The MT Interview: Sir Gulam Noon

The Indian-born entrepreneur made his reputation as the Curry King, supplying own-label ready meals to supermarkets - and nearly lost it when he got enmeshed in Labour's cash-for-honours row. At 72, he's still working, championing Noon Products for the firm he sold it to.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 26 Apr 2016

It takes Sir Gulam Noon only 18 pages of his autobiography to get to the hurtful bit. Forget cash for honours, the 2006 scandal that denied him a seat in the House of Lords because of a £250,000 loan he had given the Labour party. What nibbles away is how others see him.

'A journalist once wrote that I was vulgar because I am fond of saying: "There is no substitute for money." As I said at the time, he is entitled to his view...'

He argues that if anyone should share his family background - impoverished Muslim market traders in Bombay (Mumbai) plunged into financial crisis after India's partition, when both Noon's uncle and father die - they too might feel the need to amass cash and show the world they are doing alright now.

But it's more than that. Sitting in his wood-panelled office above the Noon Products factory in London's Southall, Noon, 72, puts it simply. 'The only way out of the poverty trap was to earn money. I always had a hunger for cash.'

And so began his journey, rebuilding his father's business, making Indian sweets, then diversifying into property and manufacturing, and coming to Britain to try his luck. Now his factories are among the biggest manufacturers of Indian and other ethnic food in Britain, supplying Sainsbury's and Waitrose, and his business is part of Irish-based Kerry Foods, which keeps him on as 'ambassador' for the Noon operation.

In the process, he has become one of the best-known Asian entrepreneurs on these shores, wealthy in India and here, since he sold Noon Products and pocketed a fortune estimated at £50m. He is also a man who many feel was let down by party politics and the messy way we allow politicians to raise money in Britain.

His weakness, according to some, was a desperation to hobnob with royalty and prime ministers, and flaunt his wealth in Rolls-Royces and rich-list documentaries. No surprise that his chairman's office at Noon Products still has its long window-sill lined with framed photos showing Noon with the great and the good.

Perhaps his real weakness is people. He could have established Noon as a formidable food brand, but chose instead to supply supermarket own-label for two decades, as he didn't want to let down friends like Lord (David) Sainsbury. And much of his drive came from a domineering mother who instilled in him early the motto he lives by: 'You will be known by the friends you keep'. That window-sill is, I would guess, a display in her honour.

Anyway, as many of those photographed with Noon know, his obsession with people makes him an engaging host. His driver picks me up from Southall station. An aide takes me from the foyer to the first floor. Noon himself is waiting in his shirtsleeves at the lift doors. Short and stocky, his thick greying hair falling over an impatient-looking face, he appears less Indian than Iranian, testimony to his mother's Persian roots. 'I am half-Persian,' he says, proudly.

Tea is served. Noon has coffee, sitting by that photo-lined window. Outside, fireworks are already going off in Southall to celebrate the October festival of Diwali - good for business, as another of Noon's companies, Royal Sweets, will be dealing with the extra demand. Its Indian delicacies, made with nuts, ghee and cornflour, are the mainstay of every Indian celebration and where Noon's family wealth started.

'When a child is born: sweets. Diwali: sweets. Every function, from when you're born to when you die, you eat sweets. Moslem, Hindu, all religions,' says Noon with a broad smile.

He speaks Indian-inflected, occasionally mangled English with a sing-song cadence, and his face lights up as he talks. The impatience is replaced by a look of delight at capturing an audience. Noon is an expansive talker, his memories well-ordered by the process of completing his book (Noon, With a View: Courage and integrity, published this month by Whittles). In person, though, he throws in an earthy expletive or joke. He makes himself out to be a simple man. I suspect he is anything but.

The cash-for-honours scandal has left a taint. His generosity to the Labour party - donations of more than £100,000 - had already been linked with his knighthood in 2002. Three years later, the inference was that he had paid even more to get his name included on a list of those nominated for a peerage in 2005. He had, in fact, been asked for a loan for the party by Lord Levy, Tony Blair's fundraiser, which he had given. It was to be repaid with interest. He claims in his book that Levy told him not to declare the loan when his name was put forward for a peerage. When the press found out, there was a furore, and he was forced to decline the honour.

