Julius Nicholson starts his working week in the office at Suma Wholefoods, fielding customer enquiries. On Tuesday, he’s in the kitchen, perhaps rustling up a North African tagine lunch for more than 100 workmates. Wednesday is a day off for family duties. On Thursday, you’ll find him wrapped up in layers, driving a forklift inside the refrigeration unit. And on Friday, it’s back to the office in a marketing role, which might involve writing for the website or working with the design team to come up with copy for adverts.
This multiplicity of roles is fairly typical for workers at the West Yorkshire-based natural foods wholesale cooperative. What’s more, everyone is paid exactly the same rate of £13 an hour. With almost 200 members, Suma is thought to be the largest organisation in Europe operating an equal pay policy.
“One of the best things for me is that there are no fat cats, no big car in the car park, and no grafting all hours just for the money to go straight into someone else’s back pocket,” says Nicholson, who has been a member for 17 years. “We all work hard and we share the fruits of our work equally, which is amazing. I once went on a trade union day and there were a lot of people there from traditional industries. We each had to say a bit about our company and one trade union guy went all misty-eyed and said, ‘You’re talking about utopia.’ It made me feel really lucky.”
The approach is certainly working for Suma. The worker-owned and managed co-op, founded in 1976, has grown to become the UK’s largest independent natural food wholesaler and distributor, specialising in vegetarian, Fairtrade and ethically produced goods. Last year, the business turned over £34m in sales throughout the UK, and to more than 50 other countries. It meant a bonus of one month’s pay for all workers and the creation of ten new full time jobs. This June, it was chosen from more than 6,000 other businesses as Co-operative of the Year 2014 in the awards run by trade association, Co-operatives UK.
Consumer trends have played a role in its success. People have become increasingly health conscious and concerned about the provenance of their food. But it would not have been possible without Suma’s strong ethical values, attention to detail and constant innovation. Over the years, the business has scored many industry firsts. It was the first to sell recycled toilet paper, as well as non-hydrogenated margarine – products that are now mainstream. Currently in the pipeline are a range of soaps, minus the palm oil, and an ethically-sourced coconut oil from the Philippines.
Suma is run by an elected management committee, which works through a process of consensual management. Business strategies are discussed on the intranet and proposals put forward at six general meetings spread throughout the year. “We prefer to reach a consensus,” explains Bob Cannell, who has been a member for 33 years. “If there isn’t enough support for a proposal it’s withdrawn and reworked then sent around the email system again to try to get something that everyone is happy with. We don’t want a grumpy minority.”
That workers take on multiple roles also means that they have a broad understanding of the business, he adds. “Most businesses are run to benefit the executive managers and, although people think they are the best people for the job, we’ve proved and continue to prove that the best people to run businesses are the workers – not in a chaotic way but in a cooperative and collective way. Once you have that in place you get a fantastic level of customer service, efficiency and productivity. When a customer contacts Suma they are usually talking to a business owner and if they have a complaint, it gets sorted.”
But with so many members, how does it prevent factions developing? The co-op’s rigorous recruitment process plays an important part in this. Members, who are often drawn from temporary workers brought in to cover busy periods, undergo a year-long trial period to assess whether they are a good fit with the organisation’s ethos. The final hurdle is a member ballot.
“Members are always on the lookout for the forming of cliques, and people behaving a selfish and individualistic way,” says Cannell. In accordance with employment law, there’s an informal process of mediation and counselling. But Suma has sacked members in the past when this has not worked.
A bigger challenge over the years, he says, has been a lack of guidance on how to run a workers’ co-op. “There’s nobody who can tell us how to do it; no text books, no management experts, no university departments. That has really held us back. Unlike in other European countries, virtually all the management support and advice that exists in the UK assumes a chief executive or self-employed structure.”
Suma is always ready to use its years of experience to help new co-ops and Cannell has travelled as far as the Balkans and South Africa to give advice. “It’s such a shame that this very effective model of running a business is not better known in the UK,” he says. “We’re just ordinary people from West Yorkshire. Anyone can do this.”