Celebrating 60 years and three family generations in business, Henry Amar tells Rachel Barnes the secret of RH Amar’s success

RH Amar started life in London in 1945 selling frozen turkeys and corned beef to a country deprived under war rationing. Not the goods you’d expect a Frenchman to sell, but founder Raoul Amar used his contacts back home to source sought-after products in short supply in the UK.
Celebrating its sixtieth birthday this year, the company is run by his son, chairman Henry Amar, and is a purveyor of rather finer fare. The speciality food distributor boasts a turnover of £40m and is responsible for distributing the UK’s number one olive oil and olive brands, Filippo Berio and Crespo.
Today, the company bears little resemblance to the one Raoul set up, says Amar. “I joined the company in 1960 as the eighth employee. We now employ more than 50 people and it’s a wholly different business to when my father started, when all you had to do to run a successful business was find food to sell.”
Then, in the early 1950s, crisis came. Food supplies became plentiful and rationing ended. Amar needed to supply from countries other than France so the net was widened to include Spain, Italy and the US.
When Raoul died in 1983, the company had no warehousing, a sales force of one and no computers. Under the leadership of the second generation, RH Amar really took off. The jewel in its crown, Crespo, was joined by the UK distribution for Filippo Berio in the 1980s.
“Filippo Berio was very important. Fifty years ago, we were determined to become a modern business. We got the opportunity to distribute Crespo olives and realised the future was not in selling orange juice or corned beef; it was in finding and developing the right markets.”
Amar claims that for every two olives sold, one comes from his company. “That’s been the real seed from which the present company has grown,” he says.
A few years ago, it dawned on Amar that it had something extra to offer British food manufacturers. “We had the warehousing, distribution systems, sales force, access to the grocery trade and the technology,” he says.
After 59 years of distributing overseas products, a closer look at the market at home led RH Amar to win the Baxters Food Group account, selling its soups and other brands, including Pizza Express oils and condiments and Peppadew, to the independent trade. This was followed by Wilkin & Sons Tiptree jams for the regional multiples, independent retail and wholesale trades in February this year.
But the introduction of UK products to its portfolio does not mean the company is changing its focus, says Amar. “We must have a logical balance between imported and British food. If we stock olive oil, it must be imported. If we buy a jar of jam, there’s no point buying it abroad. If a product needs to be sourced abroad, then it is. But we don’t import anything that could be produced better in this country.”
But although distributing the UK’s leading olive oil and olive brands has helped make the company what it is - there is far more to RH Amar than these flagships.
The company distributes 900 products from about 30 suppliers - of which 40 products are from its own brand Cooks & Co range, which it launched in 2002 for the retail, wholesale and foodservice markets. And beyond Italian and French produce, it also sources foods from the US, Caribbean, Morocco, India and the Far East.
But, says Amar, the company is careful of having too many brands. “Some of our competitors have four times as many products. But our policy - and it may sound pretentious - is to have the best in whatever category we’re looking at. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not offered a brand, but we are picky and have to be. We’d rather do a good job for a few than a bad job for many.”
Amar is careful Cooks & Co doesn’t step on the toes of its suppliers. “We would only buy olives that couldn’t be produced by Crespo. Our suppliers are 100%-aware of what we do. It adds value to both parties as it helps grow the categories and foothold within a supermarket.”
Rather than simply pushing an individual brand that is just one of tens of thousands to retailers, RH Amar decided to build brands within categories to strengthen the importance of those categories to supermarkets.
And in an increasingly competitive supermarket environment, Amar says the company has three things really going for it:
“We don’t borrow money; we’re a well-established 60-year-old family business; and we have superb suppliers.” And he is confident the market for speciality foods will continue to grow. “It’s being fuelled by growth in foreign travel, increasing awareness of healthier foods not packed with additives, the phenomenon of the celebrity chef and affluence.”
People are casting doubt over the British economy. As it happens, the best climate for the speciality food sector is the beginning of a recession. People can’t afford a TV, but will treat themselves to nice food.
Amar, 67, has retirement in his sights, but still makes trips to Italy to see suppliers, while third-generation Robert is now in the business. “Family is important,” says Amar. “Expertise is passed from one generation to the next; with each, a new dimension is brought to the business. I’m the only one without a computer. My best-before date may be approaching but even so it’s difficult to give up something you’ve been passionate about your entire life.”

What are some of the concerns within the speciality food sector?
There is a worry that because supermarkets make more money from non food than food, they may rationalise their food offer.
It’s a worrying trend for the upper end of the market. It could be that we will see more jeans, DVDs and toasters at the expense of speciality foods.
However, once supermarkets stop surprising and delighting their customers, they will come to regret it.

Is there growth left in the market?
Olives, for example, may have become a more mainstream product, but the market is still growing at about 10 to 15% a year.
There’s still plenty of growth, especially in olives as a snack food, bags of olives or resealable pots. This area is developing fast and the supermarkets are right behind it.
Olives for children is definitely up ahead too. An increasing number of children like olives, so why not develop packs with Noddy on the front for their lunches?
There is no question that this is a burgeoning market.

Will the continued growth of supermarkets suffocate the independent delis?
Supermarkets have caught on to speciality food and seen that style as a way of tempting shoppers in.
But really good local retailers, such as Panzer’s in north London and Lewis & Cooper in Yorkshire, will never vanish.
Although supermarkets dominate the grocery business, these businesses are absolutely unsinkable.

How is the health of the speciality food sector?
We’re having to compete with large multinational companies such as Unilever and Princes. As a consequence, there have been some notable casualties in recent years, such as Food Brokers going to the wall. Times are more competitive than they have ever been.
If a product needs to be sourced abroad, then it is. But we don’t import anything that could be produced better in this country