Richard Derham, founder and general manager of TurnAround Couriers, was occupied when we first called to speak with him. “We have a young man who’s been here for only a few days,” he would later apologize, “so I like to check in on him at the end of each day and see how he’s doing.” Even a casual observer would have picked up on how this employer-employee exchange differed from that of the typical workplace scenario, a level of personal investment and concern detectable in the cadence of Derham’s speech.
TurnAround Couriers is a self-described “competitive courier business,” but with a special twist: the company is staffed exclusively by at-risk youth. According to the social audits page of the company’s website, TurnAround’s mandate is to “Recruit youth from youth shelters and youth-serving agencies across Toronto” in order to provide individuals who might otherwise be deemed unhireable with an entry point to a viable career path. It’s an ambitious goal, but after seven and a half years in business and an estimated 110 young people hired, it’s safe to say that TurnAround has made an impact.
A former lawyer, Derham arrived in Canada from his native England in the summer of 2000. Though he was attached to a job at the time, he harboured separate entrepreneurial visions. “I wanted to run a for-profit business that was philanthropic and I was keen to work with young people who were job-ready but struggling to get into the job market. The bike courier business wasn’t my first choice, but it was my first good choice.”
To test the feasibility of his business model, Derham briefly went to work as a bike courier. He found that it was a job which could be picked up fairly quickly by those who were willing to learn—and was a business that he could afford to start. In October 2002, barely two years into Derham’s Canadian residency, he launched TurnAround Couriers.
“It’s a very unusual thing he’s done, but he’s not your average person,” says filmmaker Pamela McNamara, who took special interest in TurnAround after reading a profile on the company a few years ago, and has been Derham’s go-to marketing partner and friend ever since. “He’s a guy who really wants to make a difference and I guess he decided that being a lawyer like any other lawyer in the world just wasn’t enough.”
One of McNamara’s projects, the production company SpotDocs Inc., was recently featured alongside TurnAround Couriers in a Huffington Post profile on “10 World-Changing Ideas.” SpotDocs specializes in creating documentary-style promotional videos, and a PSA campaign for TurnAround was its very first project.
Through her SpotDocs work for TurnAround, McNamara has gotten to know Derham’s courier team fairly well. “There’s one consistent thing that I find with all the young people that are with TurnAround who stay and benefit,” she says, “and that is that they have incredible respect and gratitude toward Richard and are quite willing to voice that. He would hate me to say this kind of thing, but he really changes people’s lives. The kids themselves understand what an opportunity they get.”
Despite his modesty, Derham is not bashful about the success of TurnAround’s graduates who, for the most part, emerge from their company tenure with the confidence and experience necessary to quell their reliance upon shelter housing and government financial assistance. “We’ve had quite a few people go back to school,” says Derham. “We’ve had a number of people go on to work as couriers at other firms. We’ve had about five people go on to do high-rise window cleaning in Toronto. Generally speaking, [the kids] are going on to other things.”
When we asked if he has any particular courier success stories that stand out as personal favourites, Derham proudly recalls a “very capable young man” who was employed by TurnAround for a few years, and is currently in year two of officer training at the Royal Military Academy. But, as Derham is quick to point out, for each of the youth taken under his company’s wing, the the transcendence of those initial barriers—homelessness and addiction—to join the TurnAround team is a success that cannot be undermined.
Of TurnAround’s triumph, McNamara points to Derham’s approach to managing his staff. “He has a knack of leaving them with some sense of dignity,” says McNamara. “He tells them very clearly what his expectations are, and he does everything in his power to keep their self esteem up and make them feel good. I don’t think a lot of people have the ability to do that, and he does it so beautifully every day. It’s really nice to see.”
Photos of some of TurnAround’s couriers by Eugen Sakhnenko/Torontoist.