Rami Ranger, CBE, is one of the UK’s most prominent Indian businessmen. His rise to success has been hard fought, as detailed in his at times brutally honest autobiography ‘From Nothing to Everything’. Born into a Sikh family in the Punjab during India’s violent partition with Pakistan he came to Britain in 1971 spending years working through management jobs and small businesses before hitting major success with his Sun Mark and Sea Air & Land forwarding businesses based in London. IndiaGBnews publisher Ben Pinnington went to meet him to discuss his origins and his views on business.
INDIAGB – You were born in the Punjab in 1947, which was probably one of the most dangerous places in the history of the world at that time. You were also born two months after the murder of your father, a leading peace campaigner. Can you tell us about your father and why he was such a passionate believer in one India?
RAMI – My father was a visionary. He could foretell the consequences of disharmony as he felt that one could not create a country just on the basis of religion. If religion had that much strength to hold people together, then Bangladesh would still be part of Pakistan. He said people often united for the wrong cause, just like the bank robbers, and once that objective was completed, they normally turned on each other.
INDIAGB: You are from a Sikh family but where were you based before partition?
RAMI – My father was from Rawalpindi and my mother was from Gujranwala but he was based in Multan. He was passionate that one country should be created we should – a united India free from rivalries. He believed that if something was created on the basis of hatred, then it would be very hard to remove that base. That’s why he said there would never be peace as one wrong would lead to many wrongs, so if Pakistan was to become friendly with India it would defeat the objective.
INDIAGB: Do you believe that a separate Pakistan was ever necessary?
RAMI: Not really. Because my father pleaded with the then Muslim leaders that India should be secular and democratic, one man one vote. Together we would l make our destiny – he said, “don’t cut and run “. Britain being an imperial power had ruled us only by dividing us. Now they wanted to divide and run by leaving a sting in the tail.
INDIAGB: Was your father was a politician?
RAMI: Yes, he knew that the game was up. He was a police inspector with the British police and received 29 commendations from them. At one time he was asked to open fire on unarmed protestors. He refused and left the police after which he left and became an activist. He realised the British wanted to divide people on the basis of religion.
INDIAGB: Which political party was he?
RAMI: The Sikh party, although he was secular. There was a small Sikh population in India and the British wanted to give the Sikhs a separate country. My, father opposed this and said we didn’t want to break up India. India was not a shop that could be divided between brothers, it was our motherland and no child would ever be happy after breaking up their mother. He was idealistic and wanted to make sure we remained as one nation because we have remained together as one for centuries. We had a common history, common traditions, common language, common food just different religions and that shouldn’t be a cause for us to divide ourselves. One fine morning he was in his court as a practising lawyer, he heard that a procession by Hindu school students against the partition of India had come under attack by religious fanatics and he went to save them. He was a marked man because he used to give a lot of speeches against partition and the crowd turned on him and he was assassinated. The school children was saved but he died for India – Hindu, Muslim unity. In addition, the situation in the country was getting worse because the British were offering people something for nothing on the basis of religion. In areas with Muslim majority, people were getting excited that this was their chance to take hold of property and possessions from the non-Muslims. Their actions became legitimate that this was their land and the others (non-Muslims) who were born and brought up there automatically became 2nd class citizens. My mother fled the area with all her children and we arrived on a train from Gujranwala to the new defined India. I was only two months old.
INDIAGB: A lot of people on those refugee trains were massacred.
RAMI: Massacred yes, totally. When we came, a train journey which normally took about 3 hours; took 3 days. A lot of people were on the trains which were attacked by looters but luckily we remained safe.
INDIAGB: And where did you arrive to?
RAMI: Patiala, a Princely State where the Maharajah had opened refugee camps for Sikhs.
INDIAGB: Your life really began in a refugee camp with your mother and seven siblings. Your mother must have been a very strong woman, how has she influenced your life?
RAMI: My mother was very intelligent. When people were collecting their worldly possessions, my mother was collecting my father’s certificates and press cuttings. She brought these with her and presented them to the chief minister in Patiala and explained that this is what her husband was and this is what she had been reduced to. She said she needed help. People were really impressed to see what my father had done and they allotted her a free house as a lot of Muslims had left India and their houses were empty. They asked her if she was educated and she said yes so they asked her to teach young children. With her new job as a teacher, she was determined never to give in or give up no matter what.
