Home: Issue 4 2008 › Cover Story › The authentic entrepreneur
The authentic entrepreneur
04/12/2008 | Channel:
Perween Warsi’s curry empire has been built on a dedication to authenticity, quality and innovation. Libbie Hammond got a taste of the business
When she started making Indian finger foods in her kitchen at home, Perween Warsi had no idea she was building the foundations of a multi-million pound food business that would help to change the face of the ready-made ethnic food sector forever.
It all started in 1986 when she began selling samosas to local restaurants, but this small-scale operation was not reaching enough consumers, and Perween had much bigger ideas. Believing in her vision of people nationally enjoying her products, the next route was the major multiple grocers. It took patience and determination, but her persistence paid off and when Asda included some of Perween’s food in a taste panel, its quality shone through and S&A Foods was born. Named after her two sons, the company today has a turnover of more than £65 million and employs over 600 people in two factories in Derby.
The first factory was completed in 1989 and S&A began to achieve new heights with Indian dishes. By 1996 the second factory was complete and the new capabilities enabled S&A to extend Perween’s vision to create a range of not just Indian but international cuisines, to reach new markets and launch revolutionary new serving concepts. This factory has subsequently been extended to further increase the capabilities.
From its inception until today, Perween has been the driving force behind the
company and its dedication to manufacturing only authentic, high quality, innovative food that represents good value for money. This has translated into the company being a trailblazer for the entire industry.
Perween is still very much involved with the day-to-day running of the business, and most of all ensuring that the foods produced by S&A meet the same standards of excellence as they did when they were being prepared by her own hand at home. She told me: “I have always been very passionate about food and love cooking and I thought that the British people deserved to eat better Indian food. The standard of Indian cuisine available in the supermarkets when I started S&A was of such poor quality and taste that I didn’t believe it represented 9what I considered to be Indian food, it wasn’t genuine, or authentic, and these criteria are still of primary importance to me today.”
This passion for authenticity means that Perween works closely with her development chefs, as well as in her own kitchen, developing recipes and ideas. “We also travel extensively looking for information,” Perween continued, “as I believe today’s knowledgeable, well-travelled customers are always looking for cuisine that is new and exciting, and we must be able to offer them that.
“Over the years we have come up with many new concepts and ideas that we have developed into large businesses, such as the ‘serve over’ model, which was quoted by Archie Norman many years ago as the ‘biggest takeaway in the country’. We also developed takeaway bags, and pick and mix ideas, so one of our strengths is spotting gaps in the market and turning them into businesses.”
This means that the company invests heavily in research and development and continually adds new dishes to the range, as Perween explained: “We have to constantly introduce new products; it’s a point of pride to us that we are always innovating.”
She continued: “The chilled food sector is highly competitive, but S&A’s constant dedication to innovation allows us to maintain our position. We believe that by developing new products we can maintain the lead in market and we always have one eye on the competition. We also have a team of highly skilled development chefs who constantly are coming up with new ideas and we control their creative genius in a fashion that encourages innovation and retains our focus on what the customer wants.”
This innovation is supported by a bespoke manufacturing facility, designed from the ground up to make the manufacturing process as smooth as possible from delivery to dispatch. “All aspects of the manufacturing process are under one roof,” explained Perween, “and because the factory was purpose built, it gave me a great opportunity to ensure that key facilities are available both for the products and the colleagues. When you are designing a factory yourself you have the capability to make sure that the ‘flow’ is correct and I was delighted to be able to sit down with my team and design the layout so that it was perfect for us. It was important to me that it was not only a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, but that it was also a safe and pleasant environment in which to work, in some ways it was like designing your own kitchen. Our plant cooking equipment is computerised so we can see the whole cooking cycle, and it can be viewed and traced back for food safety purposes, and our quality processes are carried out from entry to exit.”
In fact, although the factory is clearly a point of pride to Perween, she believes her most important asset is her staff. “My company is not just bricks and mortar,” she said. “We invest heavily in training and development and we have a dedicated training division within the company. All our new employees and colleagues go through the training programme, including management and middle management, as I believe that looking after staff is essential if we are to be successful.”
