Fairness, equality and opportunity

Fairness, equality and opportunity
Mark Smith, The Herlad

A believer in fate might have foreseen that one day Eunice Lancaster would find herself in this most unlikely of professions – banker to the unbankable. But Lancaster never refers to fate; she talks instead about fairness and equality of opportunity.

It thus seems appropriate that Lancaster, the daughter of a Greenock shipyard worker and proud descendant of Red Clydeside, heads DSL Business Finance, a fast-expanding, non-profit commercial development phenomenon that provides unsecured loans to small business that traditional banks would be unlikely to touch with a 10-foot barge pole.

The Herald visited her on a rainy Glasgow morning recently at DSL’s headquarters in the corner of an unremarkable industrial estate between Ibrox and Govan, and overheard one of the office staff tell a prospective borrower by telephone: ‘We can’t just give you £10,000 without knowing what it’s for’ – as if to highlight the difficulties inherent in lending below the waterline.

However, Lancaster is no loanshark. Her conversation is laced with terms such as ‘undervalued by the marketplace’, ‘equal opportunities for everyone’ and ‘a fairer society’.
Indeed, there is something of the firebrand social reformer about Lancaster – with her penetrating dark eyes and her obsession with egalitarian fairness. Yet she sees no conflict in promoting capitalism with the hard-bitten edge of social justice.

In short, Lancaster, who also comes to the table with a degree in business administration, is a capitalist with a social conscience. Her first job was as a sales assistant at the Glasgow department store Goldbergs when she was 16.

While the world struggles with economic mayhem, Lancaster is quietly bringing about a small-business revolution by encouraging entrepreneurship in some of Scotland’s poorest and most deprived areas, pulling people into the fabric of the wider economy.

DSL was originally set up with cash from the Body Shop. It is now financed by credit unions – basically non-profit groups of people who agree to save money together – as well as the Unity Trust Bank, a little DTI funding and the ongoing returns from its borrowers. DSL to date has loaned out more than £7m to 600-plus businesses – creating wealth, thousands of jobs, and a little social change along the way.

The work may be unglamorous and, at times, slow going – but as faith in the ability of the govern ment to solve its social and economic problems diminishes, many of the projects financed by DSL have become small bedrocks in the communities where they thrive.

Laplace Electricals, an expanding, Drumchapel-based designer and UK-wide supplier of engineering control systems, is a former DSL borrower. It now has a turnover of more than £2m and employs about 70 workers.

‘The people that come to us are generally people who have already been turned down by the banks,’ said 41-year-old Lancaster, shifting in her chair in a small meeting room off the main floor of DSL’s headquarters, where four employees answer phones that seem to ring incessantly.

‘It’s a last stop for them. But the odd thing is, most of the people who use our finance end up operating businesses very successfully.

‘All of them end up employing local staff – sometimes many staff – and the majority of people who borrow from us pay back the money.

‘The people that come here are those who have no credit history at all, a bad credit rating or no security. Not all of them, but most are the people who live in Scotland’s council estates and more deprived areas, and they’re just looking for an opportunity to get on. I think they should be given that opportunity.

‘Not everyone has a home to put up as collateral, or families who can lend them money or who can re-mortgage their homes for their children to start up businesses.’

Lancaster spent four years after graduating working for British Telecom in London as a product development manager before discovering her aptitude in the world of social enterprise.

‘This is like old-fashioned customer banking here,’ she said.

‘We loan money on the strength of a person’s character. We’ve even had people who have come back a seventh time, after having paid back the previous six loans.

‘We’ve had all kinds of people through here, and most of them are great. They’re just normal, down-to-earth people who want a chance. Statistics show that entrepreneurs come from all parts of society.’

‘Essentially what we want to do here is give everyone a chance who wants a chance. Maybe it has something to do with the way I was brought up, I want to help create a fair society.

Lancaster, who lives in Glasgow’s west end with her husband and children, declined to reveal the precise number of entrepreneurs to have defaulted on DSL loans, but she admits that some days do not go as well as others.

She copes by taking out her aggression on pizza dough, slapping and battering it about the kitchen counter when she goes home.

‘When people ask what I do when I have a bad day, I tell them that I make a pizza. Every now and then, my husband comes home from work and finds my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I knocking pizza dough around the kitchen,’ she said.

‘He knows it’s best just to leave us alone and let me get it out my system. But most of the time I’m pretty easy going.’

Brought up in a tenement in the Clydeside town of Greenock, Lancaster remembers a happy childhood, despite living through the painful decline and eventual collapse of the local shipyards that devastated the town.

Yet it was also a childhood steeped in egalitarian socialist ideals and a general concern for the welfare of others – some of it perhaps brought on as the fabric of Greenock culture was unravelling.

Her father was a poetry-writing patternmaker in the shipyards. Her mother mostly stayed at home, where she cooked and baked cakes for her family, although she sometimes volunteered her time with the local Salvation Army.

‘I was brought up in Greenock – Red Clydeside,’ Lancaster said. After a moment, she smiled and added: ‘I’m not a communist, but my grandmother did play the piano for the Communist Party.’

She said: ‘It was a typical west of Scotland upbringing, I suppose.

‘I still feel very strongly about Greenock. Some terrible things have happened there, the way the shipyards and the whole culture that went with it were just wiped out, but it’s still a town full of nice people.

‘It was a very creative culture in the shipyards. Most people don’t realise that, but everyone was making something. And my dad wasn’t the only one writing poetry there. He used to come home and tell me things like that.

‘I also remember how sad my father was years later when they were clearing out Kincaid’s yard in Greenock. I remember he went down and managed to rescue an old wooden filing cabinet and he still has it. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture, but so much just went on the bonfire – all that history gone forever.

‘They were creative in the shipyards and they were socialists. They all wanted a fairer society for everyone and they also wanted to preserve what they had.

‘I suppose some of that rubbed off. I want a fairer society also.

‘Like a lot of people, my parents didn’t have the money to send me to university, but I was still able go on my ability. It’s the same thing. I believe in the equality of access and opportunity.

‘Where you come from in society shouldn’t have any bearing on what you want achieve. That’s exactly what I’m promoting here at DSL. I believe everyone deserves that chance.’

Earlier this year, DSL – which stands for Developing Strathclyde Ltd – expanded its service from greater Glasgow into Edinburgh and the Lothians. It also celebrated its 15th birthday last month.

Lancaster added: ‘It definitely feels good to do this kind of work. It feels right. This is my dream job. I only wish that I could help more people.’

Personal effects

Best moment: Having my children.

Worst: Missing a transatlantic flight.

What drives you: Finding solutions to problems.

What do you drive: Fiat Punto.

Favourite book: Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

What music are you listening to: Lucinda Williams.

Greatest achievement: Keeping positive.

Biggest disappointment: Haven’t had one yet.