INDIAGB: She was already bringing up seven children, how did she find time to work?
RAMI: Luckily we all behaved ourselves when we realised that things were not how they used to be. My older brother was 14 years old and there was a two year age difference between each of us – so 12, 10 and so on. We all co-operated and worked hard to help our mother. We were all in a strange environment and we didn’t have time to be naughty. We studied and the Government also gave some allowance to my mother and with a great deal of financial hardship, she brought up eight of us. She instilled education, education, education in all of us and said we could starve but we could not stop studying, She was very strict. Luckily my brother at the age of 16 years sat a competition to join the army as an officer. It was a four year course and my brother realised to join the army was easier, if one was physically fit and had the right aptitude to succeed. This is how one after the other five of my brothers became commissioned officers. Then the second eldest who was not in the Army one got married and moved to east Africa. He married a British citizen and they decided to eventually move to the UK. He was in the UK when I completed my graduation and I persuaded my mother to send me to him to study Law. But when I arrived in London, it was a cultural shock to me. I imagined the roads to be paved with gold with money growing on trees. I had no idea. In addition, the laws had changed and people had to be resident for three years before they could qualify for a grant. I decided to make some money and return to India.
INDIAGB: You said it was a shock, why?
RAMI: I had seen the English movies with manicured garden, big cars, beautiful neighbours. When I arrived, everyone asked me if I had any job experience. I didn’t and so got a job as a car cleaner. One day on my way home from work I saw a sign – KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) opening soon, chef required. So I thought I would apply as at least I would be working indoors. I got the job at 35p an hour. I worked very hard and that’s where my education came in handy because I could count, do the paperwork, work the till and one day my manager left me in charge and the district manager came in and saw me with a customer doing a fantastic job. He was impressed and offered me a job as an assistant manager. From there I went on to become a manager in Brixton, which was a difficult area no one wanted to work in. I took charge of the Brixton store and made it the number one store in the company. They were so impressed that they made me a district manager, in charge of ten stores. I stayed with KFC for six years, after that, KFC began selling their shops and made me redundant. They offered me the shops but I said I was so fed up of chicken and didn’t want to do it. I then joined McCain, and after McCain, joined Curry’s. That’s where I discovered that people could move cargo – people used to buy TVs, microwaves, videos and computer and send them abroad.
INDIAGB: That’s a big leap, you had a young family at the time, you had a secure income, and you took the risk of starting your own business.
RAMI: A man is made of circumstance. My boss was a racist who ill-treated me even though I was the number one manager of Curry’s. He made my life hell. He would take my staff, patronise me and insult me. I was fed up. So I thought, enough is enough – I’m going to do my own thing and that was in 1978. I think this is why many Asian people started their own businesses. There is a proverb – when a bad employer doesn’t look after his staff, they go to work for the competition. In those days even the competition didn’t want us so we were left with one choice, to do our own thing and set up a shop – newspaper shop, grocery shop anything to avoid being treated like this.
INDIAGB: You’ve had nearly 40 years of being your own boss would you recommend it?
RAMI: I do. You see, for your ambition you have to take on a lot of pressure, a lot of abuse because you’re looking at the bigger picture and not the smaller things. If f you never try you will never know. So it’s always good to try and test your mettle and you can be successful if you get to know your subject in detail and are really a perfectionist. So that’s where I started.
INDIAGB: What have you learnt through the trials and tribulations of business?
RAMI: it’s like a game – you have to face challenges and find solutions for those challenges. Let’s say 100 people start a business, all will not be successful where some will be unsuccessful for reasons beyond their control. For example, if you open a shop or restaurant another guy can open next door to you and can take away your business.
INDIAGB: What do you really need to succeed in business?
RAMI: You need to have self-respect, to maintain it, work for it, and be respected by people. So need to make sure you don’t do anything where your self-respect is damaged. This way, you won’t cut corners and let people down. Work ethic is very important. Whenever you want to start a business, I always give people a suggestion, work for somebody else first. You know, learn to shoot while keeping the gun on somebody else’s shoulders and gain experience. That way, you’re testing your ability while working for someone else. If something goes wrong it’s not your neck on the line. So when I worked for other companies like Curry’s or KFC, I worked for them as if they were my own, to check my own potential. If I was not fit for a small job, then I wasn’t fit for a bigger job.
INDIAGB: So what made you think you did have that potential?