The affair became part of a police investigation, and eventually Noon was exonerated - but not before his motives were repeatedly questioned by hostile commentators. No charges were brought against Levy. Much hinged on the detail of who told what to whom with regards to declaring that loan. At this distance, it seems as if Noon was not well served by his friends in politics. Noon, for his part, suggests that he thought he was following legal advice in not declaring the loan. 'Who am I to contradict the mighty Labour party and its lawyers?'

But was he naive in thinking that, after the fuss in 2002, no-one would question the honour in 2005? Or was he just hungry for the esteem?

Neither, he counters: he did absolutely nothing wrong, and he felt he could make a contribution in the House of Lords. But looking back on it, he is sanguine. 'In life, you can't win all the time,' he says. 'Sometimes, you have to take a hit, and in cash-for-honours I took a bad hit.'

So who was responsible? His book insists he was badly advised by Levy, but it refuses to point the finger at Tony Blair. It does, however, offer an insight into a world where favours are thrown around too freely. At one stage, Noon, the Curry King, insists he was offered a safe Labour seat - ie, to be an MP - by Ruth Turner, then director of government relations, as compensation for his troubles. 'I said I was not interested,' he writes, with commendable calm.

It all seems bizarre now, but with the involvement of the police, it became deadly serious for Noon. Characteristically, he makes a joke of it, but you can imagine he was furious.

He says people in India can't understand it at all. 'In the small village my family come from, a chap says to me: "Sir, you are a rich man, you have everything, such a good image. Why did you borrow money from the Labour party?" I said I didn't borrow from them, I loaned to them. He says: "So what is the fucking problem? You gave them money and they are harassing you?" I said: You won't understand this, but life doesn't work like it does in India...'

He laughs loudly. He doesn't keep grudges, he says. 'Tony Blair apologised to me. I've forgiven him. He said he was devastated... It was the same thing Gordon Brown said: "We have treated you very badly."'

So does he regret not going to the House of Lords? Yes, he says, and he'd go like a shot if he was asked again. He argues passionately for more Muslim integration into British life, and is sharply critical of madrassa inculcation against western values. 'I've had a tremendous experience of life, I could be of some use.'

It's doubtful whether the Labour party would risk it again - Noon stands more chance of being nominated by mischievous Conservatives. He blanches at the suggestion. 'I'd only go if Labour asked me. I am not going to change my party.'

He has noted, however, that nothing has changed with regard to how political parties raise money - as George Osborne found out this summer. 'The parties should come together and think about it so this episode is not repeated,' he says. 'Maybe the state should provide (for political parties) and we all pay for it.'

Does Noon think he was an easy target? He was always ambitious and likes to display his wealth ostentatiously: lots of cars, personalised number-plates, profile pieces.

'Ostentatious?' he says, shaking his head. 'I don't think my life is ostentatious. I don't have a huge house, I have a few cars with personalised number plates, but every Tom, Dick and Harry has personalised number-plates. Where is the "lots of cars" when I have only two? Well, three. Yes, I had a Rolls, but it was too much for me. And I have a big car, because I am fond of shooting and hunting, and use it for that. The other is a Mercedes; thousands of people have those. I don't drink. I don't go to casinos...'

The truth is, many who did business with him expected him to enjoy the trappings of success, and it gave them reassurance in their relationships with him. For those outside business, that can be hard to understand.

According to a friend of Noon, it also reflects an Indian cultural need to demonstrate success. 'Gulam is not shy to show what he has achieved, but he's not arrogant. In fact, he's quite a humble man.' And as even Noon's critics admit, anyone who meets him finds it hard not to be charmed by his upbeat dynamism.

So why is he still sitting here, when he has sold control of his company and could be out chasing his passions: cricket, charity, connections? Because this is what he enjoys, he says. 'I come in every day. Ten elephants couldn't drag me back to my apartment,' he grins. His role as ambassador, for which he gets a token management fee, involves promoting the company, testing its products and liaising with staff. Kerry has slotted in its own team under managing director Bob Carnell, and they work closely with Noon.

