Business Profile: Alex Stappard at Suma Wholefoods
GOOD things happen when people co-operate.
Ask Alex Stappard. He swapped a conventional career in sales and marketing for a job with workers’ co-operative Suma Wholefoods at Elland – and opened up a whole new world of opportunities.
Alex, who hails from Newcastle, went to Sheffield Polytechnic and got some money together with summer jobs such as bar and hotel work in Scarborough. He enjoyed the idea of taking responsibility, even then.
“I got pulled up by my manager because the computerised till roll showed I had not been taking much money over the bar,” he recalls. “But it was because I was the one collecting the empty glasses and cleaning the tables.
“I have a natural affinity to take responsibility. That’s the good thing about working at Suma. People are encouraged to take responsibility because we are all owners, managers, shareholders and employees rolled into one.”
Alex began his career working for Great Universal Stores at a time when the Bradford-based catalogue business was Britain’s third biggest retailer. After 10 years, he left to join clothing retailer Damart before returning to GUS as it was being taken over by Argos.
By then, he was “flirting” with middle management – but says he was frustrated by the bureaucracy and “top down” approach which he found stifling. “I worked with some really good guys who showed me how to get the best from my team, grow my team and nurture new talent,” says Alex.
“At the time, I was living in Hebden Bridge and played football with someone who worked at Suma. I came here to do warehouse work six years ago and went through the membership process. It was the best decision I ever made.
“I had drifted out of school and I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was the same through university. I worked in catering and the service sector and that meant communicating with people. At Suma, everything is about communicating.
“We have 150 people here, most of them living in Kirklees and Calderdale who work together to run the business as drivers, sales and marketing people and in IT and management. We have a structure whereby everyone takes responsibility for resources.
“We have a management committee that writes the business plan which we all get to vote on. People are encouraged to share roles. One day you can be driving a truck or picking orders in the warehouse, the next you can be on reception or making sales calls.
“I have found myself driving trucks or cooking in the canteen. We always look for people with transferable skills. I was able to pass my test to drive the truck and I did that for a few years. There are far better drivers than me!
“But the system works because we invest in people and we train people.”
Members tend to wear jeans and T-shirts rather than suits and ties, but the culture remains businesslike.
“I was on the management committee for a couple of years,” says Alex. “I happened to look under the table – and four of the five people witting around it were wearing steel-capped boots because they were working in the warehouse. The other one was wearing sandals!”
All workers take home equal pay regardless of their job or age. Suma is thought to be the largest equal pay organisation in Europe.