How three brothers from Bangladesh set up business in the UK and conquered the seas

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Iqbal Ahmed OBE is Chairman of Seamark, which imports, processes and distributes frozen seafood and poultry. Born in Bangladesh, Iqbal moved to the UK in the 1970s with his brothers and business partners, Kamal and Bilal. We spoke to him about how he grew the business into a US$198m worldwide operation.

How has Seamark developed?

We’ve grown from a small family business distributing seafood into a multinational company with an offshoot, IBCO (Iqbal Bros & Co.), specializing in dry foods, frozen fruit, vegetables and finger foods.
When we started, there was a big influx of Bangladeshi families into the UK, so we were supported by large demand from Bangladeshi restaurants and the Bangladeshi community.

We built a new processing plant and imported raw seafood materials from the FarEast, India and Bangladesh, then exported to European countries. When the EU came together, we took advantage of the single currency.

What have been Seamark’s most significant challenges?

We’ve had to confront competition. When other countries — such as Indonesia and China — realized we were buying produce from their localities and processing and selling it here, they started copying us.

Customers feel more comfortable buying a product direct from its country of origin. To satisfy demand, we launched operations in Asia. We’ve built factories in Bangladesh and arranged a partnership so companies there can only process for us under our label, specification and guidance.

I get good results from my workforce by showing my presence”

We also found the European Union was nervous about buying products from an Asian business, so we employed local agents in countries like Belgium and Italy to sell our products, which made trading a much smoother process.

How does Seamark operate as a family business?

As Chairman, I regard Kamal — in charge of exports — and Bilal — Sales Director — primarily as my brothers and secondly as my business partners.

We make decisions in our individual departments. It works well. But it has to be disciplined, and there must be a good management team surrounding you — ideally people outside the family.
How do you devolve strategy and management across multiple locations around the world?

Without our UK operations and infrastructure, there would be no Seamark around the world. Bangladesh also plays an integral role in what we do. Its national dish is fish and rice, and shrimp is one of its -farmed commodities. We’ve bought several companies there and have numerous fleets of fishing trawlers, hatcheries and factories to supply global demand.

I visit Bangladesh frequently to keep an eye on quality control, customer engagement and our strategic development. As head of the company, it’s good to be hands on.

What was your vision for setting up the luxury restaurant and bar Vermilion and Cinnabar?

We wanted to create more publicity. Establishing a highend restaurant and bar was ambitious, and we spent a lot of money, but it has really helped position the brand and showcase our produce.

How has the recession affected Seamark and how do you see it growing from here?

Seafood is a luxury product not everybody can afford. If there’s a recession, quite simply fewer people will be eating shrimp. We have remained stable because we have not overstretched ourselves. We want steady growth at a sensible rate and we want our children to be educated about the business, so they can take it forward.

We continue to look for new markets — for example, the 10,000 square foot distribution and cold storage plant in Brooklyn, New York, is now a hub serving our network across the US and Canada. Growth is possible during uncertain times — it just takes a different approach.

What drives you as an entrepreneur?

Being a successful entrepreneur relies on your dedication. You have to plan your own dreams. The world is competitive: as soon as somebody copies you, you have to innovate to stay ahead. It’s a challenge, but if you do it properly, the rewards of hard work speak for themselves.