Perween mentioned that a food manufacturing environment is always high risk, with levels of hygiene and food safety taking top priority. “The UK has always led our EU cousins in terms of food safety quality systems and as a leading manufacturer we make sure that all legislation and industry guidelines are followed to the letter,” she said. “One of the most significant changes in the food industry I have seen over the past few years is the ever increasing list of recognised allergens that we have to pay attention to and these range from well known ones like peanuts to more rare ones like kiwi fruit. We work very hard with suppliers and regulatory bodies to develop and align our facility and operations in a way that prevents cross contamination of all these allergens.”
Perween frequently referred to the importance of her suppliers and she emphasised that to achieve the superior taste and quality that S&A strives for is only possible if the best ingredients from around the world are used and never compromised on. “Only by doing this can we guarantee the authenticity and consistency of all our products,” she said. “When it comes to sourcing ingredients, I divide this into three areas - local, national and international. Locally, for example, we get all our fresh vegetables and chicken where possible. The materials that we use more of are nationally sourced, and internationally we have to get ingredients such as spices, because they have to be authentic and sourced from the origin of the dish. It depends on what we are buying, and what the purpose is, but the quality of the ingredients is always paramount.”
She continued: “We have many suppliers and indeed customers with whom we have worked with right from the beginning, and they are key to our business. We have a long term relationship with them and I believe this is important, building long term arrangements rather than short term trading. It is this kind of relationship that is vital when creating new markets and exciting concepts for consumers.” A prime example of this is the relationship between Asda and S&A. Asda was the first supermarket to order Perween’s products and since then they have worked closely on many innovative projects.
“Our relationships with all our customers and suppliers are very important, but Asda is our main customer, and we have worked very closely and very successfully with them over the last 20 years,” said Perween. “I believe such a long-standing commitment is a testament to our close working relationship with one another. Our alliance is mutually beneficial - it has encouraged us to continue to expand our product range and look for what’s new and exciting, because that is what Asda’s customers want too.”
This dedication to quality and innovation has been acknowledged many times, as since 1986 S&A Foods has won nearly 50 major awards for quality, innovation, people development, health and safety and business success. Perween herself has been awarded an MBE and CBE, as well as many other business awards. She has become a speaker of note on business issues and an example to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs, all over the world. “I have not personally found that being a woman caused me any difficulties when setting up and running my business, but I wouldn’t say that others have had the same lucky situation,” she said. “But what I believe in is that I am my own person, I don’t compare or compete with men - I don’t necessarily want to! I have my own personality, with my own beliefs and I act in the best interest of the company, colleagues, and my customers and I have been fortunate not to face the obstacles that other businesswomen have had to face.”
But she does believe that if you are in business then you need to be confident. “I think that having confidence is vital if you are a man or a woman,” she explained. “I heard a speaker say once that if you can’t sell your own self, how can you expect to sell your products, and I thought that summed it up quite well. You do need to be able to market your company and your products, and I believe that confidence, common sense and courage go a long way in being successful in business.”
From speaking to Perween it was evident that the passion that drove her to found and develop S&A Foods is still very much alive. “I think that when I stop enjoying it, I should leave,” she said with a smile. “I believe it is vital to enjoy what Warsiyou do - it is only fair that if you want your people to give the company 100 per cent then you should be giving your heart and soul and commitment to the company too - and if you don’t enjoy it, it will make life very difficult. I still give 100 per cent.”
The passion for food and cooking is also still as strong - when talking about these areas Perween’s enthusiasm was evident. “I still cook at home for my family and friends, and I do enjoy cooking, especially experimenting and playing with ingredients,” she said. “I think that food is one of those things that I can never get bored with, even though I am surrounded by it all the time. But I also serve products from S&A at home as I am so proud of them and confident of their quality.”
Having a company of her own was always Perween’s ambition, and to find herself with a booming business, working with her main loves of family and food has been a dream come true.
She concluded: “I have always known I wanted a business of my own and so being fortunate enough to have this job and be in the business that I enjoy has been work and pleasure combined!”