Exclusive Interviews – S&A Foods

S&A Foods’ founder and CEO is Perween Warsi CBE, an inspirational businesswoman, entrepreneur and in 2011, a guest panellist on The Apprentice -You’re Fired. Perween is an expert on setting up and building a successful food company. She started S&A Foods in her kitchen 25 years ago, making samosas for her local takeaway, and since its inception her company has enjoyed remarkable success. Having won over her local retailers first of all, Perween then set her sights on the supermarkets. Her very first multiple sector customer was Asda, and the relationship has lasted over 20 years. Today Asda is officially the UK’s biggest Indian takeaway, with a dedicated curry takeaway counter in every superstore, and with each Asda curry developed with passion and care by S&A Foods.

Still owned by Perween, these days S&A Foods creates and produces excellent, high quality, fresh chilled ready meals and accompaniments for some of the leading names in UK food retailing as well as major international retailers in Europe, predominantly under their own brand. The full list includes Indian, Chinese, South East Asian, Tex Mex, Caribbean, Mediterranean, North African, Italian and American. The Grocery Trader went to Derby to meet Perween Warsi, S&A Foods’ CEO.

With its leather chairs and glass tables, S&A’s smart reception area could be an outpost of one of the major multinational food corporations. The signage breathes confidence: “S&A Foods – we make and sell great tasting, authentic ethnic food.”

Perween’s peaceful office is on the first floor at the end of a series of corridors. It faces out across the industrial estate where she and her company have made grocery history over the years. Perween radiates calm as she takes time out of her schedule to answer our questions:

“My job as CEO is very enjoyable. I take overall responsibility for our business performance and its people and driving our strategic agenda. I’m very interested in talent management, recognising individuals with potential and supporting them through training, development, mentoring and coaching.”

Perween discloses that the ‘S’ and ‘A’ in S&A Foods are the initials of her sons Sadiq and Abid. “They both have degrees and have studied to MBA and Masters level, respectively. Sadiq is involved with the business,” she says.

Supporting Perween is a senior management team led by Des Kingsley, Managing Director. Reporting to Des, Sales Director Maureen Holbrook heads up Perween’s retail account managers. “I have a great team, who know exactly what needs doing in our business. I have no problem delegating to them, knowing I have people around me who I can trust to look after our customers and our staff as I would wish.”

Around 600 people work for S&A Foods on their Derby site, making approximately 1.5 million meals a week, all under one roof. In Perween’s words, “This is where we make things happen. We develop products, cost them and supply them, ensuring consistent quality every time.”

Perween is not involved in the detail level, as Des runs the business, but “I drive innovation and new ideas and am fully involved in product development.”

S&A’s UK buying team sources ingredients from reputable suppliers who have full traceability from farm to fork, and will often buy their whole crop to ensure consistency of raw materials. In recent years S&A has invested heavily in a state of the art factory and tailor made kit including a huge wok, as the right method of cooking is essential to get authentic tasty food.

Staying in touch

Perween walks around the business regularly, keeping in close touch with her colleagues, most of whom she knows by name. This is definitely a business where good people can climb through the ranks. She mentions one man who joined in 1988 helping in the kitchen, and is now a store supervisor. She says she was talking to him only a couple of days ago and was pleased to hear that his children are at university – some of tomorrow’s senior managers, perhaps? Training is a major S&A Foods commitment. Staff members are put through the NVQ3 qualification, and come out keen to have further training.

“We have a very open culture here. Colleagues are listened to and encouraged to take responsibility. People enjoy training and developing their skills. And they stay with us and use them to the full. Last September I presented a number of long service awards, with 22 people serving over 15 years, such as Pav Chaggar, who has worked here for over 20 years. We also celebrate new ideas: I recently presented a new curry award to someone in our Finance Department who came up with a great new dish. We have a ‘My Bright Idea’ prize, for which people win £2,000 per time. It’s all about keeping people involved.”

Perween is proud of the fact that even at its current size there is a family atmosphere at S&A Foods: “Men and women are born free, with dignity and rights. We show our staff respect and treat them fairly.” Everyone here shares the same values of quality and high standards. “People are like sponges: you never stop learning! We’re committed to sharing knowledge in this business.”

Perween stays in touch with her company’s products too: “I’m very much involved in our NPD, and work closely with our chefs. If we need to stay until 7.30pm at night or later to perfect a new product we will do so. We did exactly that last night, tasting and tweaking the product until we were satisfied. Everything we do is aimed at giving 100 percent so that the customer gets the Wow factor. We’re always looking for new ideas and developing market opportunities. I hope that retailers will continue to give opportunities to new innovation and ideas. It will be a shame to slow innovation due to economic pressure”

Perween claims S&A Foods was the first company in their industry to bring in chefs from India to work in the business: “We started out with a purpose, and I want to continue with that purpose – producing the very best ethnic foods. We set out to recruit the best chefs to help us do it. We advertised in the national papers in India and we received over 900 applications.  Selection was a challenge, shall we say!”

How it all began

S&A Foods has been a leading food manufacturer now for over two decades. Since then Perween Warsi must have been asked countless times how she started her business, but she still tells the story with evident enthusiasm:

“The fundamental reason for starting this business was, I believed in it totally and what I wanted to do was really wow people with great tasting, authentic food. The samosas in my local supermarket didn’t taste anywhere near as good as my homemade ones, so I decided to market my own. I started small, on my kitchen table, and then after succeeding locally I decided to approach retailers.

