It is just 15 years since a family business called Noon Products was set up. We began with only a small factory, 11 employees and limited funds. But we also had a lot of enthusiasm, a contract with Birds Eye to supply a range of ethnic frozen foods, and a strong conviction that we would succeed.
From those modest roots we grew a substantial business. By 1999 we were running one of the largest factories in the country for ready-made ethnic meals, with a turnover of £44 million. So it was no surprise that we became attractive as an acquisition and were bought by WT Foods Group Plc. Subsequently, in 2002, we concluded a management buyout of the group, with the help of the venture capital company Bridgepoint Capital.
How did we achieve all this? In business there are no quick fixes and no easy shortcuts. But, as I reflect on our success, I see three key ingredients that were critical in helping the business reach this size so quickly.
First, we were in the right market at the right time. Hindsight is, of course, a fine thing, and nobody could ever claim never to make mistakes. But the fundamental market conditions were right. How many budding entrepreneurs, I wonder, would be spared the pain of failure if they just took a moment to stand back and consider how timely their company's product or service is?
In 1989 the ethnic food sector was worth £175 million, and the Indian food market was so small that it didn't even register on the radar screen. But by 1999 the ethnic food sector had grown to a remarkable £800 million and curry had overtaken fish and chips as the nation's favourite food.
Second, we had the right approach. If I were to single out one quality that contributed more than any other to our success, it was a shared passion and belief in our product. Moreover, we resolutely refused to compromise on quality and product authenticity - essential, I believe, in order for an ethnic foods business to succeed in what is now a highly competitive market.
This is also where leadership plays a hugely important role. The job of a leader is to lead from the front. That means taking tough decisions, and this approach can sometimes be perceived as less than fully democratic.
But it's what businesses need and, as managing director of Noon Products, I made it my priority to stay focused on the key objectives of the business and to make every decision in line with those objectives. While I was MD, I took most of the harder and more crucial decisions unilaterally. One has to have strength of character, strong intuition and the ability to accept the downside if the decision turns out to be incorrect.
Leadership also requires passion. What makes a good leader stand out from a mediocre one is the ability to fire up a team, to unite behind the corporate objective and work hard to achieve it. My team at Noon Products were powerfully motivated to change the market we were competing in. Without that drive, success will be limited.
Third, and most important, we created an environment of trust and mutual respect among our employees.
This need for trust is not rocket science, nor is it new. A working partnership is where creativity and innovation flourish and morale soars. Indeed, Confucius told his disciple Tzukung that three things were needed for government: weapons, food and trust. Importantly, he added that if a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust, he said, should be guarded to the end, because without trust nothing is attainable. With public trust in corporations at an all-time low, this is surely a lesson that applies more than ever today.
However, whereas trust can take years to build, it can be destroyed in an instant. To treat the job of building trust as a temporary objective will lead to failure; rather, it should be regarded as a constant effort. The reward for getting this right, though, is that any decision taken at a senior level - even if there are both winners and losers - will be considered more acceptable, because employees feel part of a team effort work- ing to achieve a collective goal.
So what would be my advice to businesses looking at our model of success?
First, make sure your product or service is being offered in the right market at the right time. Look at long-term trends, at the competition, and at the opportunities that exist to fill gaps in the market.
Second, treat leadership as a responsibility requiring motivation, drive and enthusiasm. Get your employees fired up to change the world.
Third, and most important, be consistent in your behaviour and act with integrity in order to create a climate of trust and respect. Every employee must be given a sense of belonging and a sense that he or she has a vital part to play in achieving the company's aims and objectives.
Get each of these elements right and the rest will follow.
Sir Gulam Noon MBE is chairman and founder of Noon Products, the ready meals manufacturer he founded in 1989, and a non-executive director of WT Foods Group. He is also chairman and managing director of Bombay Halwa, which specialises in Indian sweets and aviation catering, and he serves as a director on several other company and charity boards. He is currently a board member of Transport for London.