I sold that business off in 1995, and eventually got to the stage where we ran out of capital from the use of the sale of these assets, and eventually got to listing on the Stock Exchange in 2005.

That's a great milestone.

It was a milestone, it certainly was. When you're in the equipment rental business it means the faster you grow the more capital you need. Getting access to capital from banks is pretty tough because I had a 12 month contract where I didn't recover my capital in that 12 months. So the banks were saying, "well how can I fund you when you don't even recover your capital?" So I was getting 30 cents on the dollar of debt and 70 cents of my own money, so the faster it grew, the quicker I went through my capital, as you can imagine. Eventually it got to the point where needing more capital got to the stage of raising enough private capital through convertible note issue, and got to the stage of listing and that then gave us access to the capital markets to keep on growing.

A lot of the entrepreneurs that you support are purpose-driven entrepreneurs, so talking about purpose, how did you find your purpose? How did that change the way that you live and do business? [4:47]

It was really interesting, it was about the year 2000, I'd got to the stage where the capital that I got from the sale of the equipment business would run out, and I was now trying to get capital. I worked really hard trying to get access to capital to back it, and I just couldn't get it across the line.

I asked myself a really important question, which was, 'why are you trying to make more money?'

At that stage in my life, it was a fabulous business, I had six staff members, I was making 50 grand a month. It was a wonderful business, but I lived in the same house I'd been in for 25 years. I wasn't into big boats or cars, and so the question was, well why are you trying to make more money? I really couldn't come up with the answer of what that was. I sort of saw businesses as being a bit like a game of tennis; it's all about practising your strokes, every now and then you check the score board to see how you're going, but it's the game that's important.

So from there it was a case of, well, if you don't know the answer then you better see if you can find out. So my manager at the time, I left him, I said, "listen, you've got 50 grand a month to reinvest, not a penny more." So we just reinvested the profits and then when I was volunteering and fundraising for an organisation, I met up with a micro finance organisation called Opportunity to Match, which I made a $10,000 donation, which in those days was a fortune. That got me into micro finance, funding women entrepreneurs in developing countries, the poorest of the poor, a chance to start their own small business.

That was still aligned to what I was trying to do with Silver Chef, because I was all about helping young people achieve their dreams and here was a way of doing it at a much, much bigger scale.

So I volunteered with them and then one day a week, became two, which became five and I was then full time doing that. Eventually I funded a project in East Timor. East Timor had just gone through independence and it was looking like... The way of preventing slums in the developing world is that you create economic activity in the rural areas. So this was a micro finance programme to prevent future slums in the city. It was a fabulous project, put together with some assistance of mates. I came back and I got a report from my charity partners saying that one project moved 40,000 people out of poverty.

So it was one of those jaw dropping moments of saying, wow, that's a football stadium full of people and they just don't know I exist, how cool is that? There's no ego attached to it, this is pure. Then it became, well, if you could do that every year wouldn't that be cool? Then one year I said, "okay if I could do that every year, that could be a reason to go back to work, and overcome your capital issues if you could do a project like that every year." That became the key turning point for me. Suddenly the world view totally changed and I went back to work with a new invigorated passion shall we say. Within about six months or so raised $13.5 million dollars in a note issue to get debt to raise it up to the next stage. Went 180 mile an hour just going flat out to drive the business. It certainly put the framework together for me as a purpose driven entrepreneur.

Yeah, I bet it did, it sounds incredibly rewarding.

Yeah, it was great.

Fantastic, so working with these different social entrepreneurs both in the developing world and in the Western world, what do you believe are the most important attributes of a social entrepreneur? [8:09]

For a social entrepreneur I think the main thing is just getting really clear about what your intentions are.

But the most common problem that we see is when it comes to funding.

To be able to get clear on what are the right type of debt and funding that's needed at the time. Because it's not only through gifts, and support and financial and friends, and crowd funding and all those sorts of stuff. But taking your longer term picture about what are the key elements of funding and what's the right timing to take on that amount of debt.

People very often go chasing the dollars rather than thinking strategically about when to play.

The other thing, I think, is developing deep relationships with your supporters.

Making sure that you build strong relationships so that you've got people who deeply understand what your purpose is, what you're trying to achieve and want to work alongside you.

