Twenty Questions: 'The Queen made me an OBE. I received it for being an Onion Bhaji Expert'

Kirit Pathak, Chairman and Chief Executive of Patak's At 17 Kirit Pathak joined his family's Indian food business, Patak's, and has built it into a successful brand that is distributed to more than 50 countries. Kirit succeeded his father as chairman and chief executive and was appointed OBE in 1996.
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The Independent Online

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

1 What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

It has to be both my parents - my father, Laxmishanker, and my mother, Shanta - and seeing them slogging away behind the cooker. I couldn't bear it, it was hard labour and it was agony to watch. In my early teens that image was enough for me to know that, as soon as I got educated, I had to do something to get them away from all that.

2What's the first lesson you learnt in business?

If you want something no one is going to just give it to you - you have to go out and get it. If you want to get your product anywhere then go and sell it, if you want good materials then go and get them. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

3If you didn't run Patak's, which company would you most like to run?

My passion is food so it would have to be another food company. I'd like to run Best Foods, Campbell's, Heinz, Pillsbury - they are all good, solid companies focused on food. I could take these companies and grow them internationally.

4Which single task do you hate doing the most?

Coordinating my diary with that of my wife, Meena, and the other executives. I do get priority but all our diaries are all so hectic that it is a horrible task.

5What was the best investment you ever made?

I bought out the family in 1989 but my best investment has been in people. Assuming that you have a good product, people are the most important aspect of your business. The business grew and grew and in 1980 I invested in a managing director to concentrate on the logistics of the business while I concentrated on vision and growth.

6 What was the worst investment you ever made?

It was back in the 1970s when the mango crop had failed and I was desperate to find more as it would have affected 60 per cent of our business. I went across to Mexico and I invested in a person who was going to set up a mango processing business for me and he just walked off with the money, I got stung by the locals. I was young, I was in a desperate situation and I got my fingers burnt, but I learnt my lesson.

7 What was the happiest day of your working life?

The happiest was receiving my OBE in 1996 from Her Majesty for services to the food industry and export. OBE stands for 'Order of the British Empire', but I received it for being an 'Onion Bhaji Expert' - I thought it was rather appropriate. It was wonderful going to the Palace and it was a great honour to be recognised by the Queen. It's a big thing for an Indian to receive something like that.

8 What was the worst day of your working life?

The worst day was when I had to buy out the other members of the family and I had to tell them. I don't want to say too much about it but the trouble was that there were round pegs in square holes. I don't deny the contribution they made in the early years but they weren't professional managers, they were family. It wasn't a meritocracy and - if you want to grow your business - that is difficult. The world was moving on but the family wasn't and they weren't making the right contribution. I had to make decisions against the family, to separate the cream from the milk. I had my father's support, but it was never going to be a pleasant thing to do.

9 What's the best piece of advice that anyone ever gave you?

My dad told me to be honest in all my dealings and that has always stayed with me. Everyone says you have to be a bit of a crook in business, but I don't agree. I've been honest since I was a kid and that has been rewarded because then people trust you and you can't have people's trust if you are dishonest.

10Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I'm quite disciplined and some people might find that difficult. Once I tell someone to do something, I expect it to be delivered and, once told, I feel that I don't need to remind them. Some of my staff can find that hard.

11How important is your personal profile for your business?

I'm not much of an ego man - I've shed my ego because of my internal peace - but every ship needs a captain and I am the guy who has the vision, who sets the pace and motivates the troops. Having a leader is very important, nothings runs without a leader - if I don't have passion for what I do, how can I expect others to? It is driven from the very top.

12 In terms of personal wealth how much is enough?

Enough is having a respectable roof over my head, enough for no quibbles over food or holidays and a car for each of the family members as I am tired of being a taxi service. I don't need a palace, but I want to be able to walk into any restaurant and eat and go to any luxury destination.

13 What's your greatest personal indulgence?

To me the word indulgence means 'excess' and to be really honest I'm just too balanced for there to be any serious excess. Except for good food, I don't do anything to serious excess.

14Patak's is a family firm - what are the advantages and disadvantages?

The advantage is that - if you are the owner - you can pretty well do what you want, you determine the pace and everything else. The disadvantage of having a family business is dealing with succession. How do you tell another generation who may not be up to the job when they do not live up to your expectations?

15 You've taken over from your father as chairman and chief executive - how would you answer charges of nepotism?

I don't see myself as 'Mr Patak' - I have a job to do and people that work for me know that I have been the best thing for this company. I don't think there's any animosity.

In 1970 my father was virtually bankrupt. I was 17 and I was three weeks into a degree course in business and administration when Dad called a meeting. He asked me what I was studying, how long the course was and why I was doing it. I told him that I was studying because I hoped to come into the business and help him. He told me that the business was in such a state that it wouldn't exist at the end of my four-year course but told me that he didn't want to interrupt my studies and that the decision was mine. He wanted cheap family labour and I was the only one who was expendable at the time, but I think most people respect me for what I did.

16 Where do you want to be five years from now?

At the forefront of ethnic foods around the world - building a £1bn business, which is what I believe the potential for ethnic food is.

17If you went bankrupt tomorrow what would you do?

First of all I would get a job - any job. I'd do anything to keep the food rolling into my family's mouths as my dad did in 1956. I'd work my way up and start again.

18What would you most like to change about your industry?

I'd like to ensure that people got sufficiently rewarded for quality and effort. I believe that there's too much done trying to hammer down the price at the expense of quality in the food industry.

19Your work takes you abroad - what have you learnt from your travels?

That the world is too small a place, that there are huge opportunities and that everyone is different.

20 Have you ever been a victim of racism?

There is racism in this country, but there is racism in every country. There's racism in India, there isn't a single country where racism doesn't exist - it's nothing new. I've been a victim of racism all the time - at school, in business. We had trouble with skinheads and, of course, my dad had to leave East Africa because of Idi Amin.

I think the City is racist. If you belong to the old network and you are white then you are OK - if you're an Indian it's a different story. The IT market means that is changing, but you still see it in traditional industries.

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