RAMI: Because I had confidence. With experience comes confidence. I had the experience of working for other people for 20 years. There’s no need to rush, one has to be in a position with confidence and the ability to take on whatever pressure to succeed. That’s what I would recommend. For example, if you want to be an engineer you work for an engineering firm for five or six years, there’s no rush. You need to build your foundations so strong to take the weight of the load that will come on top of you.
INDIAGB: How have you managed to stay strong through setbacks?
RAMI: The fact of the matter is, if you decide to cross rivers, you will get splashes of water. If you get into business, the key is that you never expand too fast, you never take un-necessary risks. You grow your business through your profits; people get in trouble through borrowing huge amounts of money without knowing whether they are going to be successful or not. They’re over confident. I grow with my profit, I don’t want to jump, and I want to walk before I can run.
INDIAGB: If you invest in a good business you’ll make money.
RAMI: Exactly. So there is no rush, you know nobody is after me that I will have to expand quickly. I have a very cautious approach to life.
INDIAGB: Even as an entrepreneur, you see yourself as cautious?
RAMI: I am ambitious, but not over ambitious. I cannot take chances with my livelihood, that of my family or my staff of 150 staff as well as a thousands of jobs in the supply chain.
INDIAGB: You own two businesses, Sun Mark and Sea Air Land Forwarding. Are they entirely separate or do they blend together?
RAMI: They are entirely separate entities. But 90pc of Sun Mark’s business is handled by Sea Air and Land, the reason being, it’s all about planning, deep thinking. If I subcontract my business to other shipping companies they will charge me more. My products will become uncompetitive. If my buying is right the selling is right, so my approach is not ‘I’m alright jack’. If my customer don’t succeed then I don’t succeed so I always look at the bigger picture. My customers are my soldiers – if I send them to Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria will they come back alive? Have I given them the right equipment to fight the competition? You have got to have that vital approach to life, you can’t just think about yourself.
INDIAGB: So Sea Air and Land Forwarding was your first company and that was freight forwarding. And then you went into food and drink?
RAMI: Sun Mark. Was a food and drink marketing Company. I saw a gap in the market for British products that are loved and sought after in overseas markets as their quality is superb. If you like British chocolate, you will not like any other chocolate in the world. Because British products still have that unique taste. People have grown up with Guinness and still love Guinness as they have acquired the taste over centuries. I saw that only wealthier people aboard could buy McVities, Heinz baked beans or other branded products. I realized that there’s a market for Mercedes but there’s also a market for Toyota. I realized that even though manufacturers spend an awful lot of money on marketing, advertising, distribution and sales in the UK these have little impact on consumers in places like Barbados, Trinidad or say Madagascar. So I decided to give them the same product under my brand. Business is all about mergers, acquisitions or strategic alliances, if you want to grow you have to merge or acquire a business or forge a strategic alliance. So I decided to opt for strategic alliances. I told my partners that individually we could not fight the competition but if we got together we could share our profits, our costs, but also double our strength. Poverty is the mother of invention
INDIAGB: So you started getting these well-known food manufacturers to make products for your own labels?
RAMI: Yes, but they give you a condition, that they will make you four or five containers at a time. You have to pay for packaging in advance.
INDIAGB: So how is it that it’s easier to sell your own brand product, than it is to sell a well-known brand overseas?
RAMI: Because my products are 40pc cheaper. Everyone cannot buy a Mercedes so they try the Toyota? So what is a brand? A brand is trust. Everything has logic, when people walk in the supermarket they pick up the brand they trust. They don’t have the time to work out what is what. I knew this and reasoned with myself. I told everybody talk to yourself not loudly but in your mind. Why should people buy my product? How can I sell it? And you will find a solution. So I said this is trust – if my Grandson was to come now, he would go straight to me, because he trusts me, he won’t go to someone else. However, if you are nice to that child, he will get confident with you, the same as a customer. When a mother first tries to feed her baby, he closes his mouth but then you force feed him to taste the food and the next time you offer the food, the baby will open his mouth, I thought I would use this logic – I will force feed my customers with free samples rather than use money on advertising . I would give free stock, let them build their taste and confidence as once people have tried a product they are less nervous. So that’s how I built up my business – slowly and steadily.
INDIAGB: It’s a very simple way of doing it but clearly others weren’t doing it. Was this the big bang moment for your business?
