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A bad bite turns Kamal Basran to a millionaire
Kamal Basran laughs when she remembers the first time she took home a packet of samosas. It was the early 80s and she was so excited that the local supermarket was selling readymade Asian snacks that she didn’t think twice about buying them. But that soon turned to disappointment when she took her first bite.
“That initial excitement soon turned to shock because they were so bad. They were bland and didn’t taste of anything,” she recalls.
That initial shock was also the moment and she realised she could do better and the idea to start her own business selling authentic Indian food was born.
Today Kamal Basran is the owner and non-executive director of the £35m-turnover Authentic Food Company, which she founded in 1985. Employing 248 staff, it has its headquarters in Sharston, Wythenshawe and has sites in
Stockport and Cheadle, supplying frozen Indian, Oriental, Mediterranean and British dishes to retail and food outlets.
Customers include the Co-operative Group and Asda, as well as pubs, restaurants, hotels and the travel industry.
Mrs Basran was also recognised for her work in the food business when she received a top accolade at this year’s Lloyds TSB Asian Women of Achievement Awards, where she was named entrepreneur of the year. It was a poignant moment, she says.
“I was really elated to have won. I think it was nice for me as it was the culmination of 25 years of hard work and I also got to meet other inspiring women there as well, not necessarily in business, but it really opened my eyes to the achievements of other Asian women.”
One of four children, Mrs Basran came to settle in the UK from the Punjab region of India with her parents in the 60s. She was only eight-years-old when they arrived in Wolverhampton. Her dad got a job at the Goodyear Tyre Factory and her mum was a housewife.
“We had a great childhood,” she remembers. “There were very few Indian families in the area. We really had to search for an Indian family so we could socialise with them.
“But people were very welcoming. That was amazing and we loved that. Schools were warm and friendly and we didn’t have any issues. The biggest shock was just the climate; otherwise we had a great childhood.”
Food also played an important part in family life and, as the only daughter; the future entrepreneur was expected to learn how to cook from her mum.
She said: “In those days you couldn’t buy Indian food anywhere, definitely not cooked food. Invariably, my mother cooked everything from scratch for the home, functions and festivals.”
The businesswoman was also the first in the family to go to university – a battle she had to win with her traditional parents first as it was a time in the early 70s when there were very few Indian girls who left home to study.
But it was a battle she won and with the eventual support of her family she went to the University of Sheffield and completed a degree in history. She remembers having a ‘wonderful time’ at university and after graduation she married husband Lak and trained to become a teacher.
She taught history to teenagers at school in Birmingham before moving to Manchester 32 years ago. She worked as a junior school bilingual teacher in the early 80s before starting her own business in 1985, while a mother of two young boys.
“Once the idea germinated for the business, I really wanted to make a go of it,” she adds. “When I started I had £5,000 savings and the bank matched that. It was a huge decision and a risky one but I thought if it didn’t work out I would have my teaching to fall back on.”
It’s hard to believe that her food business began with a test batch of samosas at a local delicatessen in Poynton, where she was living. She made lamb, vegetable and chicken samosas in her kitchen to deliver to the shop on Friday and Saturday mornings but they used to sell out by the end of the day.
That gave the businesswoman an indication that it could work, so she decided to move into a 900sq ft commercial kitchen in 1986, taking on two part-time staff.
“We used to make three products: samosas, onion bhajis and spring rolls. I learnt about business as we went along. It wasn’t a big business at that time; we were mainly selling to delis. When the orders came in we made them, otherwise we’d go home.
“The interest then increased and more people wanted our products and the business started to become more viable.
“After a year we began to really grow, we got a couple of good contracts with companies like Holland and Barrett.
“In 1987 the business moved into a larger 12,500 sq ft site at Stockport. We were still building up the business, but it was hard work as I had to do everything. When you first start up a business you’re involved from making the products, to doing the wages and sorting out the logistics.”
In 1991, they bought the site next door, doubling the size of the business as the firm began to do well with a focus on the service sector. It also started producing ready meals, including oriental cuisine.
However, the biggest growth for the business came 10 years later when the company moved to Sharston following a £5m investment in a new site.
“In Stockport we were bursting at the seams so we decided to build a site for ready meals in 2001,” she adds.
“We started to supply retail customers in 2004 as we realised the food service industry was not going to sustain the overheads of the business.
“The last 15 years was also a time when people’s views of Indian food changed. There were more Indian food programmes, more contemporary Indian restaurants with fresh menus were opening and there were also celebrity chefs cooking Indian food and the whole image had changed.
“It became more popular and accepted in mainstream eating and people were also able to see the benefits of eating Indian food.
“It is still the largest part of the business, accounting for 60% of our revenues. Indian food is our heritage and it’s the business’s strength.”
Having started out making 200 samosas in her first week 25 years ago, the Authentic Food Company now produces up to 650,000 meals a week.
Snack products are still made at their Stockport site, alongside cooked rice.
These days, the company’s founder prefers to take a less hands-on approach to the business.
Her son, Nik, 31, is the managing director while eldest son Parminder, 32, works in private equity.
“It’s great for me as Nik has the same passion to run the business. He joined seven years ago straight after graduation and became managing director three years ago.
“It’s something he wanted to do and he came into the company with his eyes wide open.
“He is a big asset and I’ve got somebody who will carry on the family business.
“As a non-exec director I am still very much involved, although I can sit back sometimes and don’t always have to be so hands-on. When you get to my stage you can start delegating as well, which I couldn’t do when I first started the business.
“I think we have to be thankful that we are growing in a country where we have opportunities available and where we can succeed.
“I don’t see myself as a role model but hope that I inspire other women to show that we can succeed... that we can break barriers.
“We have the opportunity to do so many things and be successful in life and that is happening.
“When I went to university there were hardly any Indian girls but that’s changed now. There are so many Asian women involved in professions in so many different areas, which is nice to see.”