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Behind the scenes

Remembering Steve Canham: a true friend to The Big Issue

Our former CEO has died at the age of 67

Steve Canham

Steve Canham played a pivotal role in taking the Big Issue organisation to another level. Image: supplied

At times I sit and go through the history of The Big Issue. I try and take as objective a view as I can. Recently I sat on a park bench by my local river and reconstructed from memory all of those that had helped lead The Big Issue from its stumbling first beginnings to its present order and professionalism. To its current ‘grown-up-ness’, you might call it. What were their qualities? What did they bring to The Big Issue?

Of course, as the co-founder with Gordon Roddick, I was the first one. What did I do that was unique and useful and lastingly meaningful? Starting from the fact that I had only ever employed one other person in my life, I was likely to have only rudimentary skills at managing people. And it proved right. At times clumsy and oafish, and often objectionable, I concentrated on establishing The Big Issue as a going concern. But there had to come a time when the reins would have to pass to someone who was more professional than yours truly.

Someone who would allow us to grow as a business and become more useful to our vendors. And to be assured of longevity. To fulfill our ambitions to grow The Big Issue into a prevention business; preventing people falling into homelessness, or back into homelessness.

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We needed new business skills, and they were not mine. I would remain the head of the operation but I would need a vital and bright clever person who would make the whole thing sing. Over the first 20 years we became more and more professional. The rough edges were knocked off our organisation, and we grew as a ‘business response to a social crisis’. We had a number of CEOs who added to our ability to manage a social business that worked in the crisis and led the organisation to become a social investment business that invested in getting people out of need.

But we remained a rather difficult business proposition. We were not a charity. I steadfastly wanted homeless people to get the means to help themselves. We could not appeal to trusts and government for support to do our work. We were a taxpaying business where all of the profits went back to the business and not to shareholders. Weird and wonderful, and a model of social business that has multiplied since the days when it was largely just us trying to be ‘businesslike’ about poverty.

Twenty years in we met Steve Canham. He was married to Siobhan, who was a teacher, and they had two daughters, Amelia and Ellie. He was in his early 50s and had worked in industry. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, he had run businesses all over the world, from Canada to Australia. But now, having done his bit, he wanted to bring his business skills to focus on social good. He joined a group of business people who, after decades in the commercial field, wanted to work in the Third Sector. Called ‘Prime Timers’, they were not up for retiring but for doing good with their business skills. Steve had run businesses involving hundreds of staff and achieved growth wherever he worked. He started off in finance and moved on towards running the whole show in a number of businesses.

Nigel Kershaw, our Big Issue chair, met Steve and it was quickly obvious that this impressive and physically tall and astute bloke was just the fella we were looking for to take us to the next level.

Steve fell in love with The Big Issue. He had the right manner for achieving change and growth. He would constantly go around the various offices and out with the staff working directly with homeless people. He got to know the whole organisation and never spoke down from his skills in building a business. In consolidating and making us more roadworthy as a social business.

When he went about his business, often in the extremely early hours of the morning, he said “I’m checking the tyres.” Checking the detail and well as the overall direction of the business.

In fact, soon enough he knew more about what we were and where we were going than anyone. He upped our game, helped us get over the vagaries of financial markets and changes in buying habits, so we could better help the homeless, ex-homeless and vulnerably accommodated people to earn their own money.

Steve could understand that we were trying to give our vendors a chance to grow. We were all about a kind of rite of passage for homeless people who had seen poverty interrupt their struggles to become themselves. Often the poverty and mental landscape of their birth and their early family life scuttled their attempts at moving beyond need. Steve understood that immediately. His businesslike skills fitted with our ambition to create change in the lives of poor people. Eventually, Steve retired to a very active, socially committed retirement in the West Country. He continued to support the homeless project Shekinah in Plymouth and Torquay. In 2021 Steve and Siobhan became delighted grandparents.

Alas, three weeks ago, aged 67, Steve succumbed to a heart attack. He left us in his prime. He will be so sorely missed by family, friends and The Big Issue. I leave the last word to our chair Nigel Kershaw, who recruited Steve to The Big Issue. I don’t think it can be said better:

“It was not just the undoubted talent and experience that Steve brought to us which played such an important part in our history. It was his commitment to The Big Issue, vendors and staff alike. And that, with his integrity and kindness, made him so special.”

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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