'We hired refrigerated lorries - it was like selling out of a car boot'

Stuart Yip, 40, is opening a giant Chinese supermarket in Manchester this summer, but his business - now worth an estimated pounds 25m - started with the sale of surplus spare ribs to restaurants
The Chinese like to have a good name for a business. The name of our company, Chi Yip, comes from my partner's middle name and my surname, but in Chinese it means "fortunate business".

The first stroke of good fortune came while I was managing one of my father's restaurants, Wing Ho, in Manchester. My family knew I wasn't very enthusiastic about the business, and my father was asking what my intentions were. But I didn't know myself until one of our regular customers noticed we had spare ribs on our menu.

He worked for a sausage company that sold most of its production to Poland, where the owners came from. Unlike most English meat processors, they didn't have the equipment to scrape the meat right down to the bone, so they had spare ribs left over and didn't know what to do with them. My customer asked me if I would be interested in buying them for the restaurant.

The price was quite good, but they had two to three tonnes - more than we could possibly use. So I rang around some friends in other restaurants and take-away businesses. I sold the lot in 10 minutes, making pounds 300, which was a lot of money in 1979.

For the next six months I managed the restaurant in the evenings and spent the days building up a meat and poultry wholesale business. Most of the Chinese people in Britain, about 80 per cent, were in the catering business. At that time they were buying from their local English butcher. But many of them spoke little English and sometimes they were not able to express what they needed. Being able to speak both languages gave me an advantage.

Also at that time, the Chinese restaurant business was rapidly growing, but people were having trouble finding labour. Getting a visa from Hong Kong is difficult. And the second-generation Chinese who were taking over from their parents didn't want to work such long hours.

So I asked my suppliers to give me semi-product meat that had already been de-boned. I also bought chicken breasts from Holland. Although the price was a bit dearer, the semi-products saved a lot of time and labour for my customers in the kitchen.

My business was growing so quickly that I made a decision to leave the restaurant and set up in a small industrial unit near Oldham. I put in a cold store for pounds 5,000 and bought a couple of refrigerated 307 Mercedes vans so that I could deliver locally - up to 60 miles away. I had 200 to 300 customers a week then. Shortly afterwards I asked Jack Lui to be my partner. He had good business sense and he was a person I could rely on.

At first we often had to pay slightly higher prices than other wholesalers. People would just say take it or leave it. But as we have grown bigger that has changed. We're more in the driver's seat. Our turnover is pounds 25m to pounds 30m a year. About 60 per cent of that is still with the Chinese community - restaurants, takeaways and local wholesalers. The rest is mostly with English butchers and hotels.

One bit of good fortune at the start was that we didn't have to borrow any money. We didn't take out a loan at all until 1989 when we bought the 4.5 acre site in Middleton, near Manchester, where we are now located. But there were other hiccups, with suppliers, customers and our own operations.

I remember one hot summer day when the plant suddenly went very quiet. The cold storage had broken down. We had a lot of commitments and I had to immediately make arrangements to store the goods somewhere else.

I called the public cold stores first, but they were too busy. Instead we hired refrigerated lorries, parked them outside the plant and moved everything into them for a week. It was a bit like operating out of a car boot.

There were also problems with suppliers. Sometimes a pallet would go missing from a shipment, or the quality would not be what we expected, or we would get the wrong type of meat. When that happened I had to go out and buy from other wholesalers. It meant we took a loss on the deal, but it kept our customers happy.

One thing we have to be aware of is that this is a credit business. We make every effort to check out our customers and to visit them, but sometimes they just disappear. We don't use debt collectors but we have had to go to court a few times.

There is one important lesson I've learned about being in business. You have to invest in people. If there's anything I don't know, I'll employ people from outside who do.