Name: Rob Amar
Place of birth: Amersham
Family: Married with four-year-old daughter Sofia
Career highlight: Becoming MD. “Few people get the chance to run an established £50m business at 34. It gives me the chance to defy the myth about the third generation in family businesses!”
Career lowlight: Not getting a job straight out of university. “I thought with a good degree I could get a job in days.”
Best piece of advice: “Start with why. It’s all about explaining to people why you or they are doing something, not just what and how, and that’s the way to properly engage with people.”
Hobbies: “Arsenal season ticket holder, play cricket for local village, golf, skiing, travel, cooking and slightly unhealthy amounts of Sky Sports.”
Favourite meal: “If I had to choose it would be curry with a real ale.”
What book are you reading: “Just finished The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters. Everyone has the computer part of the brain and ‘the chimp’, which is a lot more powerful, has all the emotions. It’s about controlling your emotional response to situations. It’s a book to make you happier and get on better with people.”
Favourite film: “Now, have I watched any movies that aren’t Frozen in the last year? Withnail and I.”
Rob Amar has always had an appetite for fine foods. So despite a spell working in technology after completing a degree in modern languages, the MD of RH Amar admits it was inevitable he would end up at the family firm to continue the mission his grandfather, Raoul Amar, started when he borrowed £2,000 to start up the business in 1945.
“I had a magnet pulling me back here,” he explains. “It was always part of my life. I remember when my dad came back from business trips he would bring home exotic samples, and I worked here during my school holidays, and as a student.”
Amar joined full time in 2001 as a marketing manager, but when promotion to MD came in 2010 it was at the height of the recession, and the curse of the third generation loomed large for the importer and distributor of premium products.
Fortunately for Amar, the economic crisis proved to be a blessing rather than a curse for the premium end of the grocery market. “People stopped eating out and started treated themselves at home,” he says, meaning more cash for the snacking olives, fancy chutneys, and “best Greek olive oil” stacked high in Amar’s High Wycombe warehouse.
Premium tagline aside, value for the consumer is still uppermost in Amar’s mind and he believes “great food doesn’t have to be expensive”. Which perhaps explains why RH Amar has found itself an unlikely bedfellow in Aldi, another success story of the recession. The firm has been working with Aldi for “a long time” to supply own-label products, plus special pack sizes and one-off promotions.
“Selling primarily premium brands hasn’t always leant itself to the discount channel,” Amar admits. “But in the last few years they have put a lot more focus on quality. The discounters are a bit like us 50, or 60 years ago. They’re more into trading; they buy products and they sell products, they have a simpler model.”
It’s hard to know what his grandfather might have made of appearing on the shelves of a discounter, but for the newest Amar boss it’s all part of an ongoing evolution of the company.
Since his arrival Amar has sought to broaden the company’s horizons and move away from working with purely imported products to include more UK-based brands like Ella’s Kitchen and Nando’s.
“Premium hasn’t always leant itself to the discounters, but in the past few years they have put a lot more focus on quality”
A “more flexible approach” to customer relationships has also seen RH Amar offer services including logistics, marketing, and category management. And the company has gone from doing 70% of its business with the multiples to 40% after building new relationships in wholesale and cash & carry.
As much as it’s evolving, it’s not ignoring its roots in Mediterranean classics. The first SKU the company got listed in a large retailer was a 100ml tin of Filippo Berio olive oil in Sainsbury’s in 1983, when the “only place you could buy it was in Boots”.
It’s a category RH Amar has since watched balloon from nothing to a market verging on £200m. The company was also the first to import olives into the UK “in a serious way,” and these remain a core part of the business, with tubs of potential new lines stacked on the MD’s shelves.
“We were a significant contributor to the growth of the Mediterranean diet in the UK,” says Amar. And he’s convinced there is “plenty more opportunity” in promoting olives as an alternative healthy snack to build on household penetration of only about 20%.
A taste of the Mediterranean continues to feature firmly in RH Amar’s game plan, but it has now expanded these horizons with brands from 25 countries, including Schwartz, Kikkoman, and Starbucks.
In fact, the firm is now working with roughly 1,200 products, across 40 brands. In 2014 it bought the rights to Mary Berry branded salad dressings, in a deal worth over £1m, and brought Italy’s top-selling chopped tomato brand Mutti to UK shores.
The new strategy seems to be paying off, with an annual turnover of £55m last year, and sales up 4.5%.
Amar credits his success to father Henry, who remains non-executive chairman. “A lot of what I know and love is down to him,” he says. “Whether that’s being passionate about olives, being an Arsenal season ticket holder, or the business.”
In similar fashion, he believes this continuity of the family-run operation, celebrating 70 years in 2015, has been a huge advantage in building relationships with brands like Crespo Olives, a 60-year partnership.
And his “main objective” for the next 60 is to keep adding value for customers and suppliers. “As long as we do that I think they will continue to want to work with us,” he says. “And the business will be healthy.”