Some people move to the Byron Shire to build a personal palace. Others come to find a pleasant subtropical environment to live, work and raise a family. And there’s another new breed which takes a totally different approach. This is the story of a ‘social enterprise’ project emerging in the Bangalow Industrial Estate, with a refreshingly caring, community-oriented goal. Christobel Munson reports.

In 2016, social entrepreneur Luke Terry set up a commercial laundry in Toowoomba, Qld. Its primary goal was to create jobs for people with a lived experience of mental illness who struggled to secure work. After 15 years working in mental health and the social sector, this was the first commercial business Luke built from the ground up, and it’s changed the lives of hundreds of local people.

Back left to right then front: Anthony Dann (General Manager, Beacon Laundry), Oskar Stenriker (Commercial Manager, White Box Enterprises (WBE)), Nicolas Deloux (Head of Philanthropy & Partnerships, WBE), Luke Terry (CEO and Co-Founder, WBE).
Photo by Lyn McCarthy Niche Pictures

In 2019 Luke went on to launch White Box Enterprises with a vision to create 5,000 jobs for overlooked and underserved people in Australia by 2030. “We do this by setting up and supporting social ventures, and by helping other existing social enterprises to grow through access to funding, property solutions or advisory services,” said Luke.

So why choose Bangalow as the location for another commercial laundry? When selecting a site for a jobs-focused social enterprise and commercial laundry, considerations for the White Box team included proximity to marginalised communities, commercial viability and the size of the property. Bangalow proved to be a prime location – close to Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, in the heart of the Northern Rivers.

The 900 sq.m property was bought in July 2021 by White Box with the support of social impact investors including the Richard and Lorena Uechtritz Foundation, plus a $750,000 contribution from Federal MP Justine Elliot on behalf of the Labor Government.

“Commercial laundries lend themselves very well to the social enterprise model,” explained Beacon Laundry General Manager Anthony Dann, who will be moving to Bangalow from Toowoomba as the project proceeds. “The type of work is easy to learn, and it allows the staff to build skills and confidence in a friendly environment, and then transition to mainstream employment outside the laundry when they feel ready to move on.

“Currently, there is no large-scale commercial laundry in the Byron Shire servicing the larger hotels,” he continued. “The closest commercial laundry for this market is in Tweed Heads, and we estimate that 80 percent of the market volume is serviced interstate, so there is a clear opportunity to bring jobs into the Northern Rivers region. ‘Going local’ will increase service provision and quality, be a socially responsible option for the industry, and reduce environmental impacts through less road travel. We also hope to establish pathway partnerships with our clients for transitioning staff into long-term gainful employment in the industry”.

The intention of White Box is to create secure and meaningful jobs for people from Byron and neighbouring shires who experience disadvantage. They are defined as “a broad group of people who face barriers to mainstream employment, including individuals with a lived experience of mental illness, disability or homelessness, refugees and asylum seekers, and individuals facing cultural barriers”. Their expectation is to support 160 people through employment opportunities at the laundry by 2030, with up to 65 people employed at any one time. Public bus services and potentially, a Beacon shuttle bus service, will provide transport to and from work, with flexible rosters coordinating with public bus schedules.

On-the-job training will be provided at Beacon Laundry, which will “provide wrap-around support, and a mentoring and pathway planning program, helping each employee identify and work towards career goals, also supporting them in their journey onwards to mainstream employment outside the laundry.”

White Box has started working with Byron Shire businesses and groups to establish relationships and develop networks to help the “transitioning of staff into further employment outside the laundry when appropriate,” said White Box commercial manager, Oskar Stenriker. Closer to opening in 2023, local staff will also be engaged to help with recruitment, training and pathway development.  

Once the current tenant has moved to new premises, it will take around two to three months to refurbish, install and set up machinery and for laundry operations to begin.

With ‘Planet First’ a vital part of the White Box philosophy, the team is exploring how the laundry can be set up with as minimal long-term environmental impact as possible. The aim is also to make Beacon Laundry a commercial energy producer “with a maximised onsite solar power production, with capacity well above the 100kW maximum limit for normal installation rebates. Any balance of electricity required will be sourced from a green energy provider.” Minimising water use is also key, and electric or hydrogen-powered delivery trucks are also likely.