RAMI: Yes, suddenly I was having two bites of the cherry, I was selling McVities and I was selling my own brand Royalty which was 40% cheaper. It sold because it was a British product and people aspire to British brands. I’ve copied this from supermarkets, their own brands alongside branded goods. But they sell cheap products as their brand names are value brands which I feel patronise people. So I said I’m not going to do that and I also realised, that people have an acquired taste. I decided not give them something they were not used to because I was dealing with an overseas market. So I wanted to make sure, when they ate my biscuits, they could not tell the difference. Initially, a lot of food manufacturers did not want to make my product but when they realized that my market was overseas and they would not be competing with me, they were happy. . I was also offering them a massive additional income which they would never have had, if I had not promoted their products overseas through my brands like Royalty with the Union Jack, Golden Country, English Breeze. People abroad instantly know the British quality and my brands make people feel good.
INDIAGB: And it’s still cheaper.
RAMI: 40pc cheaper. People must get more than what they bargain for.
INDIAGB: How do you get into these new markets and which are the growth markets for you?
RAMI: Let’s think, where will I find my customers? Hidden talent is no talent. If you have talent, you have to tell the world. Also what benefit can you can bring to the table. So the best way to bring a new customer or strategic partner is to advertise and exhibit at trade shows. We advertise throughout the world from Brazil to China, from Russia to Turkey.
INDIAGB: Who are your target customers? Presumably you are selling to a supermarket chain or wholesaler.
RAMI: Yes. My target customers are those who like quality and taste because we are not that cheap – there is always someone who is cheaper. People want quality, taste and value for money. We appoint a distributer for a country who distributes to various shops. We operate in 130 countries and local knowledge is paramount to understand the customs and customers. My mantra is to keep a lean machine. I work through distributers, I keep myself very lean and if the distributor is not doing a good job I change him. However, if I start employing my own staff and opening offices everywhere, I will have to double my prices and overheads.
INDIAGB: Where are your prime markets, do you sell in the UK?
RAMI: Very little. Bulldog energy drink is the only one we do in the UK. Countries which we are very big in are West Africa, East Africa, South Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. We still have to capture Europe.
INDIAGB: Why is that?
RAMI: Because Europe has its own products. Customers have their own unique tastes. When you go for an exam you deal with the easy question first. So, why should I go to Germany which has its own tastes with a different language? I will first go to English speaking countries in the Commonwealth – Canada and the USA too are very big as is Australia, New Zealand. We export to 135 countries.
INDIAGB: It’s almost like a blue print for the UK, post Brexit…
RAMI: I was for remain, but now Brexit has happened I’m very excited. You know when one door closes another opens. In 1991 Nigeria was my biggest market and I never looked at any other market. Then there was an attempted coup and my business came to a standstill, I was almost going to go bankrupt and then I started to look at other markets.
INDIAGB – What the whole business was at risk?
RAMI: Yes. The whole business. It was a huge shock to me and I put this property on sale and I sold my stock below cost just to pay the mortgage. So now that Brexit has happened, we are looking elsewhere. Australia has come forward and if we have agreements with USA, Japan, America, Canada, India and China, it will be great as the economies are not even growing in Europe and on top of that they have no control over their borders. Our economy is growing, we speak English, everyone wants to come here. The English language is very important, people feel at home, our population has grown from 65 to 70 million. But we also need to now find accommodation for five million people, the NHS has to cope with this as people are living longer, and we have to find public services and schools to accommodate the bigger population. Britain has a limit, wages are going down because people are willing to work for half the price and people are being exploited. But the Europeans cannot afford to upset the UK because we are net importers. Look at the amount of Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Porsches the UK buys. French champagne, wine is drunk here, perfume and European fashion is bought here. We already have a market, a connection with the Commonwealth. I spoke to someone from New Zealand and they said they were doing big business before the UK joined the EU. Remember Anchor butter and New Zealand lamb? Because of the EU, New Zealand was left out in the cold. I think we can go back to our tried and tested allies with whom we have a relationship – the Commonwealth, for example India – we fought together in two World Wars, we have a shared history together.
India is no stranger to Britain. Britain ruled India for 200 years. All institutions in India are based on the British systems. The English language is spoken widely, there is no fear there will be a coup and India is a stable country.
For further information on Rami’s products and businesses visit: www.sunmark.co.uk
To buy Rami’s autobiography: https://harriman-house.com/from-nothing-to-everything
Follow Rami on Twitter: @RamiRanger