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Home » Brand

Suma Shortlisted for a second Grocer Gold Award

Submitted by on April 30, 2010 – 5:25 pmOne Comment

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Suma Shortlisted for another Grocer Gold Award

 We’re really pleased to be shortlisted for another Grocer Gold Award (Employer of the Year)- this time last year we were nominated and shortlisted for the Specialist Wholesaler of the Year 2009, which we eventually won.

Being a workers co-operative, Suma experiences a different range of employment challenges to many main stream employers, but participation, responsibility and engagement of the workforce are not amongst them.

The most radical employer in Europe? (almost, apparently)

“Suma is one of the two most radical employers in Europe” said the director of Cooperatives Europe, Rainer Schluter, recently to an international audience in Brussels.

So, how have we managed to square this circle?

Hold onto your hats. What you are about to hear seems too fantastic to be true. But it exists in an ordinary distribution warehouse beside the M62 in West Yorkshire.

Suma employees 150 people and pays 66% more than market rate wages. And Suma gives its workers an extra month’s wages as a xmas bonus.

We take ‘diamonds in the rough’ (able people who have missed out in the education lottery) and propel them into creative and high power positions within months of recruitment. And Suma enables professionals to mix manual work into their mental work.

How often have you wished you could just get on with some decent honest graft as a break from endless office politics?

Suma is one of the very few employers in the UK to offer a job for life. We have several workers coming up for retirement soon who have worked nowhere else. And many of our current ‘young ‘uns’ can expect the same if they want it.

Suma has no executive management. No CEO, no MD not even a permanent Chairman. Every worker gets the same net wage rate. Every worker can work in every area of the business.

It should be happy hippy chaos, shouldn’t it?

But this last year of recession we have recruited, grown into new markets, developed ‘world first’ new products, increased our training investment, bought expensive new technology, increased wages and paid a thumping good bonus.

How on earth does it work?

Well, like John Lewis, Suma is 100% employee owned. All our customer facing staff, our drivers, our telesales operators, our order pickers, our customer accounts people, in fact almost our entire workforce, are owners of the business.

However Suma has gone further than JLP because our shop floor workers run the business and decide how customers will be serviced.

We take the big strategic decisions in giant members meetings. 100 or more in a lecture theatre. We elect non-executive directors from among us to watch over our team coordinators and professional advisers and make sure the big plans get carried out.

But largely we rely upon every Suma member being self-managing and working as a member of a cooperative team whatever job they are doing that day. At a stroke, our executive and supervisory management costs fall to a fraction of our competitors’.

Those savings make up the premium we pay ourselves. We don’t have a problem with engagement and customer driven service. We have to calm things down when a customer doesn’t get 100%. Suma people take it personally.

Our professional specialists in personnel, finance and marketing are held in check by a board of elected directors . Sort of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster relationship ” Of course you can take that decision, but may I suggest…”

What is it like in practice working for Suma?

It isn’t a holiday. To get into membership you have to pass a three month ‘trial’ of full time manual work in the warehouse with strict performance targets. That sorts the workers from the shirkers.

Then six months training in the various parts of the business followed by a ballot of members. Pass that and you become a member of the cooperative. A member is a self-managing business partner with full voting rights and access all areas. New recruits are warned that we don’t have a boss, we have 120 of them.

In surveys, Suma staff cite security as one of the most important advantages of our business structure. It is very unusual in our market. We provide a core of top quality reliable employment in our community. Our staff can get mortgages and plan for the future with confidence. Some of them had been made redundant three or four times before they came to Suma.

Like many worker coops, Suma members have chosen to be multi-skilled and do a range of different jobs. It’s not so much job enrichment as make the jobs fit the people.

Most Suma workers have a far wider knowledge of their business than their equivalent in a competitor. Directors work in the office and warehouse when they aren’t in board meetings. Suma marketeers deliver the products they have developed to customers and experience at first hand what they think of them. Finance managers worrying about wage bills experience the stress of stretched labour quotas when they are picking customer orders. Suma is a matrix not a hierarchy of silos.

