Me And My Partner

Perween and Talib Warsi emigrated from India and began a food business based in their Derby kitchen. Now, S&A Foods, named after the couple's two sons, sells 1.5 million curries in supermarkets every week and has sales of £100m. They employ 1,100 staff
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Perween Warsi: The decision regarding my marriage was rather fast so I didn't really have many views about what I was looking for in a husband. I was just enjoying my teenage life and the company of my friends, so I was pleasantly surprised when I met Talib. I am grateful to my parents for selecting the right partner for me.

Perween Warsi: The decision regarding my marriage was rather fast so I didn't really have many views about what I was looking for in a husband. I was just enjoying my teenage life and the company of my friends, so I was pleasantly surprised when I met Talib. I am grateful to my parents for selecting the right partner for me.

In an arranged marriage, an agreement is made between parents from both sides and it is understood the bride will accept that. Most arranged marriages are successful. I liked Talib from day one. He's charming and caring and it just clicked. I never had a second thought about him.

I had no clue he was planning a move over here. He walked in one day and said he was to go to the UK and study. I just knew once we had moved, that would be it; there was no going back. I was not happy about it, purely from a family point of view because I didn't know how often we would be able to see my family. When we got here, it was just me, my partner and my son Sadiq.

I was always very interested in cooking and I'm told by my mum that I showed interest from the age of two-and-a-half. It was probably because food and cooking plays a big role in the daily routine. A lot of effort goes into buying and preparing the right ingredients and it's a subject which is widely discussed.

When we sat down as a family to have meals, comments would be made on dishes. I used to experiment with ingredients, then bring food to the table and watch people's faces to see their reaction. When someone put in a mouthful and said, "Mmm", it was just fantastic.

I have always been very ambitious, though I never communicated that when I was younger, maybe because at that time it was not expected that women would go into business, at least not in my family. It was my burning ambition to do something on my own, to have a job, to help other people. I wanted to complete a psychology degree and my dream was to open a school.

I didn't think in terms of business, but I was keen to provide a rounded education in a way that would motivate children with a carrot, rather than a stick. My ambition never cooled; it was there, simmering, and when my children were away at school for 11 or 12 hours a day, there were only so many times I could wash the dishes. Boredom was a good thing. I had ideas in many different fields, in property, in cars. With my family, I used to discuss and dream and debate and imagine.

The thing that sparked this company off was seeing the Indian food available in cafes and coffee houses. What confirmed it was seeing those pre-packed finger foods in supermarkets. My goodness, the quality was abysmal. They were bland and boring and the recipes were not authentic: chopped potatoes, soft and soggy pastry, hardly any flavour - not what samosas are supposed to be.

People had always praised my cooking so that gave me confidence. Before I sold a single samosa, I was very focused. Restaurants and takeaways were not the route because they were limiting. My vision was to see my products enjoyed nationally.

Almost immediately after we began in 1986, I got the products into a blind-taste panel for Asda, and my dishes got the thumbs-up. We won business and grew rapidly, which needed investment. We joined hands with a larger company, the Hughes Food Group, but as time went on we realised our future was not with them because they took so long to make decisions. In 1990 I asked for a management buyout, but obviously, the answer was no, and we went through that exercise for months.

Then we heard Hughes was going into receivership and the shares would be on the market. We were naive to think, "Fantastic", because we didn't realise the competition we would face, but eventually we won back control of our own company.

In the mid-1990s, I wanted to tackle Chinese food. For one particular buyer, we laid the table with these wonderful Indian and Chinese dishes and he turned around and said: "Perween, you're great at Indian food, stick to your Indian food."

That made me even more determined to prove we could be good at other dishes. If I don't have the expertise in a particular area, I will bring in people who do.

I believe in celebrating my team's creativity and their achievements more than my own. I came up with the My Bright Idea initiative, where staff can submit their ideas, because while it's easy and desirable to keep saying, "I did this and I did that", what I admire in people is when they encourage their team.

Talib has always been very supportive. It's a rare quality to find in our generation, to be encouraging when the wife wants to do something. It did mean hard work and long hours, and travelling on my own, and when he came in sometimes he didn't get a hot meal. That is not part of an Asian family culture, so for him to accept that was really admirable.

Five years ago, the company was growing at a very rapid pace, 40 per cent year on year, so I needed someone to take a leading role in sales and marketing, and Talib is brilliant at it. He's very good with customers; he understands their needs and requirements and that's a huge skill you need in sales and marketing, although I think deep down he must miss the GP work a little bit. He believes in the family values I have created here. My staff are family, not just employees, and we must treat them with respect accordingly.

The success is a journey, not a destination. My appetite gets bigger the more we achieve, and our vision is now to see our products being enjoyed worldwide.

Talib Warsi: I went to a Jesuit school in India, run by Americans, and my education was based on Western culture, reading mainly in the English language. I was taught about everyone being equal and that you should not let your ambitions be thwarted by cultural and racial differences but should strive down a difficult path with a determination which will ultimately lead to success.

That education also gave me a belief that marriage will work only where you give equal opportunity to each other, freedom of thought and movement, in terms of what you want to achieve in life. That will strengthen a marriage, not weaken it.

As with any arranged marriage, in the early years there was a period of understanding and accommodation. You begin to adjust to each other's views and ways of behaviour, and to yield ground in each other's favour, and harmony comes in. Perween began to understand the way her husband ticked, and vice versa. I believe that carries for any couple, Indian or Western.

We arrived here in 1975 and I worked my way through three years at Leeds University. Perween was always thirsty for new ideas, and to find something meaningful in her life. I understood early that making chapattis wasn't going to be it, but it provided her with the culinary skills and made her look towards doing something to make her mark.Perween's aspiration has always been not to climb the hilltops but to conquer the mountain tops. I'm afraid there's always another mountain to climb.

My medical training was arduous and required unsocial hours at weekends and with Sadiq and our other son Abid being little, it was never easy. Even at that stage, Perween began to attend college to further her education and her skills, and that gave her insight into the culture in this country, and into the opportunities that were available for women. She knew what she could not achieve in India, she could in this society, with equal opportunities between not just sexes but races.

Our Indian background has provided us with a lot of "recipes for success" for a great marriage. She is very decisive. Decisions are made in a calm, calculated manner. Once made, deviation is not in her nature. With a fixed gaze and mind, she will walk towards her goal. She can take in changes but nothing deters her. Her goal has always been that she should be recognised for quality, innovation and, above all, to surpass market expectations. She does not believe in playing second fiddle.

From day one, I looked after sales and marketing for the company in between my hours as a GP, and while it has never been easy to juggle the balls, I have got more and more involved in the business. Perween is good at strategy, execution and providing leadership, but for her there's a greater pleasure in sharing the vision and successes than in holding the trophy.

The hardest thing for Perween has been to try to gallop all the way, and make the rest of the team follow. Not everybody has the same strength and some tire more quickly. The great thing was that she knows how to lead a team by encouragement, and by coaxing and cajoling people she has been able to keep the management by her side. We never say, "No", to our customers but we will tackle what look like insurmountable difficulties to make it more of a real challenge.

Mountains can't be conquered individually, only with the help of a team, which we call our family. Every year we have a family fun day, and we are determined that our staff don't just come here for a wage slip.

We talk about our business 25 hours a day out of 24. It's not true that when we go home, we switch off completely. Some people may do it but I don't think we ever will. We discuss business here at the factory, during dinner and even when we lie awake at night in bed. It's not been a question of what we could achieve as individuals, but what we could achieve together.

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