Suma – A story of growing a business organically (watch)

A lovely talk about a great business idea. A working co-operative in which everyone earns the same amount of money no matter what work they do. Organically grown food been delivered into all parts of the world to provide a fairtrade and organice choice for our well-being. Great story about the future model of living and working organically. Definetly worth watching.

A Brief History

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’s 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 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, 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 150 are employed.

* 8th Day, Manchester; Alligator, York; Single Step, Lancaster; Maggie’s Farm, Durham; Down to Earth, Sheffield

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