Because like anybody knows who's an entrepreneur, there's hills and valleys, there's times when you're on top of the world looking wonderful and all of a sudden there's a chasm below you. In those deep dark times you need to have strong support, so that is important.

Resilience; how quickly you can stand back up again when you've been knocked down.

I think that's part of the challenges of being an entrepreneur is failing, recognising failure early and calling it, and prototyping a new way or solution, of thinking, of going forward. These are all important attributes for them.


There's some great tips there. So as the key supporter of the Eidos Social Procurement Challenge, the question has been put to the Australian public of how social enterprises in Australia can be made more capable and able to achieve higher impact. The winners are going to be announced next week, which is pretty exciting. Through your eyes, how do you see this answer to the question? [9:45]

Well perhaps it's best to give you a framing of why the project was put together. I was part of the Australian contingent that went to Chicago in July this year to attend the Global Steering Groups Conference for Impact Investment. This was set up by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister for the G8 countries, to establish their own impact investment advisory boards in those countries. To grow the impact investment movement, there's now 27 countries involved and the amount of capital that's been allocated to this Impact Investment pool is extraordinary.

there's $150 billion that is currently invested in impact investment in the world and they are forecasting it will be $300 billion by the year 2020.

So there's hedge funds, there's all sorts of players that are coming into it. There are significant changes happening around the globe about the world of impact investment and having capital made available for social good. For example, the French government passed a law last year that any company that employed 50 people or more must offer those employees the opportunity to invest in a solidarity fund. What a solidarity fund is, is it's sometimes called the 90/10 rule, which is 90% of the capital gets invested in traditional stocks and shares but 10% has got to be invested in impact investment or social entrepreneurship, that's purpose-driven leadership model. Now, they got one million people signed up in that first year, so it just shows that there's such an interest in this space.

So from the strategic perspective, I'm looking at on the board of Philanthropy Australia, saying, well, the community sector and the social entrepreneur sector in Australia really needs to be able to have capital. So if I can see this large wave of capital becoming available, the key measurement criteria they have, of course, is to get a financial return but also strong measurable impact validated by a third party.

To be able to grow the sector in Australia to take advantage of this wave of capital that will be coming available over the next few years, we need to scale up.

So what does that look like? This is where the development of the idea of getting the Eidos Social Procurement package out, to be able to say let's get fresh ideas coming into the market place that can look at how can we scale the sector to take advantage of this potential capital pool coming down the track. So that was the framing for it.

It's a fantastic opportunity.

I think it will be really good. Obviously I can't talk about the final as to who are in it, so far it is up on the website for people to go and have a look at. But it's really exciting to see some of those new ideas that are ground breaking, that are doing the things that have not been done before. As an entrepreneur, obviously I'm excited about developing up some new big change making ideas that are going to bring about a movement to take it to it's next stage.


You're not a stranger to getting finance as a social entrepreneur, so what would be your top three recommendations that you'd make to help other change makers on their journey? [13:11]

I think getting finance is always going to be a challenge in the social entrepreneur space. Look at getting alignment with people who can see and understand your vision and your purpose about what you're trying to do. Understand the options that are available to you. People often think about finance as being a straight grant, or a gift, or the friends and relatives. We tend to go through the early stage of friends and relatives, then we do the crowd funding. Then you get to the other side of that and say well what's next? That really is a challenge.

There is a number of different ways that you can approach that, for example if you are a DGR, in other words a registered charity, you can approach foundations to provide debt by way of a security for a bank overdraft. In other words they provide the asset security to the bank that you can then use the banks funding to be able to grow the enterprise through debt. Mixture of debt and capital is a good blend, so getting that right.

I think one of the fundamental things I see of failure early in the piece, is that social entrepreneurs don't pay themselves, or pay themselves very poorly.

What they don't tend to see so clearly, is they think that it's a badge of honour, that they really are trying to do the right thing by the supporters who are helping them. But what they're really doing is they're shifting the load of responsibility onto their partner, to supplement their passion.

Now that's all well and good in the early stages but the number of times that it leads to high stress within the family home that then leads to, 'it's either the enterprise or me.' Clearly they will choose their partner and the enterprise fails. That's because they haven't structured their business well to make sure that they've got a liveable wage, that they'll be paying to sustain themselves going forward. So getting those fundamental structures right, that means that you've got a budget that's got the proper cost allocated to it, and that you're being fair dinkem in understanding what it's going to take to be able to make your enterprise work.

