Actor Drew Goodall ended up homeless after severe bouts of depression. But he picked himself up by shining shoes, building a social enterprise that changes lives on the streets of London, writes Steve Dyson.
Acting had always been a passion for Drew Goodall, and he spent his entire education and early working years dedicated to getting on stage. Born in Ipswich in 1974, he was trained in acting and went through the system to drama school, subsequently working as a full-time actor for 19 years. As well as starring in theatre, he played roles in high profile films like Snatch, and About a Boy. But then disaster struck.
“A bad West End review in the mid-1990s sent me into a downward spiral and I quit the stage, lost my home and ended up spending six months on the streets,” recalls Goodall, now aged 44. It took a lot of energy to pick himself up from the gutter, and he began right at the bottom of the pile by polishing commuters’ shoes.
“I got myself back into employment in 1996 after buying brushes, boot polish and charging workers £2 to have their shoes cleaned, and gradually began to rebuild my self-confidence. I started shoe shining to get some extra money, but it quickly became a way for me to rebuild my life.”
Although Goodall regained his self-worth, it dawned on him that a career in theatre was not going to work for him. He found himself shoe-shining whenever the acting jobs were drying up and, after a few years, continuing it as a proper business just seemed the natural thing to do.
He formally launched Sunshine Shoeshine in 2004 and, despite early challenges, soon saw it starting to grow. “It’s just a great idea, done well,” he says. “The City of London, where most of our work happens, goes mainly off reputation, so it took a lot of time and patience to get the business off the ground. When you start out, it’s a struggle to convince potential clients you are a trustworthy and reliable company.
“It wasn’t until two years later that it turned into a social enterprise, with a mission statement to help those less fortunate.
That’s when the business really started to grow organically, with no loans and low start-up costs. Since then it’s steadily grown into the largest shoeshine company in Europe, servicing companies of all sizes from Barclays to small 40-person boutiques – something for everyone.”
Goodall decided to become a social enterprise when he took on another former homeless person as a member of staff, to try to help him. When he told his clients about the new shoe-shiner’s background they were intrigued, and loved the idea that their custom could assist. That’s when Goodall thought: “Why not make this a thing and take all our staff this way? We received so many positive responses from customers after we became a social enterprise, and I knew from that moment it was the right direction to take. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Shoe-shining has always been popular, as it’s a difficult service to obtain and both women’s and men’s grooming is a growing sector. When the charitable model was added, the public’s reactions were immensely positive and hugely supportive of the enterprise.”
Sunshine Shoeshine operates as a sole trading social enterprise, with Goodall at the helm. It has an impressive list of blue-chip, City-based clients, including several banks and financial institutions. The business operates with a simple pricing structure: the charge is £49 for an hour of shoe-shining, mainly in and around a business’ premises, most often a weekly visit with a minimum duration of 90 minutes.
“We do all shoe colours, for women and men, and can do approximately nine pairs in an hour,” explains Goodall.
The business currently brings in revenues of around £250,000 a year and now employs eight full-time workers – called “Sunshiners”. They start out on £10 an hour and are given raises as a reward for loyalty. The business also takes an active role in their personal lives, helping them with accommodation, for example. And many of the Sunshiners have stayed with the business for quite a few years.
Goodall takes a salary for the day-to-day running of the business. He then pays his Sunshiners and makes a range of charitable donations – these alone totalled £11,000 last year to charities such as Marie Curie Cancer Care, RNIB, Oxfam and the British Heart Foundation. Any balance is then ploughed back into the business.
He reckons Sunshine Shoeshine has helped up to 40 vulnerable men and women back to work by shining shoes. Many of those helped had found themselves out of work after suffering mental health or social problems, and others were homeless or had come to the UK as asylum seekers.
“Recruitment is one of our biggest challenges,” says Goodall. “When it comes to staff they’re firstly screened by our charity partners and then by us, and we don’t take people with criminal records or addiction problems. Day to day managing of staff can be challenging, like when staff take a turn for the worse, which sadly does happen from time to time. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the model. But once they get accustomed to the role it gets easier. Generally, recruitment is done on instinct.
“However, our status as a shoeshine social enterprise is completely unique to us, and this experience and our social conscience makes us stand out. We are by some distance the most established shoeshine provider in the UK, as in the past our competition has turned over every couple of years. It’s this stability that our clients love, so they end up staying with us for huge periods of time.”
Goodall now plans to expand the business, at the same time raising the profile of the homeless sector. And he has some great tips for other fledgling entrepreneurs and would-be owners of social enterprises.
“When something works, keep doing it,” he says. “Be honest with yourself about what you want from your business and life, whether you want to grow into a multinational or if you want to be a social enterprise. Do you want to work every minute and become a millionaire or do you want to have time to devote to your personal life?”
Meanwhile, as he’s currently a single man with no children, Goodall now enjoys living and working from his houseboat home in Richmond. “For me, working from a boat feels no different than if I had a ‘normal’ office on land, as I still have all the facilities and space that I need to work. It’s more a lifestyle choice, but the staff I’ve employed definitely consider it an unusual aspect of the business.”
And as he considers the world from his River Thames-based home, he adds: “London can be a tough town and anyone can have a run of bad luck. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to get your life in order if the wheels fall off.
“I’m very proud of Sunshine Shoeshine and of all our incredible Sunshiners. It’s very rewarding to make a real difference to other people’s lives.”
Shining shoes led Alan Walton to fulfil a lifetime dream.
Alan Walton, aged 46, from Richmond, suffered with mental health issues and had left school with no qualifications, leading to a 15-year spell of unemployment. He also suffered with bad eyesight caused by extreme myopia and cataracts, but was able to pay for private eye surgery after saving his Sunshine wages.
“I was born practically blind with extreme myopia,” he explains. “I was put into care when I was three because of my parents’ inability to deal with my worsening eyesight. Life was very hard for me as there was a very real possibility that I would go completely blind by the time I reached 10 years old.
“I was bullied relentlessly at school and throughout my life. This only stopped happening recently when I saved money from Sunshine to pay for medical treatment. I now function with almost perfect eyes.
“The act of cleaning shoes was initially tricky, but everyone was really patient and I picked it up. The real challenge for me as someone who’d had no interaction with everyday life was to integrate into working society, dealing with people.”
He said his proudest moment as a Shoeshiner came when he was promoted to office administrator: “I had long held the ambition to work with technology and the internet, this role was a real game changer for me. It fulfilled my life time dream.”