One of the West Midlands’s most successful entrepreneurs has been presented with an honorary doctorate. Tom Scotney speaks to Tony Deep Wouhra, the founder and controller of East End Foods about family, God and organic farming.
What would you expect one of the region’s richest and most successful entrepreneurs put his success down to? You’d probably expect a bit of business talk – margins; profit and loss; buy low, sell high, that sort of thing. Perhaps with a bit of self-aggrandisement mixed in.
But not Tony Deep Wouhra, the founder of East End Foods. Or rather Dr Wouhra as it should actually, after being presented with an honorary doctorate by Birmingham City University. For Dr Wouhra, success in business comes down to three things: god, family and hard work.
Not very business sexy, you might think. It’s not the kind of talk the candidates for The Apprentice would bring up – preferring haircuts and sharp suits to working relationships and toil.
But while Mr Wouhra has built up a £100 million business empire from practically nothing – one of the greatest self-started success stories of the Midlands – you’re unlikely ever to meet someone less like the sharp-elbowed business stereotype.
Quiet and unassuming, the businessman doesn’t even seem all that interested in talking about the business that has taken up much of his life since he arrived in Britain in the early ‘60s, preferring instead to talk about his charity work, his passion for organic farming and of course, the help his family and religion have provided. But to listen too closely to this belies the fact that this is a man that has built up a phenomenally successful business empire.
East End Foods now has a turnover in excess of £100m a year. It employs about 250 people and opened the largest rice mill in Europe in 2006. Last year it also bought the former HP Sauce factory in Birmingham, saying it hoped to create up to 200 jobs at the iconic plant.
But the firm had much more humble beginnings.
Kuldip Wouhra left Delhi aged 19 to come to the UK, arriving with just three pounds and 10 shillings in his pocket.
His grandfather had died during Partition in India. While much of the family fled what was set to become Pakistan, his grandfather stayed on a few days extra, and was stabbed to death on a train while trying to join his family in India.
So the family of the aspiring youngster found themselves in Delhi, from where Kuldip left to come to the UK.
After abandoning early plans to try to go into film making, the young man worked, first as a bricklayer’s mate, then selling eggs door to door around Wolverhampton in the evening and weekends. It was at this point the name Tony Deep came into use, to make things more easy for people struggling with the Indian name.
The delivery work eventually turned into a full-time business, and like any forward-thinking entrepreneur, Wouhra started to think of expansion. But with venture capital and affordable labour in short supply for an Asian-owned business in the 1960s, he turned to a source that would be the background of so many successful immigrant business stories – the extended family.
He says: “I came here in 1961 and my elder brother joined me in 1967. He had come to become a barrister and studied while I built up a small business, but we thought there was a germ of an idea in future business together. Working hard together was the essence of the whole theory. Your real success is in the people who work with you – I never say the words ‘work for you’.
More relatives came to join the firm over the years.
Entrepreneurialism has traditionally been much more common among immigrant communities, for a number of reasons. Financial and labour support from families and friends, a closer understanding of some niche markets, and a lack of access to many professional jobs.
But Mr Wouhra said he thought things had become harder for people looking to get into business in the nearly 50 years since he started working for himself. He said: “I think it may be harder in some respects and that’s because there is a lot of competition. At that time you could start a very small business and work your way up.
“Perhaps there’s not always that option nowadays.
“My advice would be to always find out what niche you want to attack because its a niche that will take you forward relatively quickly. The mainstream businesses are very competitive and you can bring your knowledge to bear.
“As far as your hard work can brings the things together, it’s god’s will that will decide what happens.”
And it was this faith, plus a brush with diabetes, that made him more interested in organic food, plus giving a new direction for the business.
After becoming more interested in a ‘pure’ diet following advice from doctors, he not only changed his own eating habits, but the buying habits of the company.
The trust supports a network of about a quarter of a million small-scale organic farmers in India through the Morarka Charitable Trust.
And as well as supporting a huge number of people in the developing world, the success of the business has made Wouhra a well-known name in the business community in the UK.
The honorary doctorate at BCU comes a decade after he was awarded an MBE for services to food
“It’s very surprising for me, and a pleasant one at that,” he says.
“I believe its more of a recognition of what people do in my case I’ve been a businessman. But it’s all been with the help of the family.”