It's a fitting moniker for the managing director of G Costa & Co whose main business is making the burgeoning Blue Dragon ethnic food brand. The firm is also a distributor for a raft of foreign labels ­ Tabasco, French's mustard, Krisprolls and Skippy peanut butter are those most familiar to British consumers, but Barlow's on a mission to get even more on their shopping lists. You might not know the Asian Hello Panda biscuits, but if he has his way, you soon will. Costa's plants at Keddie Saucemasters and Zest Foods make supermarket own label products for the likes of Sainsbury and Asda as well as half the Blue Dragon branded products. The remainder is sourced from Asia. However, Barlow says the trend is towards branded ethnic food rather than own label. "People like to see oriental foods as authentic." As if to prove the point, turnover from Blue Dragon makes up half the firm's business and is growing at nearly 19%. The brand is set to spawn new products this year and is currently being re-packaged along with a re-launched web site to make it more consumer friendly. Blue Dragon is already exported into more than 50 countries and the plan is to target South America next. Meanwhile, its biggest market is Scandinavia. "I think they had fairly uninteresting food," Barlow notes wryly. Established in 1879, G Costa works in partnership with suppliers to source products for retail and foodservice markets worldwide. The firm has had many major brands through its stables over the years, such as Knorr and Amoy, and breaking away from the latter was one of the best things Costa ever did, according to Barlow. It had been the distribution agent for Amoy to the independent trade, but decided to set up its own brand, and the rest, as they say, is history. Another good decision was to organise a management buy-out with four colleagues a few years back. Turnover is now up to £52m and with his 27% share, Barlow smiles when he says: "There's a lot of incentive to do well. But seriously, the whole experience of doing this and working together has been a good one and it's worked because we've got very clear responsibilities." Although it also has an office in Bangkok which exports from the Far East around the world, he and his colleagues often journey to the region for inspiration and, fresh from his most recent venture there, Barlow's hot tip for the future is the spice, tamarind, while he believes Japanese food has the greatest potential for development. The success of ethnic food is due not only to British consumers eating out and travelling more, but through food like rice noodles which are proving popular with people who suffer from allergies ­ something the firm plans to build on by printing the relevant information about allergies on its labels. Barlow acknowledges that it's usually younger people who like ethnic food, but he believes older people can get stuck in too. On his last trip he spent time encouraging a group of pensioners in Chang Mai to sample the delights of the brand. And the trend towards ready meals doesn't bother Barlow, as it might some manufacturing companies. He reckons consumers are using Costa's other condiments such as Tabasco to liven up Pot Noodles and French's mustard in shop-bought sandwiches. The firm focuses on speciality foods and although it tends to focus on independents and multiples, foodservice is becoming its biggest growth area ­ airline catering for example is a particularly up and coming. Barlow likes working with "progressive independents who are interested in speciality foods" but he's also building up the business with wholesalers such as Costcutter, Londis and Spar, as well as ethnic shops. However, independent stores are something Barlow knows pretty intimately, because his father ran a small grocery shop in Kettering and both his grandfathers were grocers. As a child, he often helped out in the store and made deliveries for pocket money, and his first memory was wrapping sugar into paper bags. He also worked in food factories during the holidays and was delivering bread at the age of 12. But instead of following in the family footsteps, Barlow opted for a career in banking when he was 16 because he says simply, he was good at maths and he'd seen how hard his father worked in a store and decided retail wasn't for him. The bank proved a good starting point but Barlow soon grew impatient at the thought he'd have to wait until he was 40 to become a manager, even of a rural branch. He decided to write off to food companies and was taken on by Costa, which was then based in Peckham. "It was the swinging 60s but they passed Peckham by," he remarks ruefully. Barlow began as a trainee at the age of 18 ­ "just a trainee, no particular area, because I was the first one they'd ever had" ­ but he worked mainly in customer service and quality control. Then came promotion and 10 years as a salesman, which he really enjoyed, before moving up the ranks to area manager, sales director and finally managing director, a post he's held for 10 years. Despite the fact he hasn't changed jobs that much, he says the work is made varied and interesting through dealing with different cultures around the world. He spends about 20% of his time globe-trotting. "I love travel and food ­ it's a great job description ­ and real stimulation. It's not just a question of sitting behind a desk ­ the environment changes and people change. I've never had a boring day." Being md means that Barlow can concentrate on the bigger picture and "getting out of the comfort zone". He explains: "I see my job as working on growth projects. The business needs control but it also needs to grow and to get that you need new ideas and thinking and that's what I work for. I'm not bogged down in routine ­ I don't see that as the role of a managing director. "I like the detail of the business as well as painting with broader brush strokes for the future. I hope people are motivated and enjoy working here. We've always got new people joining but not to the extent it causes disruption." He says he has an open door policy for staff and wants people to speak their mind­ he confesses that there are arguments over whether they should do three-minute or four-minute noodles. And he's also keen to encourage staff by including them on the Far Eastern visits. Barlow's clearly doing something right because the company's so confident it's looking to double business in the next three years, partly through acquisitions ­ companies with a proven record of developing "interesting international things". He may have had a conventional career but his private life has been less so. He and his wife divorced after 20 years and Barlow brought up his two sons, then 12 and 15, which meant life as a single parent. "The kids would say I just did ready meals for them, but I have always liked cooking." Now grown up, his youngest son Robin works for the company as a national account manager for Waitrose and Safeway, while the other, Jon, works as a freelance photographer. "I very much enjoy working with Robin and I get a kick out of someone saying oh, you're Robin's father', rather than the other way round, because he's his own person." He's proud of his son and talks warmly about his successes, but he's keen to stress that it's not a family business and that Robin's there on his own merit. However, family is obviously important to Barlow who talks a lot about his parents, visits his mother often, and admits proudly that brother Stephen owns Euro Food Brands. Barlow is also proud of his younger sibling. "He's done well. We don't compete though." They might discuss the occasional business issue but generally steer clear of it. "We're good friends. There's a lot else to talk about." Home in Chislehurst is a manageable half hour's drive away from the firm's base on an Aylesford industrial estate and although he doesn't do a 9am-5pm day ­ it's clear Barlow hasn't got the manic worth ethic of some industry bosses. He admits to working intensely while in the office, but is generally finished by 6pm when he likes to go off for a game of tennis. A trim and tanned 55-year-old, who normally walks to the local Sainsbury to get a sandwich for lunch, he occasionally takes on other staff members at table tennis after lunch. "I don't win though," he admits. Looking and feeling good is important to Barlow who confesses to be an un-fussy eater and says that Japanese food is probably his favourite, "for health reasons". But he likes his food so much that over lunch, he's a lot keener to finish eating than talk. "When we were in Shanghai we ate raw lobster ­ you have to enter the spirit of things and be adventurous. I've been to occasions where I'm given things I don't recognise, but I'll always give it a try." But for all his careful dietary intentions he puts a huge amount of sugar in his coffee and looks sheepish when it's pointed out. How sweet. n {{PROFILE }}