People often ask me: 'What is the secret of your success?' And the straightforward answer is vision. Having a vision is the bottom line of everything that I have achieved over the past 13 years.
What do I mean by vision? Thirteen years ago, as part of a family keen on entertaining, I was thrilled when somebody tasted a dish I had prepared for a dinner party and really enjoyed it. This developed into a vision of people around the world sitting down to a meal I had prepared and relishing every mouthful.
Having a vision is one thing, delivering it is another. You need to be motivated and you need a clear sense of direction.
My initial challenge was to develop the fledgling company, to give it wings and let it fly. First of all, I knew that in order to achieve nationwide distribution for my products, I would have to distribute them through the major retailers. After much hard work and persistence, Asda agreed to carry out a blind taste-testing. My recipes beat the competition and I was offered my first national listing.
Then the problems really started. We needed to manufacture the products on a grand scale and I was still working out of my kitchen at home. Fortunately, Asda agreed to wait while I secured funding to open my first factory and could set up on a larger scale. This proved to be a huge task as we had to build and set up a production unit very quickly, complying with strict standards. In order to meet health and safety requirements, we even had to retile the entire factory overnight - without losing any production time. We succeeded, however, and I met my commitment to Asda.
S&A Foods expanded at a tremendous rate. Other leading retailers showed an interest in our products and contracts soon followed. By 1987, such was the demand that we required a new purpose-built factory. Managing high growth is a difficult process and to finance the expansion I looked around for backing.
I decided that, rather than stand still, owning a smaller slice of a very large cake was better than owning the whole of a much smaller cake. So S&A Foods was sold to the larger Hughes Food Group, which was to provide finance for further growth.
A year later, we encountered another major hurdle. We continued to be profitable but, in spite of this, Hughes had run into financial difficulties. So I set about buying S&A back.
Raising funds very quickly was not easy. However, in 1991, using our own money and with minority backing from 3i, my husband and I regained ownership of the company. It has been ours ever since and has been listed for five consecutive years as the fastest growing independent food manufacturer in the UK, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
As head of S&A Foods, I see strategic direction and planning as my major role. We cannot afford to lose sight of the vision and the values that have made us successful. We constantly review our business methods and we encourage customers to challenge the way we do things.
Innovation is an important part of our strategy and the ability to introduce ideas that meet the needs of an evolving market is vital to the continued success of the company. We always aim to be one step ahead of the competition.
For example, we were the first company to introduce Balti meals in an authentic-looking wok. We also introduced the idea of the 'Curry Pot', as well as the 'meal for one', which has proved so popular that it is now copied by all our competitors. We are always on the lookout for gaps in the market, which can be exploited to grow the business in a controlled way.
Innovation has been our winning formula for attracting new customers, entering new markets and continuing to grow at a rate of 40% to 50% year on year. We evaluate new product ideas and if they meet our standards and fit in with the long-term strategy of the business, we plan and use them. We develop close 'partnerships' with our customers by involving them in the process too.
Last year, we launched 100 new products. This year we will be launching over 200, including a number for our growing export markets in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I still get a tremendous thrill from seeing a new product gain the support of our customers and then become a winner with consumers. I believe that's what market leadership is all about.
Vision definitely requires a visionary but I never forget that I cannot achieve it on my own. All the company's achievements are only possible because of our committed, trained and highly motivated workforce.
Our people are our main investment and developing the right team has been one of the main challenges of the past 13 years. For the company to be successful, the team needs to share the same passion, focus and objective.
We have also developed a 'family culture', in which every employee is encouraged to participate and contribute their ideas, however large or small.
As we enter the next millennium, managers must define their vision and communicate it. The future of your business is in your hands and to make that future a successful and profitable one, you must determine to achieve success whatever the cost, and persevere to see the vision through.