As director of £200m-turnover East End Foods, Jason Wouhra has a strategy to turn a thriving family business into a £1bn global corporate powerhouse. The chartered director and chair of IoD West Midlands talks board dynamics, Brexit and business as a force for social change
In May 2006, HP Sauce launched a campaign dubbed Save the Proper British Café – only to earn itself a place in the pantheon of PR disasters when, just a few weeks later, its parent company, Heinz, announced that the HP factory was to close, resulting in the loss of 125 jobs. The factory was one of Birmingham’s iconic buildings, having stood at Aston Cross for more than a century. Rooftop demonstrations and calls for a boycott of Heinz products couldn’t save it from being demolished the following year.
Three years later, another food business with its roots firmly in the Midlands saw an opportunity to revive the site and make a symbolic statement about its commitment to investing in the region. East End Foods was founded in 1972 by five brothers of the Wouhra family. Like many Sikhs who fled Pakistan for India in the wake of partition, they subsequently came to England in the 1960s, hoping to make a better life for themselves.
They settled in Wolverhampton and started selling meat and fresh produce door to door. But, spotting a gap in the market to cater for the burgeoning Asian community, they opened a cornershop selling Asian spices and dried goods, which soon grew into a wholesale business. Shortly after, East End Foods expanded into Birmingham with a cash-and-carry in Highgate supplying independent retailers, family-owned stores and Indian restaurants. It now produces its own spices in the UK and owns one of the biggest rice mills in Europe, based in West Bromwich.
The business has been driven forward by the second generation of British Wouhras, notably director and company secretary Jason Wouhra. He is operations director at the old HP factory site in Aston Cross, which he runs – along with his wife, other family members and his team – and which became home to the cash-and-carry after it outgrew the old Highgate premises. With its shelves stacked up to the ceiling like a food-and-drink Ikea, it contributes £70m towards East End Foods’ £200m annual turnover.
Wouhra, who heads HR, legal, company secretarial and IP for the firm, tells Director: “It is such an iconic site, and so close to people’s hearts, albeit the old HP building wasn’t there any longer, and we need to make it an iconic site once again. We wanted to bring back those jobs and bring people in from the area and develop a new legacy for East End Foods.”
There are also plans afoot to build a conference centre and banqueting suite. “It’s an intense job with long hours. Within one mile of our place we’ve got 13 or 14 competitors constantly snapping at our heels,” he says. “I can’t impress upon you enough the competitive nature of this industry.
“One advantage for us is the history of the company and its position in the market. The other advantage is that we’re part of the Landmark group of wholesalers and that’s a £3.2bn buying consortium which gives us a lot of clout to go to big suppliers to get them to provide us with the right deals that are competitive. But our reputation is the most important thing in terms of the relationships we build with them and with our customers.”
East End Foods currently employs 400 people across the Midlands. But, says Wouhra, it is about to reach a crossroads. “One of the key points of our business has been the family ethos – that we stick together. Hopefully we’re a pretty decent example of how well a united family can perform. But my personal vision for East End Foods is to make it a global brand. To do that you need to change your structure, to be more geared for that growth, to become more dynamic.
“Taking it from a family structure to a corporate one is about adding the right skills to the business, the right people who’ve been out there and done it for other businesses and will help us develop. Of course they’ll take a piece of the pie, but that pie gets bigger. We know there’s the demand for our products overseas.
“All of our processing of spices, lentils, milling of rice and flour are done in West Bromwich. We supply to around 65 per cent of the Asian food industry in the UK; to Tesco, Waitrose, Asda and more. We export to 40 countries and sell a bit of spice back to India as well! We’re proud of that and it’s helped us to grow because we’ve been able to control quality.
“But we’re at the point that, in addition to family knowledge and their capabilities, we need to bring in other people who are going to help us structure in a manner that will see us grow from the £200m mark to the £1bn mark and develop a global brand. We know the Midlands and the UK market, but we don’t know the nuances of markets in other countries. We want more people outside of the UK to enjoy our products.”
Another challenge when it comes to expanding and exporting comes in the shape of Brexit. The Union Jack and European Union flags fly high above the forecourt at Aston Cross. The vote to leave, and its effect on the pound, cost East End Foods 15 per cent on its bottom line and the business has steadfastly refused to pass on the cost to its customers.
“My natural position is always optimistic but we are venturing into a period where we really don’t know what the outcome of Brexit will be,” Wouhra says. “At the end of the day, in any negotiation there are two parties. The landscape is tough out there. It’ll depend on the people who are negotiating.
“If it is simply left to politicians they will look at everything from a political perspective, and we need to look at things from a business perspective and say what is the best for our GDP, our job creation, our skills, our growth. Not just for this region but for the nation. Fingers crossed, we get a single-market philosophy without the baggage, but my gut feeling tells me it can’t be that easy.
“What I’m talking about are the nuts and bolts of how these things are going to come to fruition. Will we have to fill out 25 documents before exporting a pallet of product to Italy? That doesn’t make it practical. It adds costs to your procedure, the logistics will increase and, at the moment, the currency is not on our side.”
Given his bold ambitions for East End Foods, it may come as a surprise to learn that Wouhra never intended to join the family business. “I wanted to be a barrister, and did a master’s in commercial law. My dad wanted me to join the business. It’s a typical Asian family story.”
