All together better

Alex Jako is part of the management committee at Suma Wholefoods – a vegetarian, organic food wholesaler which operates as a cooperative, with no traditional management structure. As the business approaches a £34 million turnover, leading business schools are knocking on their door to gain insight into their unique approach to success.

Suma’s roots were formed in 1975, after founder Reg Tayler opened the shop ‘Plain Grain’ in Leeds, then set up a cooperative with other northern wholefoods retailers. Now employing 200 people, who make every decision about the business as a collective, Suma is the UK’s biggest workers’ cooperative and Europe’s largest equal-wage workers’ cooperative, selling a variety of wholefood products, including its own brand.

Breaking the rules

Enjoying an impressive 15% growth and on target to reach a turnover of £34 million this year, the business breaks almost every conventional management rule, but its success is no accident. All employees undergo an intensive nine-month screening period to make sure they are engaged with the team-working approach and can cut the mustard at Director level. Following this, membership is put to a vote, with a 75% cut-off.

Alex Jako, who is a member of the management committee, explains further: “We are a sort of ‘adhocracy’, cutting across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems and get results. We have equal pay, equal vote and a non-hierarchal structure, consisting of coordinators and an elected management committee which makes decisions on behalf of the entire membership for day-to-day activities. However, we hold general meetings where any decision can be challenged and overturned, where everyone has equal say.

“Everyone participates in warehouse working, even if you specialise in an area such as finance or sales. This means we all understand the ins and outs of the company, how it works, where there are opportunities and so on. This foundation makes for better management decision making and is a good platform for innovative thinking.”

A 'can-do' attitude

Innovative thinkers are very much desired at Suma, and Jako is no exception, coming from a background at cult independent record shop Rough Trade, alongside experience as an illustrator. “Our workers are diverse and multi-skilling is a strength which has enabled us to be agile in the way we respond to opportunities, threats and weaknesses. There is a culture of a ‘can-do’ attitude,” she notes.

She outlines the diversity of her role at Suma, where few people have a set desk space in one area, instead picking up and sitting down wherever their skills are needed that day: “The key thing is that we play to people’s strengths and work across a variety of departments. I have been trained to drive a reach truck on the shop floor, I check our commodities for quality control, I work in our design and publications team and I am an elected member of the management committee.”

Collective thinking

The management committee is the democractic heart of the organisation, where collective thinking is put into practice. Suma has worked with Bradford University School of Management to quantify and strengthen its approaches to organisational team working and collaborative theory, and now operates according to the Belbin Team Inventory, a team role theory that is used to identify people’s strengths; and the Keirsey report, which analyses interaction dynamics and behavioural inclinations. Says Jako: “I am a ‘Plant’, an ideas person, and a ‘Teacher Idealist’ personality type – one of 16 personality types defined by Keirsey. It means I am able to make a difference in helping others to reach their full potential. We also have ‘Implementors’ and ‘Shapers’. The dynamic works well.”

The challenge is in the drive to be profitable, alongside the drive to be ethical and inclusive. Jako counters: “I believe our people are proud of the identity of the company and really live the brand by default because we are all owners – which is powerful for motivation and focus. There is always the underlying message that we are working for the collective good and, as our company motto says, we are ‘all together better’.”

5 business lessons

  1. Invest in people – this is the most important lesson for any business and one we live by at Suma
  2. Live your values – and, as you grow, be honest throughout change
  3. Challenge your comfort zones – and encourage your employees to do the same
  4. Rebel with positivity – always look at things from an opposing point of view before you make a decision
  5. All together better – Suma proves that working collaboratively makes your business stronger


For more information about Suma visit:

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