Carnell admits it is a unique relationship, but then Noon Products - which provides 10% of Kerry's £1.3bn turnover - is a unique firm, with a special bond between staff and founder. 'The main difference, I guess, is that it's an Indian business making Indian food, and the authenticity of its food depends on it being made by Indian people who understand the spices,' says Carnell.

And many of these staff have worked for Sir Gulam for three decades. This is a link that Kerry Foods doesn't want broken. Noon himself has no contract, just a way of interacting with Carnell that both men enjoy. It works, says Noon, because both men want it to.

'I love it because I married the company to Kerry Foods, which looks after my business,' he says. 'I look at the products. I have a clean palate. If I don't like it, I tell the right people. And Indian food is still a huge growth market.'

But the food could be healthier, perhaps?

He shakes his head. 'I want you to remember that our food has no artificial colours or flavours - no, sir. Show me one E-number - no additives, we're almost natural. It's the authenticity of the spices, the best chicken and rice - that's how we created our image in the marketplace. Noon is synomous with traditional Indian food.'

Despite his huge success as a supplier of ready meals to major supermarkets, it's odd that he never took the next step and made Noon a well-known consumer brand. Patak's did. Shouldn't he have done the same?

Noon goes silent for while, then nods agreement. 'If I had waited to build the brand, I would have needed more money, which I didn't have. But you are absolutely right, it was a missed opportunity. The problem was, any capacity increase was eaten up by my customers (the supermarkets). Whether it was my mistake or the circumstances driving the business, I didn't do it. It was about our relationships. A 20-year relationship with Sainsbury's - imagine that.'

It is Lord Sainsbury who writes the foreword to Noon's autobiography, and - probably - it was Lord Sainsbury who first allowed his friend to put the Noon name on the back of the supermarket's own-brand Indian ready meals. That's highly unusual in the own-brand sector, a mark of the special relationship that Noon brokered.

It also explains his reluctance to go it alone. 'It is a question of my mindset. I was very loyal to Sainsbury, I would not let David Sainsbury down.' But, he says, the idea of a Noon brand launch is still a possibility. 'Now, we are making a concentrated effort. Next year we are coming out with Noon brands.'

Carnell is more reticent, admitting there are plans in the pipeline, but points out that establishing a brand - in Indian sauces, for example - would be hugely risky and expensive.

Noon might have had a run at it sooner if he hadn't spent much of the 1990s rebuilding his business after a serious factory fire. The event clearly traumatised him, and in his book he compliments those who stood by him, but rails against others: the insurance company, which was reluctant to pay him a penny, and the rivals who shamelessly strove to take advantage. One offered him a cut of future profits to hand over his contracts, abandon his staff and walk away, cash in hand.

'I would never do that,' he says. 'There were 250 people crying with me outside, that night. I am not going to say: "I have a pocketful of money, you can go home."'

Then there was the rival who phoned round Indian suppliers saying: 'Don't accommodate Noon. We can get his business from Sainsbury and Waitrose.'

Noon turns up his palms. 'God has a way of dealing with people. A few years later, this same rival's factory was on fire, and I sent my daughter to stand there and say: "If there is anything we can do for you, we will do it." That's the difference. And we did produce things for him.'

And while the setback nearly killed his business, others say it also cemented a bond with staff - who were kept on full pay without work - that other firms could never replicate. It also focused Noon's investment. 'I think adversity of such a nature gives you opportunity,' he says. He got bigger factories, more modern sites, he turned a setback into a step forward.

But that positivity is Noon to the core - he believes the best of most that he encounters. When disabused, he just moves on. This desire to keep building is the code that underpins his life. He says he was just born different to his five siblings. 'I was restless, I had a hunger to get out of the poverty trap, not be poor. My elder brother was more like my father, more calm. He's retired now and thinks I am bloody working like a dog. He will never understand my philosophy...'

