Business on Sunday's Independent 100: Causing a stir from home

One woman's authentic cooking has served up an award-winning chilled fo od firm
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The Independent Online
IT STARTED with the samosas and the bhajis. Perween Warsi didn't think much of the ones in the supermarkets of Derby. ``They weren't authentic,'' she recalls. And she should have known, having recently arrived from northern India.

It was the mid-1970s, and she spent the next decade bringing up her young sons, Sadiq and Abid. Her husband, Talib, is a Derby GP, so there was no financial pressure for her to go out to work. She could have stayed at home, keeping the benefits of her wonderful cooking for her family and her friends.

``But I like a challenge, and I wanted to get into a business where I could use my intelligence,'' she says. ``I always wanted to achieve something personally.''

The achievement has been breathtaking in its speed and scale, although it started modestly enough in 1986. Having spotted a gap in the market, Mrs Warsi sent some of her own samosas and bhajis to local take-aways, chip shops and delicatessens. The verdict was favourable and, before long, her kitchen was producing finger foods at a frantic rate.

Next came the supermarkets. Asda was the first to accept her products for taste-testing. Again the verdict was favourable. Other contracts quickly followed, which meant that S & A Foods (named after Sadiq and Abid) was well placed in 1988 when such chains as Asda, Safeway and Tesco were looking to compete with Marks and Spencer's successful launch of ethnic cook-chill foods.

Today, S & A has a turnover of nearly pounds 12m. The range has expanded to 50 product lines, including Chinese, Mexican and other cuisines loosely defined as ``ethnic''. About 170 are employed at the headquarters on an industrial estate in Derby, but there are plans to more than double that number next year when a new pounds 6m factory opens nearby. Mrs Warsi says it will offer the most advanced cook-chill and frozen production facilities in Europe.

Her company was placed fifth in a survey of Britain's 100 fastest-growing private companies carried out by this newspaper. In 1989, turnover was less than pounds 1m, but by 1993 it was pounds 8.5m. So the big expansion came about during the recession, not that there has been much of a recession in the market for ethnic food. On the contrary, consumers spent pounds 366m on it last year - up 87 per cent on the 1989 figure.

Mrs Warsi's success has been to capitalise on that demand and substantially increase her market share. ``You have to have a strategy and know exactly what you want,'' she says.

She is a tiny woman, demure and composed in an office decorated with awards for her cooking and her business acumen. There were seven at last count, including a silver ice-bucket (full of flowers) which she received as a runner-up in the 1994 Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year awards.

Her flawless, youthful features betray little of the strain of running a rapidly expanding company. The 18-hour days are behind her now. ``Working smart is more important than working hard,'' she says - an aphorism which stood her in good stead during a boardroom wrangle in 1991.

Three years earlier, S & A had joined the Hughes Food Group plc in order to acquire the resources for expansion. Her own business flourished but the group did not, and in July 1991 Hughes went into receivership. By November, Mrs Warsi had successfully engineered a management buy-out.

``We had to compete with some top companies,'' she says, ``but our customers, suppliers and employees stuck with us.''

Another 200 employees are likely to be taken on when the new factory opens next spring. They will be rigorously trained and monitored for weeks. But they will also be encouraged to offer ideas on the company's development. ``We have regular brain-storming sessions for managers and people on the factory floor, and I offer rewards accordingly.'' The employee who came up with the idea for the company's successful balti range was sent on a holiday to Africa.

Any new range has to be stringently market-tested before being launched for general sale. No longer can Mrs Warsi rely on feedback from the chip shop and the take-away. ``We do national surveys through marketing companies. Do they like the colour and consistency? Is it value for money? All the scores have to be high before we launch it. You can't be successful until you know what people want.''

Mrs Warsi has no intention of just sitting back to savour her own success. The top Chinese chef, Ken Hom, recently joined the company as a consultant, and he may be the first of many from around the world. ``Our ambition is to go international. We'll have to take it one step at a time, with Europe first. America is still on the horizon. And we've even thought about exporting to India.''

How will Delhi respond to authentic cuisine from Derby? We may yet find out.

(Photograph omitted)