“You have got to be an ambassador in business”

Posted on Posted in News

I went to see Shahid Sheikh for a quick cup of tea and we ended up talking for four straight hours.

I heard the story of a remarkable family which fled oppression in Uganda, arrived in a new country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and which built up a business that would redesign the way day-to-day products are packaged.

And last month, Clifton Packaging was named Company of the Year at the Leicester Mercury Business Awards.

It is also the story of a dedicated family man who, while making a success in business, has also made a success of his own life.

He is a past chairman of the Leicestershire Institute of Directors, a board member and cultural ambassador to Leicestershire County Cricket Club, has an OBE, and is someone who has been named as one of the most influential Pakistanis in Britain.

If that wasn't enough, he has a sports management business – among others – and chairs a charity set up by cricket hero Shahid Afridi to help build medical facilities in remote villages in Pakistan.

And that's only half the story.

When we met, he was jet lagged from a trip to Las Vegas after helping to promote the WBC middleweight title between Bolton's Amir Khan and Mexican superstar Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez.

Stating the obvious, Shahid said: "I'm involved in quite a few businesses away from Clifton.

"One is called Sports Corporation in partnership with Amir's uncle, which sells tickets for sports in general but mainly for boxing.

"It's a hobby business but handles all the sales for Amir's fights in the UK – the more tickets are sold, the more comes back to Amir, and it gives more direct access to UK fans.

"Amir set the standard in Vegas by fighting someone two weights above him, and although he lost he has come away a hero."

Shahid is a very young-looking 48 – something that is all the more remarkable considering he seemed older when he used to sport a full head of hair and a moustache.

Clifton Packaging Group, established 1981

The dad-of-three from Oadby is the managing director of Clifton Packaging in Meridian Business Park, just outside Leicester, running the business with brothers Zed and Tahir and Shane D-Souza and Jay Lakhani.

A fourth brother, Khalid Sheikh, died two years ago aged 56.

The family arrived in Britain more than 40 years ago, a "classic Ugandan success story, kicked out with nothing," he said.

Their father was from India, their mum – who passed away in 1972 – was from Pakistan.

They lived off King Richards Road, then moved to Highfields, then Northfields.

Their father ran a fabrics business, selling Asian clothes out of a suitcase in cities such as London and Manchester.

Along the way, Shahid admits he "went off the rails", going from "typical geek" to falling into bad company and leaving school with no qualifications.

For him thankfully, it wasn't the end of the world and he now visits schools and colleges and shares his experiences with the next generation of business leaders.

He said: "Nobody helped me on my journey, and if they had I would have been where I am now 10 years earlier."

Two of the brothers, Khalid and Zed, set up Clifton Packaging in 1981, and began selling carrier bags in London.

Two years later, they moved to Leicester and bought a one colour printing machine.

It really was a backroom operation, "like being in a prison with no window", but by 1985 they had moved to their second factory.

Even before dropping out of Mundella School, Shahid was involved in the business as the brothers worked seven days a week to make it a success.

The work was repetitive and dull, but it was a case of survival.

"We had to do it," he said. "There was no choice."

From a 1,000 sq ft factory they moved to a 2,200 sq ft factory in Copdale Road, on the eastern side of the city.

They were still supplying bags, then fell into contract packaging, and in 1989 moved to a 7,000 sq ft factory in Elizabeth Street, where they installed a 45-year-old, eight-colour printing machine.

It was old, but did the job.

They moved again in 1996, and by the time of their next relocation in 2000, they were manufacturing stand-up pouches and re-sealable packages.

The big break came in 2001 when Burton Biscuits called upon them to make re-sealable, four-sided, stand-up packs for their Jammie Dodgers.

The contract, which lasted three years, was a big catalyst for growth and helped the business come of age.

Clifton moved to its current, modern premises on a five-acre site in Meridian Business Park, in 2004, following a £3 million investment.

Today it designs, develops and makes every conceivable plastic, flexible packaging you could think of.

From squeezable, stand-up baby food pouches, to pourable cooking mix pouches for Renshaw, from crisp packets for Cofresh to shaped kids' treat packs.

It also makes anti-bacterial protective films for fresh meat, huge family bags for rice, and more recently came up with a pouch for Sab Miller's Hopcraft beer – which slots into a beer pump and adds the taste of fresh hops to your pint.

The business grew turnover to £18.5 million in the last calendar year, up a third on the £13.5 million a year earlier. This year it will top £20 million.

There are more than 80 staff, with plans to take on more.Shahid said: "Two years ago we were at £10 million and I said within five years I wanted it to be £30 million.

"We are on target for that with the investment and better focus on customer reach.

"We're the only manufacturer like this in Leicestershire, but there's huge competition in the UK and globally.

"We had the option to start outsourcing, but invested more during the recession than ever before, and we've got more investment lined up. We are talking to developers about land availability.

"There isn't a supermarket in the UK that doesn't have our products, and all our sales are from word-of-mouth.

"We are in the Champions League of packaging."

Despite that, Shahid said he took nothing for granted, including collecting the Mercury's Company of the Year Award last month.

Clifton Packaging Group, established 1981

He said: "It's not fair to say you should expect to win something like that, because every finalist is a winner in their own right.

"But for us it was a brilliant accolade because this year marks our 35th anniversary.

"There are a lot of good solid businesses in Leicester and the ethnicity here is so diverse, and those businesses just grow from strength-to-strength.

"I've lived here all my life and have no desire to go anywhere else.

"To get this sort of recognition is ultimately what it's all about.

"We were totally deflated last year when we were nominated but didn't win – that was our record growth year and we knew we had a lot more to tell people.

"We are one of the fastest-growing flexible packaging businesses in the UK.

"This year is the year that I want to be targeting Europe and Africa. We already have customer bases there, but want to build on that."

Shahid loves the diversity in the city and the entrepreneurial spirit among its Asian and other communities and is happy to share his experience and help others.

He said: "I was the first Asian board member at the county cricket club in 2010 and the first Asian chairman of the IoD in Leicestershire.

"Take Leicester City winning the Premier League. It's really brought people together. In all the excitement nobody noticed each other's race, religion or colour.

"I'm passionate about cultural issues.

"As an employer I'm the very definition of multi-cultural. I remember being poor, having holes in my shoes. That's why I'm humble, because I remember my past.

"People think I'm a flash in the pan, but I feel I have made a continuous contribution to the city over many years, winning awards, working with schools and giving my time to anyone, anywhere for anything.

"The most pride I ever had was when I got the letter through the door saying I had been given an OBE.

"I had a mission to achieve. To lead.

"You have got to be an ambassador. You have got to contribute to everyone's betterment."