Perween Warsi CBE: S&A Foods
The founder of S&A Foods on creating the fastest-growing independent food manufacturer
In the third part of our serialisation of Inspiring Women, a collection of stories of outstanding female entrepreneurs, Michelle Rosenberg focuses on Perween Warsi, the founder of one of the UK’s most successful food companies, who was inspired by the need to get better quality Indian food in stores
S&A Foods was literally inspired by a samosa its founder bought from a supermarket in 1986. Appalled at its quality, Perween Warsi saw her chance to make a difference.
The company (named after her sons Sadiq and Abid) now has 750 staff and a turnover of £65m. It supplies major retailers in the UK and has now expanded into Europe. “When I realised it was difficult to buy good-quality Indian food I thought that maybe I could make a difference,” she says.
Her initial approach was direct. She simply prepared some of her own samosas and convinced a local Indian takeaway to try them. They sold well and Warsi began supplying the outlet regularly. Encouraged, she approached other takeaways and local delicatessens, while expanding her range. However, supplying to the local trade was never going to be enough. Her eye was always on the bigger prize: the big retailers.
She began calling supermarkets, persisting until S&A was asked to take part in blind tasting sessions at Asda and Safeway. Her food triumphed over more established food manufacturers, and she received an order. There was, however, one problem.
“When Asda offered me the contract they assumed S&A Foods was a fully fledged food manufacturing business,” she recalls. “At that time I was still making the dishes in my kitchen, so we had to build up the business quickly!”
So Warsi took a gamble. In 1987, S&A Foods joined the Hughes Food Group with the resulting investment injection allowing them to open their first factory in Derby.
“Although at the time it was good for the business to join with Hughes, as it meant we could afford to build a new factory and create 100 extra jobs, I wasn’t in control of the direction the business was going,” she says.
It would come at a cost later, but for now she could begin to fulfill her ambition of supplying supermarkets with her products, something she still does today.
“You need to have something different, unique and better that they currently don’t have to add value to their shelves,” she says.
However, she warns against focusing too heavily on the client and forgetting the people who really buy the food – the customers. “Obviously, the whole of the supply chain is geared up to manage our customers’ needs and requirements,” she says.
“My belief is my business should be tailored to meet my customers and my consumers, not food production.”
She had hit the big time from nowhere, but her initial strategy was to come back to haunt her. In 1990, the Hughes Food Group went into receivership leaving S&A’s future looking bleak. Warsi had to fight for the survival of the business and in the following year, with the support of venture capitalists 3i, she led a management buy-out (MBO).
However, it was 2004 before Warsi regained 100% of S&A. In spite of this setback, the business performed well during the 1990s and is now expanding across Europe.
Alongside a passion for food, Warsi believes strongly in staff development. S&A has an on-site learning centre, where staff can gain work-related qualifications and languages.
Both are important to the success of S&A (there are 23 languages spoken on S&A’s factory floor), but Warsi says it is about more than just work. “It inspires them to reach their potential,” she says, “both in and out of the workplace.”
Her role has changed considerably since starting up. She used to spend most of her time in the factory or seeing customers. Now she’s more focused and has a “very capable management team” around her. However, she is still involved in S&A’s day-to-day running. Her passion for food has not diminished and she still spends time in India researching new flavours and tastes.
“It’s important when you’re developing new dishes to actually speak to people, see what they are eating, and what new ideas are coming through,” she says.
AND THE WINNER IS…
A host of top food honours mark S&A’s success:
… Perween Warsi was awarded an MBE in 1997, followed by a CBE in 2002
… She also won Woman Entrepreneur of the World Award in 1996, and was given a seat on the Confederation of British Industry’s National Committee in 2002
… S&A has been the UK’s fastest-growing independent food manufacturer for five consecutive years
… S&A was a finalist in the 1997 Sunday Times Business Awards
Inspiring Women:How Real Women Succeed In Business is out now (£12.99, ISBN 978-1-85458-410-6) www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk