Gulam Noon: Currying favour

He wants training for imams. He has no truck with the notion that social services translate notices into Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi
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The Independent Online

The trouble with that old Tory veteran John Selwyn Gummer is that he is just too fair-minded. A few weeks ago, quizzed about the cash-for-peerages row on Any Questions, he said this:

"If you take Sir Gulam Noon, who is a remarkable man who has transformed the area in Southall that he provides employment for, he has been a great leader for moderate Muslim thought. I'm sorry he's a supporter of the Labour Party, but he is a distinguished man who has been besmirched instead of honoured and I believe has been very seriously damaged entirely wrongly."

The revelation by the curry magnate - that he removed reference to his £250,000 loan to the Labour Party in official documentation for the House of Lords committee, whose job it was to approve the Prime Minister's nomination for peerages - was what this week triggered the sensational arrest of Tony Blair's chief fund-raiser, Lord Levy, the man who told Noon that he did not need to report the loan.

But there are many people who believe that Gulam Noon is an innocent caught in the crossfire. Certainly he believes that himself. In the corner of his elegant office in St James's Park there is a collection of historic cricket bats. Cricket is the Indian-born Anglophile's passion. It says something, he is wont to tell visitors, about the quintessence of England: demonstrating the need for balance, teamwork and, above all, the need for fair play. Noon insists that, when it came to his nomination for a peerage, he has played a straight bat. "I have done nothing wrong," he has said. "My conscience is clear. I gave the loan and when I filled in a nomination form I did declare it."

Indeed, examine Gulam Kaderbhoy Noon's career and he looks like a classic candidate for elevation to the House of Lords. He was born in Mumbai into a Muslim family which, after Gulam's father died when the boy was just seven, struggled to get by. As a young teenager Gulam studied accountancy early in the morning, spent the day at school and then worked in the family sweetshop in the evening.

When he was just 17 he took over the family business. Ten years later he had built up Royal Sweets to the point where the firm was big enough to export. In 1964 he made his first trip to London. "As soon as I arrived, I went to Piccadilly and fell in love with London," says Noon. "I was determined to come back and start a business here."

Thirty years later, Sir Gulam Noon is head of the largest factory in the world for ready-made Indian food. It gets through 80 tonnes of chicken a week to turn out meals for supermarkets including J Sainsbury, Waitrose and Morrisons, as well as its own label. And the starry-eyed boy had become president of the London Chamber of Commerce.

It was a textbook rags-to-riches story. Noon arrived in Britain with £50 in his pocket and set up a single shop in Southall. It was 1972, just as the market for Indian sweets was boosted by the arrival of thousands of Indian immigrants from east Africa. He created "Bombay mix" and founded a confectionery company Bombay Halwa. Then in 1985, after sampling Britain's vapid supermarket curries, he realised there was a market for the real thing. "The British public was being taken for a ride," he said. He began to research the frozen and chilled food market, and in 1988 founded Noon Products, with 11 people in a small factory in Southall.

His friends and family suggested he buy six vans to distribute the product to local stores, but Noon had bigger ideas. He went to Birds Eye which, a year later, gave him his first order. He took on 70 more employees. Then, within a matter of months, Sainsbury's placed an order for 2,000 meals a week. Later he decided to go upmarket with a "Bombay Brasserie" range designed to mass-reproduce dishes from the celebrated London restaurant of that name. Within 14 years his workforce in Southall's unemployment high-spot had grown to 800 people. Earlier this year Prince Charles opened Noon's new state-of-the-art factory - the only one in the UK to have Microban walls and floors. It cooks 1.5 million curries a week. The business turned over £105m last year.

And while his chicken tikka masala may have reached its potential - Noon is partly why it became Britain's favourite dish - he believes the market will continue to expand with new dishes. His research chef, Puneet Arora, says that there's no one better in the world at knowing whether consumers will take to a new curry dish. "Give GK Noon one taste and he'll tell you if there's a market for it." The ready-meal market is growing in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

None of this has been an easy ride for Gulam Noon. Knockbacks have included a disastrous fire at his factory in 1994 and a launch in the United States which proved a serious flop. But his success has been down to more than the ability to come back from failure. He is an intuitive entrepreneur who has established, grown, bought and sold a range of businesses.

And he is a classic wheeler-dealer. After the listed company WT Foods bought Noon Products in 1998, it suffered a sharp drop in its share price. So Noon, who had joined the board of WT Foods, orchestrated a delisting of the company financed by a private-equity house. It later sold the company in a deal which netted Sir Gulam personally about £50m.