Eventually he relented but wanted to bring new ideas and knowledge from the outside into East End Foods. At 26 he became the youngest person ever to receive the IoD’s Chartered Director qualification. “Peer-to-peer learning helped me to develop. And sometimes the family is uncomfortable with me saying, ‘I think the company should be going in this direction.’ The Chartered Director qualification gave me a huge amount of knowledge around governance.”
Becoming a chartered director was his entry point into the IoD. In 2013, he became regional chair for the West Midlands – at 36 he was the youngest person to hold such a role. “I wanted to raise our profile, to make sure we’ve got an input on the discussions of the West Midlands Combined Authority [made up of 12 local authorities and three local enterprise partnerships] and an input on the Midlands Engine.”
Wouhra was one of a group of business leaders who dined with chancellor Philip Hammond shortly after the Midlands Engine strategy was published on 9 March – an initiative designed to boost economic growth across the region. Does Wouhra feel that the proposed investment of £392m is sufficient? “£392m is not a huge amount,” he says. “But the important thing is how we can be given the opportunities [to make a difference]. A centralised control system where people in Whitehall are deciding our future needs is completely wrong.
“So I think it [the Midlands Engine] is a catalyst. The main thing with this is the political leaders have pulled together and if the right mayor comes in and helps drive that policy then we’re not going to go backwards. Leave the businessmen to get on with business and the politicians to get on with policy-making. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Wouhra speaks passionately about the devolution of power from Westminster to the regions. “I think that local leadership and local people know what the region needs and by having local leaders I feel that we will move a lot faster. I’ll give you an example: a few years ago with the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership we negotiated the deal with Jaguar Land Rover to open a factory in Wolverhampton and produce engines. Jaguar Land Rover said they would put in almost £200m-worth of investment and that would create around 1,200 jobs.
“They actually ended up putting in £550m investment into the plant and created 2,000 jobs in what was a very deprived area. Had it not been for the mix between public and private sector, those opportunities would never have happened. Today that plant is producing an engine every 36 seconds. We competed against cities from around the world. On this occasion, fortunately, the West Midlands won.”
There are few, if any, business leaders better qualified to champion the region. He sits on the Aston University development board and that of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Trust, as well as Birmingham’s Child Poverty Commission. “Those roles give you the chance to look at things differently. For example, universities are being sucked dry of foreign students. It’s a huge loss to their bottom line and a huge loss to the Birmingham economy. The vice chancellor of Birmingham University told me that foreign students from India and China account for around £1m-worth of revenue and near enough £1bn for the city. Those students may come from a trade background. They will have an affinity with our region, which will help us to do deals in the future.
“A lot of the NHS roles, meanwhile, are being covered by people coming in from outside the UK. We haven’t got the skills ready made. It will take five or six years to get those doctors and nurses into the system, ready to do those jobs.”
Of his work with the Child Poverty Commission, he says: “Forty-seven per cent of kids in parts of Birmingham are living in poverty – in the second-largest city in the country, in the fifth-largest economy in the world. It’s sickening.
“There is always a flipside to any argument but the practicalities are important. For me, it always comes back to what can be done to support businesses to create the jobs to give people the opportunities to pay the taxes back into the system to keep the wheels turning.”
He was approached through the IoD to chair the advisory board of the Library of Birmingham, Europe’s largest, in the city centre. “It was before the first spade had been put in the ground. They said, ‘Would you like to chair the board?’ and I said ‘Well, who’s on the board?’ They replied, ‘No one yet, you make your mind up.’
“So I picked up people from the legal profession, from the entertainment industry, as diverse a spread as we could get. That was a £187m project. There is a cultural shift in that the part the private sector has to play in civic matters and shaping our localities hasn’t quite sunk into our psyche yet, but it will.”
Wouhra is the embodiment of a proud Midlander but he is keen to expand his horizons, having visited Downing Street on several occasions with the IoD. He says: “The fact that you can get your points across to the prime minister is amazing. And that’s the power of the IoD, the respect it carries as an organisation.”
He even managed to make a lasting impression on the Prince of Wales. “I’d done some work on the Prince’s Trust and Prime [Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise]. I’d been to Clarence House and I’d briefly met him before. It was a garden party at Buckingham Palace and I said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me’. He said, ‘Yes, you’re the spice man!’”
For now, the spice man wants to make a positive and lasting impression on the region where he was born and bred. “Being a Sikh, I see the religion as the principles of life and one of the main strands of that religion is giving back to community,” he says. “If you spend time in this city, and you get a proper feel for it, you’ll realise it’s an amazing place. These are exciting times.” Not just for Birmingham, but for Wouhra as well.
Jason Wouhra CV
Education Degree in law, Stafford University; master’s in commercial law
1998 Director, company secretary, East End Foods
2004 Youngest person to achieve IoD chartered director status
2010 Vice chair of IoD Young Directors Forum, West Midlands and Black Country LEP
2011 Opens Aston Cross Cash & Carry (current annual turnover £70m); made co-chair advisory board, Library of Birmingham
2013 Becomes regional chair of IoD West Midlands
2014 Receives honorary doctorate, Aston University
2015 Joins board of Birmingham Child Poverty Commission, NED of University Hospital Trust, chairman of Aston University development board
Jason Wouhra is the chair of IoD West Midlands
East End Foods
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