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In the business of tackling social isolation

Newbury Business Today enjoys a coffee with Caroline Billington

In the business of tackling isolation

The Interview with Caroline Billington, founder of Coffee Companions,

CAROLINE Billington has had an eclectic working life, but there is one thread that clearly runs through everything she has done, and that is the desire to help others.

This has led her from the NHS, through corporate life, via Oxfam, to running her own successful accountancy business and now heading up two large charitable organisations that aim to help alleviate social isolation.

Born and raised in Nottingham, the 55-year-old left school unsure what she wanted to do as a career. She found herself studying speech therapy at University College, London.

“It was a really fascinating degree to do,” she explains. “I became a qualified speech therapist, but still didn’t know what I really wanted to do.

“There was no sense of career opportunity and I was always looking for something else.

“Then in one of the roles I met an HR director and finance director who took me under their wings. They helped me learn a bit more about management and gave me the chance to develop beyond my role.”

That insight awakened an interest in business in her and, at the age of 28, Caroline decided to retrain as an accountant.

“It is terrible that we make children choose as teenagers what they want to do,” she says. “Why do you have to have a career for life? Being open-minded and keeping all your options open is good. It is good to rule things in and rule things out.”

That is exactly what she did. Although she qualified as an accountant, she soon realised she didn’t actually want to work in an accountancy practice.

She spent five years at the accountancy firm she trained at and says it was the time in her life when she really
developed – meeting some great people and getting to work in places like Moscow.

After leaving there she went on to become an internal auditor at Thorn EMI, before being promoted to a finance manager within six months.

It was there that her good organisational skills came to the fore and she worked as a project manager on the demerger of Thorn and EMI.

Eventually she took redundancy from the company. “Having the ability to move on fitted very nicely with what I wanted to do,” she explains. “It enabled me to explore other opportunities. I have been made redundant twice and it has always been a very positive thing for me.”

She then moved to Peoplesoft, a global software enterprise company, becoming finance director for its UK business, among other roles.

In 2002 Caroline was made redundant from Peoplesoft and decided to take a year’s sabbatical. She went off travelling and volunteering in Australia, Honduras and China. Her ‘year out’ ended up lasting three-and-a-half years, with some contracting in between volunteering stints.

This volunteering work helped her realise that she couldn’t go back in to the corporate world and she took a job at the charity Coeliac UK.

She also volunteered at her local Oxfam shop and when the job of finance director for Oxfam’s International Tsunami Fund came up at the end of 2004, it seemed like the perfect role for her.

“I really felt like it used my core skills and my core beliefs,” she says. “And I was lucky enough to get the job.”

But co-ordinating an international relief effort was like ‘walking through treacle’, Caroline admits sadly.

“I put in a lot of processes, but I realised that I would have to leave to force the change that was needed there,” she says. “I thought it was my dream job, but it actually wasn’t so I took time to take stock and realised I had to separate my work and personal life again; I needed to find that middle ground.”

So she set up a-count-a-bility, offering her finance director services and skills to small businesses on a freelance, part-time basis.

This also allowed Caroline the time to work within the community and she began to ramp up her volunteering. She still works with a number of voluntary organisations in West Berkshire including driving the Handybus, working in the Oxfam shop and helping out at Loose Ends. She is also a volunteer steward at the Corn Exchange, Newbury, and plays the trombone with Watership Brass.

In 2007 she drove the Handybus on Christmas Day, dropping elderly people off at St George’s Church in Wash Common for lunch. She was amazed by the difference in them when she picked them up later that day. They had all made some great friends and arranged to meet again soon.

Over the next few years she got more involved in arranging the Christmas Day dinners and, in 2011, Community Christmas was born. It has a vision that no older person in the UK should be alone on Christmas Day if they don’t want to be and Caroline realised, from that very first Christmas Day, that the connections people made then would change their lives throughout the whole year.

The website, which was designed by WebSquared, created guidance to help people set up a community event in their area and details on where to go if you wanted some companionship.

Last year around 628 opportunities nationwide were held on the Community Christmas database and Caroline had to temporarily give up her freelance a-count-a-bility work to concentrate on the charity. She decided to give up permanently in 2016. It is estimated that more than 2,350 people were helped directly by Community Christmas in 2016, with 15,100 helped indirectly.

One thing led to another too and this year’s new initiative from Caroline to help combat social isolation is Coffee Companions. It is an expansion of her desire to ensure nobody is isolated at any time of the year – not just at Christmas.

She has devised the concept of ‘Chat Mats’ – a mat that can be put out while you are in a café or restaurant where one side indicates you would like someone to come and talk to you and the other side that says you are happy to be on your own that day.

Caroline is in the early stages of Coffee Companions and hopes eventually that the Chat Mats will be given out at
various places up and down the country, encouraging people to interact more.

“It is about addressing the social and health benefits this can bring too,” Caroline adds. “It is about instigating social change and it will help us, as individuals, take control of our environments.”

The Corn Exchange currently hosts a ‘Companions Hour’ and the Chat Mats are available in the cafe there all of the time. They are already used in small pockets up and down the country, but Caroline will be relaunching the concept on a larger scale this spring.

For more details on Community Christmas and Coffee Companions visit www.carolinebillington.co.uk

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