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Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 05:22 GMT 06:22 UK
UK curry queen has empire in her sights
Perween Warsi in her factory
Perween Warsi: "Food is in my blood"

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online talks to one of the richest Asian women in the UK about her food manufacturing company.
A pinch of enthusiasm, a dose of ambition and a hefty dollop of hard work sounds like a recipe for the perfect entrepreneur.

Perween Warsi has all three, plus the sort of matriarchal steel necessary to thrive in the cut-throat world of mass-market catering.

As a young mother in the 1980s she dreamt about running a big business.

Our products got the thumbs-up and it was the best day of my business life

Perween Warsi
Over 15 years later, Mrs Warsi has built up a food manufacturer supplying ready-made meals to UK supermarkets and pubs, as well as exporting to Europe.

The company - named S&A Foods after her two sons Sadiq and Abid - turns over about 100m a year and employs 1,400 people in four factories in the north of England.

"As a young woman, I always had aspirations and a desire to achieve something on my own," she recalls.

"From childhood I had seen the importance of food, of having fresh ingredients and creating fantastic flavours.

"I got it from my grandmother and my mother. Food is in my blood."

From the kitchen to the factory

Company legend has it that Mrs Warsi set up her business after becoming fed up with the quality of Indian foods in British supermarkets.

A factory worker at S & A Foods
The company launches 300 new products a year
From modest beginnings in her own kitchen - "to test the market" - Mrs Warsi quickly established herself as a manufacturer.

"From day one, my aim was to have products on supermarket shelves nationally," she says.

Determination matched her ambition - day after day she would beg the supermarkets to trial her food.

After six months, Asda finally agreed to a blind tasting of Mrs Warsi's foods alongside other samples.

"Our products got the thumbs-up and it was the best day of my business life.

"It was absolutely fantastic - it was what I wanted so desperately and believed in."


In 1987, with the aim of finding more money to invest in the business, S&A Foods joined the Hughes Food Group.

Perween Warsi
Born in India in 1956
Married to Dr Talib Warsi in 1973
Has two sons Sadiq (26) and Abid (24)
Starts S&A Foods in 1986
Sells to Hughes Food in 1987
Regains control in 1991
Builds new 8m factory in 1996
Receives MBE in 1997 and CBE in 2002
Clients include Asda, Safeway, Waitrose and Sainsbury's
Three years later saw the Warsi family fighting to regain control after Hughes Food went belly-up.

After a successful management buyout, Mrs Warsi began diversifying into Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and American food.

But the loss of control has not gone forgotten - Mrs Warsi plans to "keep the business in the family" rather risk a float on the stock market.

She says her secret ingredient has been a investment in product development.

The company launches 300 food products a year and is constantly experimenting in its test kitchen.

"It is everyone's responsibility to come up with new ideas - it can be in design, packaging or processing."

Strong competition

In recent years, British food manufacturers have become bright stars in an otherwise gloomy manufacturing sector.

Some 7,000 new food products are tested in the UK each year, a fair reflection of the pace of change and competition in the sector.

"It getting tougher as people demand greater choice and quality," says Nick Matthews from the Warwick Manufacturing Group.

Mr Matthews also suspects that food giants, such as Nabisco and Northern Foods, may be eyeing some of the Asian specialists as takeover targets.

Companies like S&A are vulnerable because they do not have brand awareness among consumers.

Someone buying chicken fajitas from Sainsbury's, for example, would never know from the packaging that the food was made by S&A.

For her part, Mrs Warsi says she still believes in the "tremendous" potential of ready-made meals, but is weighing up other opportunities in the food market.

One big family

Mrs Warsi's success to date, including a CBE for services to business, has been remarkable for a woman who never went to university and only came to the UK in 1975 after marrying her husband.

An aerial view of an S & A Food factory
The factory has "Perween" written on the roof
She says her company has a "family culture", but you get the impression that she is a matriarch to be reckoned with.

In one of her anecdotes, she tells of how she ran into an employee who was upset about a sick child and wanted to work part-time.

"I took her back to my office and rang her department. I spoke to her boss and it was done," says Mrs Warsi.

But like all good matriarchs, she shows a warmth of feeling.

"You are not dealing with robots, you are dealing with people who have feelings and personal issues," she says.

"They don't just keep those feelings in a box when they leave home."

Mrs Warsi's next goal is to expand into more international markets.

"Hopefully, one day people worldwide will eat tasty, wholesome food," she says.

Perhaps it won't be too long before Britain's curry queen has an overseas empire to add to her considerable assets.

Perween Warsi of S&A Foods
"Many, many women have never worked in their life before - and this has been their first job"

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