Beyond the prison gate
When Tony Hilton went “on his holidays”, it was at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure”. Jailed for six years for fraud and unwittingly renting houses that were being used for cannabis farms, Hilton served three years behind bars.
And the story of how he coped, learned, and came up with a cracking business idea while serving his time sounds like a cross between Porridge and the Shawshank Redemption. With a combination of brains, charm and a determination that he wouldn’t waste this unexpected experience, he has emerged with a passion to give something back to society.
He is the co-founder of Gone for Good, an app-based business that makes giving to charity shops easier than ever. The spark for the idea came while working in a charity warehouse while serving out his final year at Kirkham Open Prison. He soon realised the whole process needed to be streamlined and the lightbulb flashed on. But back to where it all started – with the clanging of a cell door.
“I’ll never trust a barrister again,” says Hilton, 48, who hails from Worsley, just outside Manchester. “I spent money that wasn’t mine, which was wrong, the cannabis farms were just the nail in the coffin.
“I was in the process of paying the money back and it took two years before coming to court. I was told that I might get two to three years and then when they said six I couldn’t believe it.
“I just had to brace myself and get on with it. I split it in to year-long chunks and I knew the last year would be in an open prison. I was in prison for 1,096 nights.”
As a novice to prison life he had to learn quickly, and a lucky encounter when he was being booked in on his first day helped him considerably. “This bloke came up to me and asked if I smoked – I didn’t,” says Hilton, who is upbeat and cheerful and clearly relishes telling his story. “He said he would get ‘padded up’ with me – but I had no idea what that meant.”
It turned out his new cellmate was a non-smoker too and they soon became friends. “He looked after me – which I needed. I remember one day that two other prisoners came into my cell and were after my chocolate. He told them to clear off as I was with him and I never had any trouble after that.”
Determined to use his time inside well, Hilton signed up for a prison vocational course and soon realised it was out of date. “With the support of G4S prison officers, I re-wrote the car mechanic course; we also wrote to a number of car companies resulting in nearly £100,000-worth of donated training materials” he says. “I thought that the other prisoners deserved something a bit better. I used to help write a lot of stuff for other prisoners including form filling and tag requests. I got paid in Mars Bars. I got through quite a few Mars Bars over the years.”
For the last two years of his sentence, he was moved to an open prison and spent his time in a charity shop warehouse on an industrial estate. “Open prison is like a really crap holiday camp,” laughs Hilton. “You could actually go out for work if you were back every night. The warehouse really opened my eyes to how charity shops worked, and I felt I could help them
do it better.”
He started putting ideas together for Gone for Good, an app that anyone can use to take a picture of the items they want to give away, tell them a little about it, choose a charity to donate to and arrange either a pick up from the charity or the best shop to drop it off.
The charity knows exactly what it is getting and it reduces the chances of your donation being lost or stolen – most of all, it’s easy for the donor. The aim of Gone for Good is to re-channel 6% of the saleable clothing and other items that currently end up in landfill, helping charity shop income to double, which in turn helps important causes.
Gone for Good also wants to double the amount of stock for those who live below the poverty line and rely on charity shops for clothes, children’s toys, furniture and other items. It’s the sort of brilliant idea you think should have been dreamed up long ago.
When Hilton was released in June 2011, he set about turning the app into a reality with investors and a lot of help from Matt Haworth and Ed Cox of Reason Digital, a Manchester agency that specialises in working for social enterprises. He also convinced a friend and lawyer, Mark Charnock, to become the managing director of Gone for Good and give his time for free.
At the same time, another lucky break came from Aidan Minogue, local business owner and entrepreneur from Bury. Minogue was instrumental in helping Hilton get back on his feet by employing him to look at and research the viability of a charity-specific leasing company supplying cars and vans to the sector.
In November 2016, Hilton and a team of investors formed Charity Fleetcare. “I have been very fortunate, between my family, close friends and my business partners, my way back into normal life has been much easier than it is for most,” says Hilton.
Both Charity Fleetcare and Gone for Good are now well and truly up and running. Gone for Good charges £1 for every transaction and has been downloaded more than 50,000 times. Many of the major charities have already signed up, and more are getting involved every day.
As well as supplying fleets of cars and vans, Charity Fleetcare has also developed charity-specific software that helps third sector organisations reduce fuel costs, lower emissions and improve efficiencies.
“Gone for Good is a game changer for charities,” says Hilton. “We did a presentation to a group of charities about this and was nearly killed in the rush at the end when they all came up and wanted to know more. They had all been looking at apps and we’ve now done the work for them.
“I don’t think many people realise just how important charity shops are. If we didn’t have great charities, I think this country would be on its backside.
“You just have to look at all the work going on with charities such as Cancer Research UK. Every day they are doing amazing things.”
The high street charity shop is still going strong and, for many people on low incomes, it is much more than somewhere to have a browse and buy a book. They are a vital resource for everything from children’s toys to furnishing a home.
“Furniture and warm clothes are big at the moment,” says Hilton. “Gone for Good just makes it as easy as possible to make sure the stuff you no longer want goes to the right place and not just to landfill.
“Charity shops are run by really loyal and committed people but the missing piece in the jigsaw is using technology to streamline the whole process and make it easy. The income they bring in to their individual charities is vital.”
But Hilton and his team aren’t stopping there. In January, they are launching the trial of Gone for Good Couriers where donors will be able to book a van, initially in London, which can come and pick up unwanted quality items at a date and time to suit them, all arranged through the app.
The long-term goal is to get 100 low-carbon dioxide vehicles on the road, employing 200 drivers and assistants made up of ex-service staff, long-term unemployed and ex-offenders. “These will be proper jobs, with proper salaries,” says Hilton. “With 100 vans, we could pick up stuff that would be worth £1m per week to the charity sector – then we have achieved something that would be really cool.”
And his plans don’t even end there. He is busy working to set up a charity in 2018 called ‘Home For Good’ to help ex-offenders on their “through the gate journey”.
It aims to make life easier from the minute they leave prison and therefore helping reduce reoffending. “There is a need to help ex-offenders open bank accounts, get cost-effective car and home insurance, help find accommodation and employment and we will deliver all of this by providing a simple to use smart phone app,” says Hilton.
Meanwhile, Gone for Good is already getting noticed and was recently named “Best Not For Profit” in the Big Chip Awards and nominated for “Best Use of Technology” and “Fundraising Technology Award” in the 2016 Charity Times Awards.
For Hilton, it’s been a remarkable transformation from prisoner to charity supporter, enthusiast, mover, shaker and disruptor.
“When I tell people about my background, over all they have been really supportive about it,” he says. “It’s just about being open and honest. My family and friends now refer to my sentence as ‘being on my holidays’.
“I’m disappointed and angry at myself that I crossed the line and broke the law and I’m sad I hurt my family and friends closest to me, especially my daughter who was a teenager at the time. But I also know that I truly benefitted from the experience and it made me a better person on so many levels – and, joking apart, it really wasn’t a holiday at all.”
Published: 02 January 2018