Suma - a Co-operative Working
From our humble origins in the kitchen of a terraced house in Leeds in 1976, Suma worker’s co-operative has evolved to become the UK’s largest employee-owned supplier of natural and organic goods. Being 100 per cent employee owned and managed means we’re all on board in trying to make our business the best that it can be, and not working to line the pockets of any external shareholders or a big wealthy MD.
I’m really proud to say that we are the largest ‘single-pay organisation’ in Europe. This means that all of our 140 members are paid the same net hourly wage, irrespective of the jobs that we do; so the person that sweeps the floor is paid the same as someone who works in IT, distribution or management accounts. In fact, at Suma people often work in different areas. So one day you really could be working in the warehouse, the next day you could be driving a truck and the next day working in IT. This makes for a flexible and contented workforce, which is able to bend and adapt to accommodate the needs of the business.
There are no directors or managers at Suma, and because we all multi-skill and job share, we maintain a very strong level of engagement that is not generally found in other companies.
In August, we were awarded the title ‘Co-operative of the Year 2014’, which was announced at the Co-operatives UK AGM. Being recognised as innovators within the co-operative movement proved that our unique way of working can inspire others to think about working co-operatively.
The diversity of my working week, and equal pay, are the aspects that I like most about working here, which is probably why I am still here after coming for a two-week trial seventeen years ago. In that time I have done many things at Suma; sales, warehouse, picking, driving, cooking, customer support, customer information, and marketing.
Nowadays, on a Monday, you will find me working in our customer support department. This involves putting together trips for our reps to go out visiting existing customers, trying to open new accounts and spending time on the phone looking after and advising customers on lots of different issues.
On a Tuesday I cook in the canteen. Each day we all sit down and enjoy a freshly prepared vegetarian meal at lunchtime. We are very lucky. There has been a canteen at Suma since the very early days, it has always been a key idea that people working long, hard hours needed food to sustain them and to keep them healthy.
On a Wednesday, I don’t work at Suma but spend the time looking after my kids. Again, this too feels fortunate. I’m grateful that here is the flexibility at Suma that we allow people to work the days and hours that they need. Look after your people and they will look after you.
On Thursdays I work in the warehouse dealing with orders coming into our fridge, which is big enough to drive a forklift truck inside! How cool is that! It is nice to do some physical work. Members are encouraged to try and make their working week up with a mixture of physical and desk-based jobs.
On Friday I work in Marketing and PR, writing articles for our catalogue, website, looking after external advertising and writing articles like this! All together, it makes for a very varied week.
One of my over-riding memories of working at Suma is being at a Trade Union event with a colleague. We were in a room of people from lots of different business and we each took it in turns to describe our work places. When it was our turn, we explained about how it worked at Suma, the equal pay structure and the fact that we all owned and managed our business, and an old trade union guy went all misty-eyed and said, ‘That’s Utopia, you’re talking about Utopia!’. My colleague and I smiled about it at the time but it stayed with us both because he was right and we often loose sight of this when we are stuck in the day to day of our working lives.
Of course it’s not perfect at Suma, there are frustrations – wherever there are people there are difficulties. We get things wrong, we make mistakes, and because it is our business, there is always something to worry about but the key is that it IS ours and we manage it in the best way that we can. We are proud of our cooperative principles and we can give advice to people who want to know more about this way of working. At the end of the day, anybody can do it – we are just ordinary people who are trying to do things slightly differently. Julius, Suma.