He laughs. Noon was the third child of six, with an elder brother and sister. He says his father was hen-pecked. His mother had been married first to his uncle, then, when he died, to Noon's father, already married to another woman (as a Muslim, he could take two wives). In the book, Noon's mother emerges as a formidable character, determined to hold the family together, covertly encouraging her entrepreneur son but never letting him upset the pre-ordained hierarchy of a family business.

Noon, it turns out, is his mother's nickname for him, not his real name. But he is quick to see where names count. As a young man he changed the name of his family's sweet business from Kamruddin Ebrahimjee - his uncle's Muslim name - to Royal Sweets, to encourage non- Muslims to shop there. His mother, he says, slapped his face for disrespecting the family name, but she had to acknowledge he was right.

The family had a shop in Mumbai's Crawford Market, and a small room where people made the sweets. When Noon's father died, that business was close to bankruptcy but was held together by his elder sister's husband. The trail from there, learning at the knee of his father's accountant, pushing at the conservative instincts of his brother-in-law, is well told in his book.

His early attempt to investigate commercial possibilities in Britain was blocked by his mother. But by 1966, with the family business now resting on solid foundations, she let him go, with introductions to a Pakistani business family who had interests here. Noon arrived the day England won the World Cup, and fell instantly in love with the country.

'And that has never diminished.' He had been fascinated by Britain from the newsreels he'd seen at the cinema in Mumbai. 'The British are such a cultured people, nobody is honking horns, nobody is shouting, you ask a policeman something and they bend over backwards to help you. I vowed then and there to come back and start a business here.'

He began with sweets, then was drawn into a food venture with the Taj Hotel group in America. It lost money, but what he learnt about food technology there was invaluable. When he returned to Britain, he launched into frozen Indian ready meals. His empire was born.

He made sacrifices. His first wife left him - England was too cold for her. He has since remarried twice. He has two daughters from his first marriage. He loves cricket, and he compares his decision-making to a wrist shot - instinctive, done in a split second. 'There are entrepreneurs like me: they take opinion from consultants but do exactly what instinct tells them. My rationale is: if those consultants are so bloody good, why aren't they entrepreneurs? You don't build ships to keep them in harbour; they should be on the high sea. My motto is: if you don't take risks, you risk even more.'

He could go on. And he will, because he has no plans to retire. 'I have put in a date for my retirement. It's when I am 102,' he chuckles.

Will he really still be putting in the hours in 10 years' time? He shrugs. 'Ten years is a long time. My roots are here, but it doesn't mean I love India any the less. I have just opened a hospital in Rajasthan. I am very fond of that place, given five years to that. It was my dream to build it there for the poor community, and wipe their tears.'

And next? 'If life is still with me and I have energy, I would like to build a boarding school there too, for everybody, rich and poor.'

But now, he needs to go to the MT photo-shoot. 'Wait,' he says, and bustles off down the corridor, leaving me to admire his friends. He returns with a chill-bag stuffed with ready-meals. 'You must try these,' he smiles, and hands them over with a stiff bow. His driver takes me back to the rail station, talking so affectionately about his boss and the business he has built up that it's hard not to be won over. When I get out of the car, he asks ever-so-politely: 'Do you like Indian sweets?'

Love them, I say. He opens the boot and hands me a box. 'For Diwali,' he says and smiles, as another firework pops in the distance.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING SIR GULAM NOON

1. To maintain the amicable and productive working relationship with Kerry Foods, owner of Noon Products

2. To oversee a launch of Noon-branded Indian food products

3. To continue to work to clear his name of any taint remaining from the cash-for-honours affair

NOON IN A MINUTEf
1936: Born 24 January, Mumbai. Educated High School, Mumbai
1954: Joins family business, Royal Sweets
1972: Founds Bombay Halwa in Southall
1979: Director, Taj Group, Europe and US
1980: Founds Shamiana Foods in US
1989: Establishes Noon Products in Southall
1994: Noon's original plant destroyed by fire
1995-6: Starts Noon Foundation, awarded MBE
1999: Sells Noon Products to WT Foods
2002: Knighted
2005: Noon Products acquired by Kerry Foods
2007: Appointed member of the British Olympic Association's advisory
board.

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