Her products were soon in great demand and made a major breakthrough when she won a contract to supply the major supermarket chain Asda in a blind food tasting competition. Since then, the business has enjoyed a meteoric rise and now employs several hundred people. Perween Warsi is one of the best known Asian businesswomen in the UK and is worth an estimated £70 million.
Roots of Success
Perween Warsi was born and brought up in the province of Bihar in Northern India. Her father was an engineer and his work meant that the family was constantly moving around the country. This early influence of a nomadic lifestyle gave Perween a ‘capacity to adapt’. As a small child, a playful Perween would continually harass the servants until they gave in and let her help prepare the meals. She undertook little tasks such as folding the samosas and kneading chapatti dough.From an early age she had watched her mother and grandmother create recipes from a variety of fresh ingredients.
Her passion for food developed alongside her entrepreneurial skills and visions. Her life took a new turn when at the age of 17 Perween married Talib Warsi, a doctor, in a traditional, arranged match. In 1975 they migrated to Britain, settling in Derby. England was a complete culture shock for her not just because she had to adjust to the cold climate but also because she no longer had the comfort of servants. She was now faced with the task of cooking and cleaning and looking after her husband while Talib worked as a general practitioner.
Rebel with a cause
Britain has long standing roots with India and Britain has embraced Indian food as if it were its own invention. From the early days of Brits enjoying a few beers and a curry to the more, sophisticated wider range of dishes that are now well known, Indian food is a huge industry. There’s an estimated 8000 Indian restaurants in Britain and it seems Chicken Tikka Masala is now more popular than fish and chips. Hard to believe really!
Perween’s starting point came about in a rebellious way, ‘I wanted to challenge the food industry. I found supermarket food to be boring, tasteless and poor value for money.’ Her mission was to provide better tasting food, ‘I am passionate about this’, she affirms. In 1986, with the support of her family and friends Perween decided to create a business using her own recipes. She started off with a tiny cottage industry which was later to grow into a major enterprise named S&A Foods after her two sons, Sadiq and Abid. Her first step was to produce finger food in her own kitchen for a local Greek restaurant. She was soon in great demand and began to market herself more effectively and the orders poured in.
Perween extended her kitchen and began to employ a number of women. Most of these women were fellow Asians and many of them did not speak English fluently. She has watched them develop over the years, together with her business, and many of them are now able to operate very complex machinery and have gained tremendously in both confidence and fluency of the English language. Perween nurtured talent and gave opportunities to these women in the early days. In return, she has been rewarded with a loyal, stable staff base, many of whom have been with her from the start.
For several years, she pursued the major supermarkets trying to promote her products but kept getting rejected. This rejection was hard for her to take, but she was resilient and had exhausted nearly all the large supermarkets with her letters. It was her belief in herself and the quality of her food that kept her going. She lives by the motto, ‘innovate or die’ and each time she was faced with failure, she worked even harder to improve the range and quality of her food offerings. She persisted for many years until eventually she was invited by the supermarket chain Asda to a blind food tasting event.
Soaring to new Heights
So what does it take to make a success of business in this, one of the most competitive of industries? First you overcome the hurdles and barriers which come from any number of sources; family commitments, experience, lack of finance. Then you don’t give up. You never give up. Perween had always set her sights on greater things. For her, the key ingredients to success are persistence and determination. She never shied away from rejection and had so much faith in the quality of her products that she continued to contact supermarkets to convince them to trial her products.
Although luck played a part in her success, it was no accident that the major supermarket chain Asda was her big break. She had hounded the supermarkets so it was just a matter of time before the doors opened, ‘Asda was my big break,’ she affirms proudly. Perween was invited by Asda to participate in a blind food tasting event. Her food would sit alongside other samples. This was to be her making, it was a major breakthrough, her products proved popular and her dream of hitting the big time took a step closer.
However, success brings its own concerns, as she was a fairly inexperienced business woman with no factory or premises to boast of, and she realized that she needed help, financial and capital. She also knew she had to go beyond her family and friends to get this level of help to take her to the next stage.
It was in 1987 that she won her first major contract to supply chilled and frozen dishes to the supermarket. This success, however, was not without its challenges for as S&A Foods became increasingly successful, Perween realised that larger premises were needed to accommodate the growing business. She needed to expand rapidly in order to meet the orders and access to finance was proving to be difficult. Financiers were cautious and were looking for at least a three year track record. Her few months of experience in her own kitchen did not leave them feeling comfortable about the venture.
Perween recalls, ‘We had our savings and what little we could borrow but it was nowhere near enough to build a factory.’ After some deliberation she joined forces with the Hughes Food Group, a local company, in order to generate the funds necessary to build a factory, ‘we were not strong enough financially to build a factory on our own,’ she explains. So she sold some shares to the Hughes Food Group. This was difficult for her, she wanted to retain control of her products and it was a big leap of faith for her, but she did not have much choice if she was going to pursue her dream of getting her products into the supermarket. By 1989 a purpose built factory was designed specifically to produce chilled Indian ready meals and created over 100 jobs in the area. Further contracts to supply Asda and Safeway were signed and S&A Foods was hailed a great entrepreneurial success story.
One of the keys to her success is determination and she has a resolute spirit in the face of challenge. She always looks forward and tries to find solutions. Her family were a great driving force, her husband in terms of the support he gave her and her sons for giving her the impetus to go for her dream. However, as much as these attributes are the backbone of hersuccess, it was her pragmatic approach to getting finance and retaining control of her products that was the determinant to success.
©Copyright Spinder Dhaliwal 2015