My name is Sheree Hatton and I’m here representing Suma Wholefoods, the biggest worker cooperative in the UK. We are the country’s largest independent supplier of wholefoods and ethical deliveries, which we deliver all over the UK, and export around the world.
We have been supplying natural food since 1977. From the start, we have always been committed to wholesome, clean label, vegetarian food. It is great to see these sorts of products now so much more part of the mainstream – we’re proud to say that we’ve never done it any other way.
Suma is not run like a traditional business. It is a worker’s co-operative, owned, managed, and run by its members. Suma has almost two hundred employees, everybody gets paid the same amount, regardless of the job that they do, and we are the largest single pay employer in Europe. At Suma, we believe that everyone here plays a vital role – irrespective of his or her position or length of time they have been here. Everyone is equal, we all get paid the same amount, and all members have an equal say in how the business is run.
The result is a unique company – uniquely managed, unique to work for, and for our customers, unique levels of service. We see ourselves as a beacon of how a business can be run – owned and managed by our members, with everybody having an equal say, and an equal share in its success.
This means that we all want Suma to be the very best that it can be.
So how do we avoid management capture?
As a business and a group of like-minded individuals, it is imperative that we have certain procedures for decisions and ideas to go through to ensure that they are viable for the business, and worthy of time, money and resource. It’s our business, and we are all responsible for its longevity and success.
Within the business, we have various groups of individuals that deal with different areas. For example, we have area coordinators that discuss and debate the operational running of each team on a day to day basis. We have an elected body of six individuals (elected by the cooperative) to stand on our Management Committee to oversee the larger scale issues and opportunities we face, such as capacity, long term business strategy and contracts and changes within our structure, for example purchasing a new system. This elected body works with appointed officers such as Finance, Health & Safety and Company Secretary. All of these positions can be held for a maximum of three years, before having to reapply for the position. All members have the opportunity to vote.
Every meeting held between departments, coordinators, and elected groups follow agendas, have minutes taken and action points set. Each department works towards aims and objectives that feed into the company’s wider strategy plans. All meetings and their discussions are transparent; anyone in the cooperative can observe or read minutes from them – we strive to be open and honest with all of our work and communications.
All these departments and teams are accountable to the membership . We have quarterly general meetings, where anybody can bring proposals to start or stop an event or action, policies can be created or scrapped and discussion is held on business matters. Here, all members attend, and have the choice to input into the discussion on the evening, or through forums held in the weeks before.
As these groups are accountable to the membership as a whole, it’s very difficult to end up in a position where a group of individuals end up pushing their views and actions onto the cooperative, resulting in a management capture. Due to the transparency of all discussions, and the chance to feed into discussions at any opportunity, for anything to be changed, altered or scrapped, our constitution dictates that we must have a majority of over 50% to approve a proposal concerning the business, or over 75% to allow changes to our constitution. We work towards seven member skills that ensure we’re all on track with our jobs and tasks. We also, as a business set our work against the seven cooperative principles. Along with these and our mission statement, we can ensure that everyone is working in line with Suma’s expectations, and in a cooperative manner. It’s these rules and procedures that we work by that helps avoid management capture.
Each member goes through a thorough feedback process. We work with a 360 degree feedback method, where everyone feeds back about the individual, which is all named, to maintain honesty and openness (one of our member standards). This gives us all the ability to reflect upon our work and ensure we’re following the standards we set. Our elected body (Management Committee) also go through an annual review – where members feedback their thoughts and opinions and offer suggestions on change. This is all printed in public files for everyone to view and discuss at any time.
When we are recruiting for new members, each person goes through a 9 month trial. Throughout this process, we educate new trial members about our cooperative principles and member standards so we can develop them as individuals.
To avoid management capture, we feel that having a strong set of principles and policies is key to maintaining a level of control on our business. That, and having our members know that it’s their business, and we can have as much or as little say as we want within it. Being open and transparent and honest are key attributes too – know when to admit something isn’t going quite right – we have the ability to change our path and fix something – or continue doing something successful. It really is up to us.