He has diversified widely. He runs a construction company which recently built a five-star hotel in Bahrain. He is investing in the first cruise line in the Indian Ocean, in dietary supplements, in aviation catering and more. He is on the board of Transport for London. In addition to that is a list of honorary appointments such as the Asian Business Association. In 1995, with £4m of his own money, he set up the Noon Foundation, a charitable trust to assist education, medicine and cases of hardship. And he now sits on the board of charities including the Prince's Trust, Care International, Cancer Research UK, a trust for the education of girls in rural India and a Jewish-Muslim interfaith organisation.

It is the kind of portfolio which brings honours. Noon received an MBE in 1996. He was knighted in 2002 - to protests from left-wing Labour MPs who said awards should not be made to people who had made large donations to political parties. Noon had just donated £100,000 to New Labour. But the magnate was uncowed. He has been, through it all, an ardent Anglophile. A keen member of Surrey County Cricket Club, he is a devout supporter of England (except, perhaps, when they play India). His office is filled with photographs of his encounters with leading establishment figures - Tony Blair, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Heseltine, the Queen.

"I love this country. I love the softness, the culture, the discipline," he has said. "It is very important for me to give something back to the nation that has given me everything ... I always quote the prophet Mohamed, that you must be loyal to the country in which you live ... I will be very supportive of the Government and the people because I have always said that this is the best country in the world."

In the light of which - and his personal £85m fortune - Gulam Noon regards the total £220,250 he has given to the Labour Party since 1997 as pretty small beer, even if you add in the infamous £250,000 loan. "You know, all this fuss doesn't bother me at all. I have given to the Labour Party with my own cheque book. All the money has already been taxed," he says. "Besides, if a peerage was so cheap I think all sorts of people would have bought one."

Sir Gulam Noon, as is becoming evident, is not a chap to mince his words. After the 7 July bombs in London, ethnic minority leaders were invited into Downing Street; when his fellow Muslims were talking of education, poverty and disaffection Noon called on them to look to their mosques. Anyone "preaching sedition and treason" should be stripped of their British nationality and "sent back" to the country they came from.

"These are monkeys who tie bombs to their chests and pull the strings. They are kids. They have been brainwashed. The Muslim community has a responsibility to make sure that those in the business of brainwashing people [are] brought to book. If people are not happy here then they are free to go anywhere in the world. They are not here at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth or the Prime Minister. They can fuck off."

He is as outspoken on other issues. He wants training programmes for British imams. He has no truck with the notion that British social services translate notices into Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati or Punjabi.

"People should learn English and assimilate themselves into the society in which they live," he says. "The British came to India and when they went to Tamil Nadu they spoke Tamil, which is a very bloody difficult language to learn. But you can interact better if you use the same language - it is something which binds people. Muslims have to forget their ghetto mentality."

He backed the war in Iraq, before which he had two meetings with Tony Blair and called for prompt and decisive military action. He has said that Saddam Hussein should have been shot as soon as he was pulled out of his hole.

All of which perhaps explains John Gummer's sympathetic appraisal. For Gulam Noon sounds more like a Conservative than a Labour supporter, even at its most Blairite. It is presumably why the former Tory minister ended his Any Questions volley with the words: "I want to take the opportunity of saying this is a chap we ought to have in the House of Lords, and I'd like David Cameron to put him forward.

Perhaps Gulam Noon will get his peerage one day, after all.

A Life in Brief

BORN 24 January 1936, Mumbai.

EDUCATION Before school, he studied accountancy early each morning, and afterwards worked in the family's sweetshop.

FAMILY Married to Mohini Kent, 1998; two daughters, Zarmin and Zeenat, who both work in the family business.

CAREER Joined Royal Sweets in Mumbai, aged 17. Moved to London in 1972 and set up Bombay Halwa confectionery business in Southall. Opened Noon Foods in 1988, which now provides 1.5 million frozen or chilled curries a week to supermarkets including J Sainsbury, Waitrose and Morrisons as well as under its own label.

HE SAYS "I have helped to create a unique industry and I like to think I have received this honour on merit." - on the occasion of his knighthood, 2002.

THEY SAY "If those who make large donations to any political organisation then receive major honours [it] rather devalues the whole honours system." - Jeremy Corbyn MP, also on the occasion of Gulam Noon's knighthood, 2002.

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