PING the poverty net inspired Sir Gulam Noon to go into business. He lived with his five siblings in one room when he was growing up in Mumbai, India, but is now the UK’s unofficial curry king, after amassing his fortune by selling the food of his native country in the UK.
After first travelling to the UK in 1968, Noon set up Bombay Halwa, an Indian confectionary company based in Southall, in 1972. Then in 1988 he moved into Indian sauces, chutneys and ready-meals with Noon Products.
“I was very lucky, really,” he says. “The influx of Asians into London who had been thrown out of Uganda and Kenya in the seventies fuelled Bombay Halwa’s success; back then only Asians ate Indian food.”
But tastes have changed, which he attributes to the aviation industry and more people travelling: “It’s incredible how quickly the palette of the British nation has changed,” says Noon from behind a large walnut desk. “It’s gone from fish and chips to chicken tikka masala.”
Both businesses remain successful. Bombay Halwa employs 250 people and has three factories in West London, while Noon Foods, which started with 11 people and 5,500 sq ft of factory space, now has 1,400 employees and factories that cover 340,000 sq ft that produce 2m meals a week.
Although Noon is well known for his success in business, and is a prominent member of the Asian Business Association, it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 1979 Noon started an Indian confectionary company in the US, but he left in 1984. “I lost a lot of money back then. What I realised was that the Indian food market was in the UK not in the US. When the horse is dead don’t keep flogging it, just get out of there, so that is what I did. I returned to the UK and picked up the pieces of Bombay Halwa.”
But it was in the US that Noon learned to mass-produce high quality food, which fuelled his success. In 1989 he won a contract with Birds Eye, the frozen food group owned by Unilever. That was a pivotal year for Noon since he also won a contract with Sainsbury’s to provide frozen and chilled meals, which pushed his brand from a niche product to a household name.
Although Noon sold his company to Kerry Foods in 2005 he continues to come to his office everyday for 9.30am. “I fell in love with the food business, even now 20 elephants couldn’t keep me from getting to the office every day.”
So what is the biggest lesson he has learned? “Always be honest and fair most of all. Providing that you are straight and are not cutting corners you can succeed. I came from India with nothing and had to borrow money to get my business started, but my biggest bank balance was my credibility.”
CV | SIR GULAM NOON
Lives: London: “I was a non-dom but I gave that up last year.”
Drives: Mercedes 500 S Class: “I used to drive a Bentley but that was too pompous for my tastes.”
It was Noon who came up with the name Bombay Mix.
He has a number of charitable foundations and is also a supporter of the Lord Mayor’s Big Curry that raises money for soldiers, on 29 April. You can purchase
tickets at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7901 8914.