Suma Wholefoods is the largest UK worker cooperative. It currently has 300 employees of which 200 are full voting members and annual sales of £70million, of which some 15% are exports to over 50 countries (Brexit permitting).
Like most worker coops, Suma is a solid, dependable business and employer. There is a respectful and deeply ethical business and employment culture. As a visitor said, 'It is immediately conspicuous how women take their space in Suma'. You have to work hard but the rewards are good. Most members learn a wide range of work and business skills and do a range of jobs within the business. High wages and lots of other worker benefits such as free hot meals, big staff sales discounts, excellent sick pay and childcare benefits, are among the reasons why Suma has to grow, because very few people leave.
Suma has not just weathered economic and business crises but grown throughout several recessions, prevailed against much bigger competitors and sprung back from business killing disasters such as a catastrophic flood and, at another time, total IT failure.
So people naturally ask 'How did this extraordinary organisation come about? How was this path to astonishing success started?' Well it all happened so long ago in 1975 to 1977 (when it became a registered coop) that tales are half forgotten, half made up and different people remember different things. As is normal. And those people were young and working very hard with no time or thought to preserve anything for prosperity. Like most worker coops it largely got lost over the years.
This piece however is from the founder, we think. Suma (although it didnt have that name then) was founded by two people Reg Tayler and Anna Whyatt. Reg remade contact in the early 2000s and we think wrote this piece. Anna left early on and despite major roles, Chief Executive of Southwark Council in the 1990s for example, has disappeared from public view. So it's fitting that Reg, here, gives her credit for her role in the genesis of The Steam Bicycle Company, latterly Suma.
Every story has a beginning
Reg Tayler graduated from Cambridge University in 1972 with a degree in Mathematics and Economics. It was there his interest in wholefoods, ecology, meditation and communal ventures began. His understanding of economics led him to look at alternative economic models to capitalism which could sustain a more equitable society.
Through his interest in higher consciousness and spiritual awareness he became a follower of Guru Maharaj Ji and from 1972 to 1974 lived with other followers in communal houses around the UK. He spent some time working for the Plain Grain natural food wholesaling business which provided natural foods for Maharaj Ji’s followers around London. It was in 1974 that he was asked to move to Leeds to complete the opening of a wholefood shop also called Plain Grain which was being set up by Maharaj Ji’s followers there.
With some friends he opened the shop and started to run it, but after a disagreement (partly because of a lack of funds being provided for stock replacement) with the organisation, known then as the Divine Light Mission, he left at the end of 1974. In the same year he inherited £4,000 from his late grandfather’s estate - this was to become the required capital to set up the business.
Anna Whyatt along with some friends founded the South Headingly Food-Co-op and bought stock from Plain Grain. This is where she and Reg met. They became friends and lovers and would share ideas about co-operative working from their flat in Victoria Road.
In 1975 Reg had an inspiration – you might call it a realisation – that there should be a natural food wholesaling business in the North of England, and that he was the person to start it.
Shortly afterwards he heard from a friend at the Plain Grain shop in Leeds, that people at On the Eighth Day (a whole food shop in Manchester) were also keen on a wholesaling operation in the North of England and that they were calling a meeting of people from wholefood shops across Northern England to discuss the options for this, in the summer of 1975.
At the meeting in Manchester Reg offered to start a natural food wholesaling business and the people from all the shops, including 8th Day – Manchester, Alligator – York, Single Step – Lancaster, Maggie’s Farm – Durham, Down to Earth – Sheffield, agreed to support it.
At the time he was working as a van driver for Jonathan Silver, who was running a chain of high fashion menswear shops and who turned a blind eye to Reg using on occasion the business van to collect food. The wholesaling operation started slowly as Reg had promised Jonathan he would continue to work for him until the busy Christmas period in 1975.
With the support of all the shops meaning that stock could be turned over rapidly, with supplier contacts from Reg’s time at Plain Grain giving favourable credit terms, and with a further injection of working capital from Bernard Storey (a former work colleague at Jonathan Silver Clothes), Reg was able to grow the business rapidly and soon attracted other like-minded people to help. The intention was always to set up the business as a co-operative, but they weren’t sure initially what form this should take.
