Dr. Jason Wouhra OBE, CEO – Lioncroft Wholesale
Article by Keerat Rai
Interview by Ninder Johal
Throughout his career, Dr. Jason Wouhra OBE has accumulated almost too many titles and accomplishments to count. These include an honorary doctorate, Chair of the West Midlands India Partnership, Governing Council of Aston University and President of the Asian Business Chamber.
However most people who are familiar with Jason will recognise him as the CEO of Lioncroft (formerly known as East End Foods). East End Foods was formed by Jason’s father and his four brothers in the late 1960s and remained a large and recognisable brand for a staggering 50 years.
In 2019, the company was sold to a Private Equity company but less a year later, Jason remarkably decided to buy back the wholesaling division. The Business Influencer was able to interview Jason to find out the reason behind this decision as well as a number of other topics.
Growing up in your family, you must have been surrounded by business talk all the time, how did this impact you and your future career?
“We have five family branches all connected to the business, being born into that it’s inevitable that you end up working in the family business. You might pursue education outside the business to get a good theoretical knowledge but the family business is ultimately where you’ll end up because it’s in your blood.”
As Jason explains how every weekend it was obligatory to be at the warehouse helping out, its clear that this story is probably not too dissimilar to any second generation that has been brought up in a family organisation.
What did you learn working in the family business that a business school couldn’t teach you?
“Education is important, it gives you discipline and it teaches you how to create thought processes in a more succinct manner. Whereas in the business you learn customer relationships and the importance of knowing the people that you trade with. As that starts to get engrained in you the experience paired with the education becomes a very powerful force.”
Given the long and flourishing history of East End Foods, Jason could talk more eloquently than most about the ins and out of family business but when asked about how he found growing up in this environment he candidly says:
“To be honest, it was second nature, I didn’t know any different.”
He acknowledges that its only in retrospect that you can look back and assess the benefits and drawbacks of family business. The main benefit being the values that you share as a family drives the values in your business and the main disadvantage being as the family gets larger it gets more complicated.
After selling the business to a private equity firm, you decided to buy back the wholesaling division, what was the rationale behind that?
“By the time we sold East End Foods it was around £220 million turnover, the wholesale division of that was £160 million employing 200 people and supplying 500 retailers
As someone in my early forties, I couldn’t bare the thought of leaving from an emotional point of view. Other people in the family were at retirement age so they were seeking the exit for those reasons. I wouldn’t of been able to drive past those factories and say I was involved in that business long long ago, I couldn’t let go.”
What’s your views on Private Equity
“Private Equity is a funding vehicle for people who want to exit. They buy and sell businesses for a living, I don’t. So you have to learn as you’re going along and the important thing is to have very good advisers.”
Leaving the comfort zone of the family business to now essentially being on his own must have been slightly daunting but as quite a determined person, Jason admits that he loves the new challenge, new energy and new culture.
His new organisation sets its values in the anagram of HOPE.
How did diversity come into picking the team who support and share your new vision?
“What we have to understand is that diversity, whether it be gender, racial or sexuality are absolutely common sense points to commerciality. By having a diverse group of people you have different opinions which creates vibrancy in an organisation.
Therefore when you are making a decision, you make it with all these different point of views and that gives you a better quality result. The diversity is not a tick box, it actually makes perfect sense. From a commercial perspective anyone who does not look at diverse groups and leadership is making a mistake.”
What is the future for independent retailers?
“The big companies like amazon have a big part to play in every market, we can’t contest that but as consumers we like to do business with people we know.
From our perspective as a wholesaler and supplier to the independent trade, its very important to support these people, improving their knowledge and capacity to reinvest in their own businesses.”
How do you measure confidence post Covid and Brexit?
“I think Covid paled Brexit into insignificance for a while, we had a big push on panic buying last year which affected all retailers. That was a tough challenge because the suppliers struggled to supply and we couldn’t get the stock quick enough to sell. We worked through it as an industry quite successfully but I think these challenges are here to stay for a while.”
Why did you decide to became Chair of the West Midlands India Partnership?
“Post Brexit, when discussing the trade relationships we can tie up with the world’s most successful countries, you can not ignore the power, scale and potential of the Indian economy. Already in our first year we have brought a number of businesses into the West Midlands who have chosen to invest here because the quality of the people we’ve got and the historical background we have – at one point we were the home of the Industrial revolution.
The next step now is to take the best of our West Midlands businesses over to India and the door is wide open. The West Midlands India Partnership is an important vehicle to making this happen.”
Throughout this interview Jason was insightful and gave a balanced view on the experiences he’s had within the world of family business and what the future may hold.
A particularly poignant moment was when asked on how he personally measured success he stated:
“For anyone in my family the minute someone says ‘I have your products in my cupboard’ that is the biggest payback you could want”