Asghar Ali

The CEO of MyLahore, the innovative and expanding fusion food brand, and Smart Moves Group, the property management company, studied GNVQ Business at College during the early 1990s.

Although very bright, Asghar had a disappointing performance in his GCSEs, and so he came to College to study GNVQ Business, before returning to school to take the BTEC Diploma. He then achieved a BA (Hons) Business Studies degree specialising in Marketing at Leicester University, followed by an MBA. His studies, combined with the practical work experience and ethic of hard work gained from an early age, undoubtedly accelerated his career. Asghar recalled, “My father had me really busy in the restaurant and newsagent shop but he always advocated education. I worked in the newsagents from the age of eleven and, from the age of thirteen, I helped out in the restaurant at the weekend.  I grew up in a business working environment and then entered an academic environment. University was an opportunity to let my hair down for a couple of years, but I realised the edge I could gain and I consciously decided to do an MBA. I didn’t just come back and walk into the business. My dad made me earn the money myself.”
 
Asghar spent two years working as a mortgage advisor for Barclays in Leeds, saving his salary by living in the family home.  He raised enough money to take on the restaurant in partnership with his cousin, Shakoor Ahmed, now MD of Lahore. Asghar and Shakoor worked to make Lahore into a café, which was well received, although Asghar’s primary focus was Smart Moves, another business he set up simultaneously. While working for the bank, Asghar also managed his father’s properties and he spotted a gap in the rental market. Leeds had specific agencies managing apartments, although there were only traditional letting agencies in Bradford. Asghar’s in-depth knowledge of managing landlords and properties meant that when he pitched to developers, they all gave him their apartment buildings to let and the company was soon managing 500 units.  Asghar later decided that he wanted to concentrate on developing the food business and so he brought in a partner for Smart Moves.
 
The market was saturated with city centre apartments and a family bereavement that prompted Asghar to re-evaluate his work-life balance. He explained, “We grew up as part of new generation. Our parents worked around the clock and although we were always around them, they lost a lot of their time with their children. I have four children, and when my father passed away five years ago, it made me reflect on what I wanted to do.  My father micro-managed and he was behind the shop counter morning and night. That is not my way. Unlike my father, I am not in the restaurants from day to day, so I can see them from an outside perspective. My character is relaxed and laid-back and I like to delegate and build. I am quite creative with a sense of conviction. I have had my challenges but it is how you manage it. I am a great believer in enjoying what you do rather than having a set target. I never had a premeditated plan but expansion came from taking opportunities when they arose. It is a combination of all experiences; expertise in industry, daring ideas and never being shy to spend money on improvements.”
 
Asghar continued, “The business has evolved. We are now manufacturing all our own food. I used to tease my wife, who was British-born, that I should have ‘married a Pakistani girl’ but then my wife did a baking course and started making cakes. Cream delight and chocolate gateau made by wife in kitchen at home drew an unbelievable reaction from customers. Demand meant that she soon outgrew the kitchen, and led to Lahore producing all our own food in Bradford. This entailed taking on more staff to prepare food and with further expansion numbers continue to increase. From having three members of staff when he began, by March 2014 Asghar employed 300 staff in group with two branches in Bradford, one in Manchester and one in Leeds. The Bradford restaurants is expanding into neighbouring premises and there are plans to open in Birmingham and Leicester. “I kept the Lahore name as it is a wonderful, eclectic city with amazing food and a buzz, but I made it MyLahore as our concept is ‘love food, live Lahore’.”
 
Asghar’s philosophy of regarding the business from a customer perspective derived from his hero Steve Job’s maxim of focussing on what customers would love. He explained, “It is good business where everyone walks away having had a good experience and is pleasantly shocked at the bill. Our concept is not just about an occasional restaurant visit -  mylahore is about a lifestyle, quality eating, relaxed environment, fulfilling experiences, repeat business and daily custom. We also run boardroom catering and home delivery, making MyLahore very accessible, but quality. Right at the start I wanted it to be a national chain. I had the idea that no one in Asian food service provided a one-stop shop. Food competition is so tough and therefore food would have to be good. I always found that food elsewhere to be very poor quality compared to Bradford.  I have always rated the food places in Bradford and the city has lots of good food places that I respect. I wanted to compete with the best.” 
 
Despite studying marketing, Asghar has shunned conventional advertising campaigns and achieved a formidable reputation by allowing customers to spread the word about the business. When he opened a 150-seater restaurant in Manchester, he did no advertising but word of mouth generated such excitement that during the first week of trading, he was still met with a 90 minute wait every night and a queue outside. He said, “My mantra is to under promise and over achieve. I always tried to undersell and then people go away and cannot believe how good it is, and tell everyone.“
 
Asghar is passionate about helping others, who haven’t had his advantages, to access opportunities. He is an articulate advocate for Bradford and an inspirational role model for socially responsible and aspiring entrepreneurs, investing in local people and communities. The company arranges social events for the staff and their families and also supports charities and organisations in the community. Asghar said, “My parents came over from Pakistan and we were the first generation born in the UK. I am very hard working, but if my father hadn’t emigrated, and equipped me with a degree and MBA, I would not have been in this position. I am very grateful to the UK for giving my father that opportunity. I grew up in an environment where my parents always kept me busy and told me to work hard and not to waste my time. I can instil these values into three hundred people and their families. We have an internal training programme within the company where staff are continuously learning and improving. It is a unique concept in the industry. I employ staff locally with minimal qualifications and create a sense of unity and motivation in the working environment.  I have staff that started working on dishes who are now managing restaurants.”