The actual name Suma came from a clothes shop in a back street near Victoria Road, Hyde Park, Leeds. It read ‘Suma SUMA’. Both Reg and Anna liked the name and she tracked down the person who ran the shop (which was about to stop trading) who was happy for them to have it. Reg believes it comes from Africa and is a Swahili word of greeting.
The owner of the shop Anne Whitely (now Brown) had a shop previously in Tanzania. She shared the business with a friend whose husband was from Guinea. His name was Soumah (pronounced Suma in West Africa) he told her it was derived from the word - ‘welcome’ - in his country. Coincidentally SUMA meant sewing in Swahili, so the name represented ’welcome sewing’. Appropriate as they made all the clothes for the shop. After this Anne and her son moved to Leeds. She got to know some people who regularly bought material from her who had set up a health food business from their house - they liked the name, and because Anne had already registered the name, she gave them the relevant paperwork and Suma was born.
The initial sunflower logo was designed by Brian Charlesworth, who had replaced Reg as a van driver for Jonathan Silver and then himself worked at Suma for a while.
In 1976 Suma acquired a small two storey warehouse in Wharfe Street near The Calls in Leeds, next door to Beano and Wharfe St. Café. Beano was part of Suma at this stage. There’s a story about several tonnes of fruit being carried upstairs, resulting in a horrible creaking noise as the ceiling started to collapse! But luckily there were several bits of wood which were used as props and the day was saved and business continued.
In 1977 Reg ‘sold’ Suma to his seven work
colleagues N.M Crabtree, E.B
Godfrey, B. Charlesworth, R.G Lihou,
E.A Whyatt, H.A Noyes, B. Charlesworth, who became the founder members of
Triangle Wholefoods, trading as Suma. Suma
had finally become a co-operative! (In fact Reg only asked for his original
capital plus some interest, which was considerably less than the value of the
business in 1977). By this time Reg had already paid back Bernard Storey’s loan
and there was still plenty of working capital to grow the business, which is
actually quite amazing in only two years or so – but everyone including Reg and
Anna only took out low wages, to help the business to grow. (N.M Crabtree and
R.G Lihou still work for Suma).
Reg spent a few months at Lifespan Community near Holmfirth/Penistone and then worked on a farm owned by some friends in the Orkneys. After he lived in York for a while and gained some experience with arable farming. His intention was to form an organic farming collective – however there were difficulties finding like-minded people of the right caliber, and raising the funds to purchase a suitable farm were unsurmountable.
He moved back to Leeds in 1978/9 and worked for Suma again for a few months. Reg was able to help Suma acquire its first truck Operating Licence, because he had held one previously whilst in London.
Shortly afterwards he met his first wife Andrea and decided to settle down and have a ‘normal’ career and a family. He retrained as a computer programmer and had a long and successful career in developing and supporting commercial business computer applications, including systems for a variety of wholesaling and manufacturing businesses, an insolvency practitioner, a retail logistics company, and a major UK bank. He is now retired and living with his second wife Diane in a flat in Harrogate. He still takes an interest in how Suma is developing, and visits the offices in Elland from time to time.
‘Looking back, I am very pleased that I was able to be involved in the birth of Suma, and I am even more pleased that it has grown and flourished over the years. I do now regret that I did not stick with the co-operative and help it to grow – it may have been possible to raise the capital through Suma to start an organic farming collective, which I would have loved to have happened! But it is probably for the best that I left, and made room for other people to develop their skills. I recognize that it has been a hard struggle at times to develop a workable management structure for the growing business, and I congratulate everyone who has stuck through good times and bad. I recently read a fascinating book called ’The Great Disruption’ by Paul Gilding, which is about the likely impact of climate change. One point it makes is that once the false expectations of indefinite ’economic growth’ in a finite world has been shattered by the reality that we have reached the limits of resource-hungry economic activity, then new ways of working and business ownership will need to be developed which are more equitable. I believe that Suma can have a significant part to play in demonstrating what is possible.’