People ask us how we recruit experts when we pay everyone the same net wage rate. It’s easy actually. We chop professional jobs up so, for example, our finance director role is actually done by a team. Succession problems solved at a stroke. Salaries inflated by market shortage competition? We don’t need to play that game. We train our own and there is always someone sick of the corporate rat race who wants to share their wealth of experience to benefit the community rather than shareholder investors.

‘Oh come on, you say, what about… IT for instance? You can’t have amateurs doing that!’ The Suma IT team often has to write its own software because the commercial providers are just not up to our standards. The Suma IT team mostly were gifted amateurs who together with some specialised training now outperform the lifetime professionals.

Received wisdom is that you have to specialise to be efficient. This is not our experience. Continuity between ‘part time’ jobholders can be maintained by good information systems. Our sales team rely on an in-house designed CRM system to know what was promised yesterday by someone else. Our exceptional customer loyalty shows we get it right.

So Suma must spend a fortune on training?

Good support, good coordination and good training allows people to have rich and varied working lives. They don’t get bored. They maintain high levels of engagement in each of their ‘part time’ jobs. They don’t get into comfort zones and become self-defensive. We can do this because we own the business and do what we want with it.

Training is part of the wallpaper. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds are trained to drive reach trucks, do credit control, become buyers, work in IT, do marketing, run traffic operations and all the varied jobs that we need to run this business. Most of this is in-house training. Sometimes by professionally qualified instructors, we have our own lift truck instructor and LGV driver CPC instructors, sometimes by professionals with decades of experience in their field.

Asking us what our training budget is, is a very difficult question to answer. It’s in the wages bill. But we do encourage and enable our people to go for high qualifications. We must be one of very few small wholesaler businesses with a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the personnel office (part time of course – he also drives a reach truck in the warehouse, when he isn’t away lecturing at business schools).

Personal development in Suma is whatever you want to make of yourself. At Suma ‘If you can, You can’. Show your peers you can do a job and you can do it regardless of your background. Our brand manager was in charge before she had become a member because she showed what it took. Our transport manager is a new graduate of logistics in charge of a fleet of 20 trucks and a national and international distribution network. People take on responsibilities they would wait years to get near in a normal employer.

We can do this because we support each other. People who work as a member of an open team get the help of their more experienced colleagues. Everyone benefits and so does the business.

So what is it really like, working at Suma?

Intense, fast moving, rarely monotonous, personally and professionally challenging – almost all of the time. No one to blame if something’s wrong. It’s as much your problem as anyone else’s . There’s no right to not be offended. Any member can publicly question and comment on any part of the business. There are no suits or status or office doors to hide behind. Some people love it. Some don’t and they head off for more normal employment elsewhere.

The numbers are evidence. Staff turnover is tiny, something like 2% per annum (excluding seasonal helpers). Suma members stay forever.

The only way we can effectively get new people in is to grow the business which we have done every year of its life since 1975 (apart from two when we had a rest).

Sickness absence rates are less than public sector and comparable with the total private sector, despite few sanctions and very generous sick pay. We like coming into work.

We have never made anyone redundant. But we have dismissed for disciplinary reasons. We aren’t pussycats . Suma members will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.

Perhaps the most remarkable output of Suma are the people we turn out. The few who do leave. One chap came as a redundant miner with no other experience or qualifications. He now runs a well respected and well known specialist foods company (and a Suma supplier). Other Suma members have made equally big changes, from train driver pre Suma to CEO of a national museum post Suma. Some even set up new coops, not many it has to be said, perhaps they’ve had enough excitement for one lifetime.

And the other ‘most radical employer’?

According to Herr Schluter it is the giant Mondragon and Eroski retail cooperatives in Spain but that’s another story.

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