Some really good advice there. So how do you see the social enterprise sector then transforming as we move into the future? How do you think the social enterprise sector may better collaborate together to work towards a common goal? [15:27]

I think the collaboration aspect is an important part. I'm seeing it from the foundation space, that there is a greater degree of collaboration and sharing knowledge and information from philanthropists now than ever before.

We're sharing opportunities that we might be the partial funder, there's a greater need for capital and that we will rope in friends and colleagues to say here's an opportunity lets see if we can support each other. It's happening a lot more.

The same goes within the social enterprise sector; ensure that you've got a unique point of difference.

Don't go and copy cat something else that's already available out there, it's just increasing strained pressures and overhead structures. If there is something that's got alignment, collaborate, have a shared administration cost, rather than duplicating those things.

Is there joint marketing activities we can do together? What's a natural product alignment? If you've got vertical integration going on in your economic development, what stages are next that you can align with that you can do cross sharing of income? Those sorts of models of working in the sense of collaboration has got to be very important.

We've also got to be doing a lot more about educating our consumers to be able to make choices, 'cause at the end of the day the power of the purchasing dollar is going to drive the social enterprise sector.

So increasing the awareness of social enterprise and products that are available, referring friends and colleagues, getting that conversation piece going around the BBQ about those sorts of purchasing decisions will obviously increase and grow the sector.

I think finding a market place. Social Traders have done some good work here about establishing a market place for social entrepreneurs who wish to participate in social procurement.

So more and more governments are now starting to look at how we can use social procurement as a way of aiding the social enterprise through employing people who have long term unemployment and the disability sector. That part of the sector is going to grow a lot coming down the track and it's exciting to see.

It certainly is, so when serving on the advisory board of the Philanthropy Australia Council, how then have you seen the philanthropic sector change, and where do you see opportunities to achieve better philanthropy? [17:42]

Well, certainly it's changing a lot over the years that I've been involved. Probably the collaboration as I've mentioned, I think that's becoming a big one. Impact investing is now a conversation that is happening widely throughout the philanthropic sector. Saying, well not only can we use our grant money but we've all got a balance sheet of assets, can we use those assets to be more impactful to achieve greater social good? I think that's really, really important. Philanthropy Australia's purpose and mission in life is more and better philanthropy. So the more philanthropy is really looking at, (I'm on the policy committee there), what influence can we have in government from legislation point of view to free up more capital to come into the sector? In capitalism there are two driving influences. One is productivity and economic activity, which produces outcomes. But the other is the rules of the game that everybody has to abide by, which comes from government policy.

Now as we know much of the work of philanthropy is taken up in cleaning up the sandpit of poor policy decisions. So if we can get better policy outcomes that are going to be more positively influential to getting a better society, then that's certainly an important role.

So Philanthropy Australia is a great organisation, there's a terrific board and really are advancing the cause very strongly.

To finish up then Alan, could you please recommend a few great books to our listeners? [19:22]

One is 'Thank You For Being Late' by Thomas Friedman. A very interesting book looking at what technology has played in recent times in the changes in society. Also having a glimpse at what the future may be, very good book for entrepreneurs to have a read of, to be able to expand their knowledge. From a personal point of view, 'Beyond Mindfulness' by Stephen Bodian. That really is having a look at your own inner work and development that you're doing.

You can't be great on the outside unless you're great on the inside.

So you've really got to look at how can you develop and grow your own spiritual strengths, not attached to any religious context, but just really you're increasing your levels of awareness and perspective taking abilities.

One of the key things in entrepreneurship, is the ability to take perspectives, particularly when it comes to raising capital, growing a social enterprise is to sit so firmly in your funders shoes and see the world as he sees it.

What does it mean for all your stakeholders. If I was that stakeholder, what would I be seeing? What would I need?

These are all perspective taking skills, and success is directly related to your ability to handle as many perspectives as you possibly can, and deeply understand what those needs are and craft solutions for them.

Another book to look at is 'Bold' by Peter Diamandis. So this once again is a big picture, think big, and grow.

That's part of the entrepreneurs journey isn't it? To think big dreams and go hunt them down.


You can contact Allan on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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