“It took hundreds of calls to supermarkets just to be able to send our products for testing. We also sent some samples to Asda. After a week and a half of total silence, we thought that was it, but then Asda, who gave me the first break, rang back. We started supplying them with samosas and bhajis, and went on from there.”

Asda were S&A Foods’ first major customers, and remain their single biggest account to this day. Then as now, the NPD process starts with talking to the customer and identifying gaps together: “It could be changing the product, packaging or the way it’s sold, for example serving over the counter. Having established our prepack meals in Asda, we came up with the idea of selling food over counters for people to take away, and we managed to convince Asda that some consumers would prefer to select their curries instead of having ready packed dishes.”

“We began in one store, then two, then five, and so on and after a year with our help Asda had become the country’s biggest Indian takeaway. We continue to provide all their Indian ready meals, because of the popularity. Shoppers had to queue for the curry to go and some didn’t like doing that, so we also proposed the idea of offering Indian food, in pick ‘n’ mix concept.”

S&A have a professional National Accounts team in place, but Perween still goes to visit Asda and other customers herself as well: “I’m very interested in listening to our customers, getting the bigger picture and grasping the challenges. It’s all about sharing ideas with customers and working together for the same purpose.”

S&A Foods produces a huge variety of products, of which over 200 are Indian. They are best known for their curries and accompaniments like gobi aloo and Bombay potatoes, but also make Chinese, Caribbean and other dishes where they add value for customers.

A Quarter Century of achievement – formally

Having started the business in her kitchen, Perween incorporated S&A Foods in 1987. 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of that milestone, and Perween and her colleagues are currently putting plans together to celebrate the event later this year.

“Looking back, I’m proud that I have been able to achieve my purposes of raising the bar in quality and giving people the chance to taste really good food. I am very fortunate to have worked with customers who have supported me, and together created a great business.”

It hasn’t been easy, says Perween. There were plenty of obstacles to be faced on the way, but as she puts it, “it’s not what the problem is that counts, it’s how you solve it. You do it by working together, and being united as a team.”

S&A Foods’ single biggest product in the last 25 years is Chicken Tikka Masala, of which Perween reckons they have made over 40,000 tonnes to date. In S&A’s standard packs, that would stretch from here to Mumbai and back, and weigh as much as 200 jumbo jets! In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, some 13.8% of UK ready meal sales are Indian, the third biggest after ‘traditional’ and Italian. ‘Curry’ as a category is now worth £285m in retail, and growing.

S&A Foods isn’t just a British success story – it’s a European one too. These days they have supermarket customers outside the UK in such countries as France, Belgium and Spain. Pointing proudly to an award certificate from Carrefour, Perween recalls, “We did a test in Paris in the early twenty-first century, and it really took off. The curry market is still small compared to here, but it’s full of potential.” S&A Foods’ products have a shelf life of 10 days and are sold chilled in the UK, but they can be frozen, which is ideal for overseas customers.

The grocery industry has of course seen a host of major changes since 1975, when Perween and her family arrived here. “A large part of our success is down to the supermarkets’ chilled distribution of quality ready meals, one of their greatest achievements in the last few decades.

“Back then I lived in Rhyl, North Wales, and had to go to Manchester or Liverpool to get the ingredients and fresh produce I needed. It’s a very different story now, with a great selection of produce even in the furthest flung stores, and good quality chilled ready meals in every outlet.”

Healthy eating is an increasingly important consideration these days, as Perween observes: “When the ‘traffic lights’ and nutrition criteria came in a few years ago, it was a great challenge for manufacturers. Yes, food has to be healthy, but it also needs to be tasty.

“As guidelines came in, we have reduced our salt, sugar and fat to fit in with their requirements, and I’m pleased to say our products still taste great. Curry is as healthy as you want it to be,” Perween points out. “It’s not what you eat, but how you prepare the food and how much you eat. It’s not just input but output that matters too.”

An award winning success story

Perween reckons S&A Foods has won over 50 awards for quality over the years, including two in the last year. But her greatest personal accolades are her MBE and CBE. “It’s not just my personal success that these awards honour,” she says modestly. “My colleagues in the business deserve the credit.”

Recognised as one of the UK’s most successful businesswomen, Perween sits on the Everywoman Awards’ advisory board. “We’re having a debate at the moment about what needs to be done to encourage more women to go into business. We need to look right at the beginning of girls’ upbringing and nurture. Next, when girls think about a career, do they think long term? When women take a career break to have children, they’re likely to be married or living with a partner who is financially sound, therefore there is no urgency to go back to work. We need to think about that too.

“On the positive side, in India in the old days women were only allowed to be doctors or teachers, but now both there and in this country they have many more opportunities, which is definitely something to celebrate.”

Besides running S&A Foods, Perween is an active voice in her local community and sits on the Derby Renaissance Board and Culture Board. “These outside roles certainly make my working week very interesting. The people of Derby have been very good to me over the years, and I believe in giving something back to the community.

“I still love what I do in the business, and these days I’m pleased I can leave much of the hard work to my Managing Director! I believe that if ever the day comes when I find my role any less enjoyable, it’ll be time to move on and become more involved with some of the causes that I am deeply passionate and concerned about, such as education and health in poorer parts of the world. But until then, you can rest assured I’ll still be here, carrying on with the job of producing and selling great tasting authentic ethnic food, and adding to people’s enjoyment of life.”

S&A Foods

Tel: 01332 270670

www.sa-foods.co.uk