Suma is the trading name of the Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd, a worker co-operative incorporated as an industrial and provident society. It was founded in Leeds in 1975 and is now based in Elland, West Yorkshire. It is the largest independent wholefood wholesaler in the United Kingdom. The co-operative specializes in vegetarian, fairly traded, organic, ethical, ecological and natural products.
Its turnover for the year ending September 2013 was reported as £33,771,838, ranking it 49th among British co-operatives. Sales have doubled over the past decade.
Despite its trading volume, it is notable for being Britain's largest collectively organised co-operative, in that it avoids hierarchy and practices equal pay and job rotation despite having 140 employee owners.
Suma is a fully democratic workers cooperative. All cooperative members and employees receive the same net hourly rate of pay, no matter what their job or responsibilities. All members have input into the direction and policy of the Cooperative.
The Cooperative’s policy and direction is decided by general meeting of the members. Coordinators are appointed to direct areas of the business within a flat management structure. An elected management committee of six members oversees the fulfillment of the democratically agreed business plan.
Suma has a 30-year history of working to be an equal opportunities employer. It encourages its members and employees to learn new skills, take on new responsibilities and make improvements in working practices. It appreciates the benefits of diversity in the workplace and strives to encourage it.
Since Suma was established it has only stocked vegetarian food, and has a zero tolerance policy to any goods containing animal products or derivatives. Over 30 years later it still sells exclusively vegetarian products and is committed to promoting vegetarianism as an ethical lifestyle choice. Its premises are a meat-free zone, and workers benefit from a vegetarian canteen. Not everyone who works at Suma is a vegetarian.
Suma was started in 1975 by Reg Tayler. Reg had already gained some experience of wholefoods in London, and when he moved to Leeds he opened a retail shop, Plain Grain. In August 1975, at a meeting attended by all the wholefood shops in the north of England, he proposed they set up a wholefoods wholesaling co-operative in order to supply each other.
Reg and friends set up in the back kitchen of a house in Victoria Road, Leeds, from where they sold cereal flakes, dried fruits and brown rice. They soon needed more room, and so rented a lock-up garage nearby – this is where the name ‘Suma’ was first used for the growing business. At the time, Reg was working as a delivery driver for Jonathan Silver, taking clothes to his chain of menswear shops around the north of England. Reg delivered the wholefood orders in between the ‘official’ deliveries for his boss, who knew what was going on but turned a blind eye even so. (Jonathan Silver later sold up and went travelling. After he returned to England he bought Dean Clough Mills in Halifax in 1982, in partnership with Ernest Hall. Ernest bought him out in 1984, when Jonathan Silver went on to buy Salts Mill in Saltaire, now a major tourist attraction in the area).
Within a year they needed proper premises, and in 1976 acquired a tiny two-storey warehouse in Wharf Street, Leeds. Lots of stairs had made the warehouse unsuitable for storing food, and there is even one particular story of a time when several tonnes of fruit were carried upstairs, resulting in a horrible creaking noise as the ceiling started to collapse! Luckily the day was saved thanks to a little ingenuity and several large pieces of wood used as makeshift ‘props’. A retail shop called Beano was established round the corner in Kirkgate, and soon became an independent cooperative, separate from the wholesaling side of the enterprise. In 1977, Reg sold the Suma business to the then seven employees, who became the founder members of Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd, trading as Suma.
In 1978 Suma moved into a much larger three-storey warehouse across the road at 46 The Calls, Leeds. It seemed huge – the entire stock fitted into one half of the ground floor. However, rapid expansion of the wholefood market meant that by 1986 the whole place was bursting at the seams and Suma moved to a 70,000 sq. ft. warehouse shed in Dean Clough Mills, Halifax. There followed 15 years of steady growth, both of turnover and of the cooperative. Alongside the growth in size there was a corresponding increase in the complexity and sophistication of the business, and the structure of the coop went through many modifications to manage this change. In 2001, Suma moved to purpose-built premises in Elland where currently around 170 are employed.
Suma became the hub of a cluster of spin-off co-operatives in the food sector including Beano Wholefoods (a retailer in Leeds), Hebden Water Milling Collective (which mixed and packaged food and produced nut butters) and Cena (a research co-op). It was a major customer of the Wharf Street Café and collaborated with Leeds Beer Co-operative (the Ale House). It became a significant motor of co-operative creations, and established a co-operative development loan fund. For a period of several years in the 1980s, each time members decided to increase the pay rate, the same amount was put into the co-operative development fund.
Suma was in a leading position in the very fast-growing market for health food in the mid to late 1990s, and was conscious of immense growth opportunities. However the preferred method of expansion was based on the creation of independent co-operative businesses, rather than a more co-ordinated strategy. Suma therefore deliberately devolved several of its regional markets, such as Scotland and the Midlands, to other newly founded co-operative wholesalers (Green City Wholefoods and Ouroboros respectively). In 1989 a study was carried out on the creation of a nationwide co-operative wholefood group, including the above along with the sizeable Nova in Bristol, under the provisional name of NOW - Network of Wholefoods. However Suma, with roughly half the sales of the putative combined group, felt it had more to lose than to gain, and preferred to continue alone. The cluster of businesses grew more slowly than the market as a whole, and the movement steadily lost market share. Suma has partially redressed this by launching its own branded goods.
Viable systems model
Suma was the subject of an application of the Viable System Model (VSM), designed by Stafford Beer, which aimed to improve the efficiency of collective management by focusing on two principles - autonomy and coherence. This meant that each individual member would have infinite scope for independent action, and infinite responsibility for those actions, but only up to the point that if threatened the operation of the whole Suma. The model is recursive in that delegation is stepped: Suma to departments, departments to teams, teams to individuals, etc. This application, led by Jon Walker, was documented and published as part of the Strategic Management in the Social Economy (SMSE) project, managed by ICOM and supported by Directorate-General XXIII of the Euroepan Commission. It aroused a good deal of academic interest. The SMSE Handbook is out of print but the VSM chapter has been published in an html version. The overt use of VSM language has since been dropped, but the bottom-up organisational principle remains.
- Museum Links with Food Firm by Henryk Zientek, Mar 13 2008, Huddersfield Daily Examiner
- Co-operatives UK 'The UK Co-operative Economy 2014', p. 14
- 8th Day, Manchester; Alligator, York; Single Step, Lancaster; Maggie’s Farm, Durham; Down to Earth, Sheffield
- Amazon record: http://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Management-Social-Economy-Co-operatives/dp/1870018052
- The VSM Guide: http://www.esrad.org.uk/resources/vsmg_3/screen.php?page=homean