Picture the scene: it’s 1968 and a young Pakistani entrepreneur named Anwar Pervez is about to open his second shop. His first - opened five years earlier, shortly after he arrived in the UK - was a specialist food shop serving the Asian communities in west London. Now he wanted to open something with wider appeal - a general grocery store for the people of south Kensington - but he needed a name. He and a colleague spent three months trying to dream up a brand. They wanted something that was new, snappy and English. Their choice? Bestway.
“I wasn’t initially very happy with the name because there was Safeway,” recalls a youthful-looking Sir Anwar, now aged 70. “But then I thought it was more original and made more sense. And that store went on to do much better than I could possibly have imagined.”
From its modest beginnings, Sir Anwar built Bestway first into a chain of 11 shops and then into a business empire with interests in banking in Pakistan, as well as a major cement business there, plus property, rice milling and cash and carry wholesaling in the UK.
In so doing, he has become one of this country’s best known, and wealthiest, Asian businessmen.
His is a fascinating tale of how someone with drive and ambition can succeed in the UK. The Bestway logo is evidence of all that: the letter B in the logo was deliberately left unfinished - reflecting the fact that the group had work to do. And it is still incomplete today.
However, Sir Anwar insists that money was never the motivating factor. He was always interested in the way that business can make a positive social impact. “That’s helped me a lot in my life,” he says. Certainly, Bestway is generous: 2.5% of its profit in the UK is donated every year and the same amount in Pakistan, where it runs 26 schools, inter alia. And Sir Anwar has been doubly rewarded - in the UK with an OBE in 1992 and knighthood in 1999, followed by the Hilal-E-Pakistan award for services to Pakistan in 2000.
Last year, Sir Anwar stepped down as MD, remaining chairman but leaving the day-to-day running to directors Zameer Choudrey and Younus Sheikh (who, incidentally, was the colleague who came up with the Bestway name), while his son Dawood joined the board.
But it’s not all been plain sailing. By the mid-1970s, Bestway had reached a turning point, he says.“My customers were telling me, ‘Your shops are very good but are expensive’. And I realised that was because I was buying from wholesalers who were making a 10% margin. So I started thinking of moving into wholesale, so that I could buy cheaper and pass on the savings.”
It took two years for Sir Anwar to realise his ambition, as difficulties getting planning permission meant the first Bestway C&C depot, in Acton, did not open until 1976. Despite its low prices, the depot was not an instant hit. Sir Anwar remembers the rumours put about by competitors that the goods were cheap because they were stolen or the VAT had not been paid; then there were the concerns of suppliers, never mind the scepticism of other retailers.
Clearly it was a difficult couple of years. But Sir Anwar says the company started to build the trust of retailers, gaining their custom, and then in 1981 it opened a freehold cash and carry, which gave suppliers the confidence to do business with Bestway.
Since Bestway turned its focus to cash and carry wholesaling rather than retailing (although some stores were retained, albeit now trading under a different name), it’s been a story of continued growth. And by the end of last year, Bestway was running 31 depots, all of them freehold, and turning over £1.1bn.
Then, at the beginning of this year, came the most dramatic stage in Bestway’s development: the acquisition of rival Batleys for a sum believed to be about £100m. It was a long courtship, says Sir Anwar, who reveals that Bestway was close to clinching a deal 18 months ago, but Len Batley’s family was finding it emotionally difficult to sell. Eventually, with the help of City bankers Rothschild, the talks were resurrected and negotiations completed quickly.
Sir Anwar explains: “The owners came to terms with the fact that they could not carry on. We were still interested. And the deal was done.”
He admits Batleys’ owners got a good price
for their business and that many challenges now lie ahead for Bestway. But the deal has created a business with 49 C&C depots, good national coverage and, thanks to its £1.6bn turnover, more commercial clout with suppliers.
What’s unusual is the pragmatic way in which the takeover is being handled. Batleys’ head office has been retained, and he has kept both brands, which has raised a few eyebrows. But it makes sense to Sir Anwar. “Bestway has its own culture and so does Batleys. We will learn from them and they will learn from us. At the end of the day, any business is about people. We are in no hurry to bring the offices together because we do not want to lose our staff. And customers too can feel betrayed if there are sudden changes.”
Today, almost 40 years after he unveiled the Bestway brand at that small store in London, Sir Anwar heads one of the UK’s most successful private groups - which makes him a very worthy winner of The Grocer Cup for Outstanding Business Achievement 2005.
What are the prospects for cash and carry?
The amount of duty fraud stock being sold is the biggest problem for our industry and we are suffering from that. Independent retailers have a good future - as long as they become even more professional. So I believe that cash and carry will remain, giving retailers - and suppliers - the service they need.
Will you rename Batleys depots as Bestway?
As the situation develops we will decide. But we are not in a hurry to make that decision.
What about opening more C&C depots?
If we find the right places where we are not already represented then we would do that. But finding land is very difficult and none of the good operators are selling their existing depots.
Tell us more about the other Bestway interests:
We moved into Pakistan at a good time (1994) and developed cement factories. We are the biggest supplier and are now building another factory, which will open next June and will produce 5,500 tonnes of cement a day. We also bought a bank - United Bank - three years ago, which is performing strongly as the economy does well. In the UK, we have a property business, and our rice milling business owns the second most important brand in Basmati rice in the UK.
What one thing are you most proud of?
We cut the margins of wholesaling so we could provide reasonable prices for retailers so they could look after their local communities. I’m proud that when people saw I was prospering they followed me.
What about the future?
You never know what will happen tomorrow. I think you should just be open for any new opportunities that come your way.
has its own culture, as does Batleys. We will learn from them and they will learn from us. At the end of the day, any business is about people