Values are assuming more and more significance in business life, with the outgoing head of the Institute of Directors referring to values as the next frontier for business.
As a sector, co-operatives have always been based on values – and values that are shared the world over. How they are put into practice varies, but what is clear is how much the business world at large can learn from co-ops.
I have just researched a new book on values – a practical guide to embedding values in business – inspired by co-operatives. Co-operatives like Suma.
Suma was founded as a business in 1975 and moved to its current purpose-built distribution centre in Yorkshire, England, in 2001. It is the market leader in wholefood distribution, distributing 7,000 vegetarian product lines across the UK including several hundred own-brand products.
Suma has grown and grown, last year delivering its best trading performance for 35 years. Equality is one of its values as a co-operative and as such this means operating on the basis of equal pay, with Suma employees earning far higher than the market average for most of the roles they carry out.
This is not for everyone, and it is vital for the business that those who come to work and become members are aligned with the values of equality and prepared to champion them. It translates the values into a set of five behaviours Suma is looking for. Suma recruits all year around, through local media and invites speculative applications. Colleagues then screen them for evidence of the behaviours, hold work trials and group interviews. If successful, this then leads on to three months’ probation in manual work, before six months’ membership training. If you make it through that, there is then a ballot of all the members on whether you join.
The only job description it uses is that of a membership job description. Bob Cannell of Suma comments that “we don’t recruit ‘me too’ co-operators or for vocational skills primarily. It is easier to teach a member to be an accountant than teach an accountant to be a member. We recruit for values and train for skills.”
With equality as a value, Suma has a strong focus on gender. As Emma Robinson, one of the co-op members, explains: “Suma is in an industry that is traditionally quite male-dominated. We get more women on board by offering strong maternity benefits and other initiatives around work-life balance, job-sharing and flexible working.
“We think about where we advertise and how we write job advertisements – such as using pictures of women doing manual work and driving trucks.”
Suma is proof that you can build a business on values that might appear, in a world of rocketing executive pay and wider inequalities, to be upside down from the world around. As such, if you see business as a way to change the world around you, there is more perhaps to learn from this Yorkshire business than almost any other in the UK.
If you care about values, if you want to bring those to where you work and if you can attract others to you on the basis of those values, you’re in business.
- Ed Mayo is author of a new book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business. Values… is published by Greenleaf and available here.