By: Eastern Eye Staff
The dress code was ‘Black Tie with a hint of Ruby’ – and why not, because the Bestway group, started by Sir Anwar Pervez with its first cash & carry warehouse in Acton in west London in 1976, last week celebrated its 40th birthday.
To mark “this very special occasion”, about 1,000 guests were invited to a champagne reception and gourmet dinner last Wednesday (16) at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane.
Before the longest-serving employees were given awards and comedian Dara O’Briain entertained guests with his risqué brand of humour, Bestway’s chief executive Zameer Choudrey gave a sort of “state of the nation” address explaining the reasons for the group’s remarkable success.
Having started with cash & carry, it had diversified into cement and banking, mostly in Pakistan, and into pharmacy in the UK.
The company religiously sets aside a proportion of its profits – zakat – for good causes.
Choudrey pointed out: “Each year we contribute 2.5 per cent of our annual profits to charitable causes in education and health, helping those less fortunate and providing a platform to enable individuals to be the best they can be.
“Last year, we set up a fund of £1.8 million which will provide scholarships to two graduate students from Pakistan every year to study at Oxford in perpetuity,” he went on.
“Last month we renewed our arrangement with University of Bradford for another five years and signed a similar agreement with University of Kent. We have created a fund of £1m which will provide 10 scholarships every year to Pakistani graduate students to study at these universities.”
Choudrey ended his speech with a joke but perhaps he was making the serious point that the company had studiously stayed clear of politics – and religion.
This was the joke he told: “One day at a school in London, a teacher said to a class of five-year-olds, ‘I will give £25 to the child who can tell me who was the most famous man who ever lived.’
“An Irish boy put his hand up and said, ‘It was St Patrick, the founder of Ireland.’ The teacher said, ‘Sorry Shaun, that is not correct.’
“Then a Scottish boy put his hand up and said, ‘It was St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.’ The teacher replied, ‘I am sorry, Hamish, that is not right either.’
“Finally, a Pakistani boy raised his hand and said, ‘It was Jesus Christ.’ The teacher said, ‘That is absolutely right, Ahmed. Come up here and I will give you the £25.’
“As the teacher gave Ahmed his money, she said, ‘You know Ahmed, since you are a Pakistani, I was very surprised you said Jesus Christ.’
“Ahmed replied, ‘Yes miss, in my heart I knew it was Mohammed, but business is business!’”
It was hard to tell how many got the deeper significance of the joke, but it certainly went down well with guests.
Choudrey received a CBE from Prince Charles in February this year for philanthropy and “his contributions to advancing Britain through his services to the UK wholesale industry”.
In its financial results for the year ended June 30, 2015, the group’s annual turnover increased by 20 per cent to £3.06 billion from £2.55bn in 2014. Profit before tax for the same period was up 39.9 per cent to £373.8 million from £267.1m the previous year.
Paying tribute to chairman Sir Anwar, Choudrey said: “It is incredible to think how far we have come when you go back to the beginning – when Sir Anwar, with several stores to his name, had the foresight to open the group’s first cash & carry in Acton.
“I am proud to be at the helm of the business which is now the seventh largest family-owned business in the UK,” he went on. “Having built up a group that consists of significant business interests in wholesale, cement, banking and healthcare, the last 40 years have led to Bestway becoming a real powerhouse.”
“As history goes, one cash & carry depot turned into two,” he said. “And then into three. And before long we found ourselves with an estate of 64 depots. Today we stand as the second largest independent wholesaler in the UK.”
He made an important point: “In wholesale, we have provided employment opportunities in economically deprived areas in the UK. The bold step made by Sir Anwar 40 years ago set the tone for Bestway Group and bold steps have become a feature of our business ever since.”
For instance, “our knowledge of the cement business would not have filled a pothole, but we saw the fundamentals of the cement sector in Pakistan and went about setting up a plant in Hattar in 1995. Again, one plant turned into two, then into three. We now find ourselves as the largest cement manufacturer in Pakistan with annual capacity of eight million tonnes.”
It was the same with banking: “We were not a stalwart in the banking arena but we saw an opportunity in the banking sector in Pakistan and invested in UBL in 2002.
“United Bank Ltd is now the second largest private bank in Pakistan with over 1,400 branches spanning four continents.
“Our experience in healthcare too was limited,” Choudrey continued. “However, we won the tender to acquire the Co-op Pharmacy group in 2014 despite being outbid by other major high-street healthcare companies. The rebranded Well Pharmacy is the third largest pharmacy chain with 800 branches across the UK.”
He summed up: “It has been a privilege to oversee the transition from a small retail outlet to a group with investments in four distinct sectors that provide employment to more than 34,000 people worldwide.”