Muquim Ahmed has spent the past 40 years building a burgeoning business empire – which has seen the millionaire businessman dubbed as the King of Brick Lane. Here he tells Curry Life how he has risen through the ranks – putting his success down to tenacity and being in the ‘right place at the right time’.
“I am a restless person, I need to be doing something all of the time,” Muquim Ahmed tells me, not five minutes into our meeting. We’re gathered (socially-distanced style) at Ahmed’s offices at Canary Wharf in east London on a dreary, rainy day.
Pre-Covid, the area would be buzzing but the offices are eerily silent and empty. Reassuringly though, the biggest presence is from the cleaning crew. Such an atmosphere, however, does little to dampen Ahmed’s enthusiasm; he is clearly a person who is constantly on the go, no matter the situation.
In the last 40 years, he has built a business empire spanning a myriad of industries – from electronics, to hospitality, from travel to finance, from wholesale distribution to catering, among others. He is currently chairman of Quantum Securities, a substantial property portfolio business, worth millions, established decades ago consisting of both residential and commercial properties.
Ahmed attributes his success to tenacity and endurance and the belief that when setting up your goal in life, you need to aim high. His current position at Quantum Securities is also in recognition of his vision of the long-term. As he puts it, ‘the service industry, trading and jobs have a limited shelf life, but assets, property and shares will always have a greater continued growth value for generations.
Ahmed is also an avid gardener, which presumably helps him to unwind from his business interests. He is a proud owner of a stately garden. Yet he is perhaps best known for being dubbed ‘the first Bangladeshi millionaire’ and the ‘unofficial king of Brick Lane’, credited with helping to transform the area in London’s East End into a vibrant hub in the 1990s. Various press reports documenting his rise have referenced his ‘fierce determination to succeed’, his ‘boy wonder’ personality and his hunger for business. He has appeared in the Estates Gazette and Asian Rich list which highlighted his achievements as a self-made millionaire and how he has raised the profile of the Bangladeshi community.
He appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List, the definitive list of the richest people in the country. Presently, research shows in the Companies House that his fixed assets supersede by millions within his peer group.
Even with 40-plus years of business under his belt, Ahmed is still as passionate about business now as he was then, with the firm mantra that you have to believe in yourself if you want to achieve something. Like many before him, Ahmed arrived in the UK from Bangladesh in 1974 to finish his engineering studies. As he explains, there was – and still is – a belief in his home country that if you don’t go abroad and study, it can become difficult to get a good job back home.
“The high earning, doctors, the lawyers [in Bangladesh], they were all educated abroad; my parents wanted me to be someone important in the community so they sent me to England to complete my studies,” says Ahmed.
His studies, however, were soon abandoned in favour of several business opportunities, such as exporting electrical goods from the UK to his native Bangladesh, and acquiring the lease first and later the freehold of Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. Ahmed admits being in the right place at the right time. He imported movies from Bangladesh and showed them on the big screen at the cinema, gaining a loyal following among the Brick Lane locals.
Ahmed was also quick to spot how to make a thriving business better, reflecting his determination to go further. Noting that there was a huge demand for electrical goods, he looked at how to improve margins, recognising the Far East’s potential. This led to his move into wholesaling, sourcing products mostly from Hong Kong factories. These included watches, radios, clocks and cassette players, all under the brand name of Harper (chosen because Harper sounded more English and branding was for UK customers) and other electrical accessories. His Sylto Cash and Carry attracted customers from far and wide and established itself as a national distributor for popular Japanese brands such as TDK, JVC, Panasonic and Casio. In the late 1980s he was also instrumental in raising the profile of the community by helping out Notun Din and later – the weekly Asian Post English newspaper.
Survival instinct and being a role model
Ahmed is also a survivor – in more than one sense of the word. In October 1994, his warehouse at Chicksand Street, just off Brick Lane, burnt down to the ground, with his Christmas trade – one of the most lucrative times of the year, literally going up in flames. The accidental fire destroyed the entire Sylto business, as well as the offices housing his media and other companies, incurring losses of over £4m.
Undeterred, Ahmed turned to what he had left – the cinema, where the concept for the Cafe Naz chain of restaurants took hold, having opened the first such restaurant in the former cinema’s foyer. He opened another nine restaurants, with same theme and name, all around the country within five years of opening the first. Once again, Ahmed was looking to capitalise on a growing demand in the UK – this time for Indian food and the popularity of dishes such as chicken tikka masala.
Cafe Naz quickly built a following among diners and restaurant critics for its take on contemporary Indian cuisine, providing authentic-tasting dishes highlighting the flavours of regional Indian cuisine. Ahmed brought in top chefs from five-star hotels in India and Bangladesh, with the restaurant not only showcasing authentic cuisine but Indian culture too. Chefs shared recipes with customers while the restaurant provided Indian-themed entertainment, as well as organise a number of food festivals.
In April 1999, Ahmed narrowly escaped death during the ‘Brick Lane bombing’, an attack targeted at London’s Bangladeshi community. There had been two similar nail bomb attacks in the run up to the one on Brick Lane, targeting Brixton’s black population and the LGBT community in Soho. Just moments before the bomb exploded, in the trunk of a car parked outside Cafe Naz. Ahmed had been at the restaurant. It was destroyed by the bomb, with Ahmed putting his narrow escape down to sheer luck – he was seating by the window which took the brunt of the force of the blast as the front and back house was preparing for the lunch trade when his wife Rashmi called and he crossed the road to meet her and their five year old daughter Monique just as the blast went off.
So how did Ahmed bounce back from such life-changing events such as his warehouse being destroyed and the bombing? Following the devastating warehouse fire, he was lucky enough to be able to borrow money from his family and his brother-in-law to get himself back into business, but crucially, his success has been about spotting an opportunity and running with it, as well as knowing when it’s the right time to move on. Muquim’s former wife Rashmi Ahmed also played an important role to support him to meet new challenges in business. After fire he did not try to rebuild Sylto for example, moving on to Cafe Naz. By 2000, a year after the bombing, there were 10 such restaurants under the ‘Naz’ brand, across various locations such as London, Cambridge, Horsham, Cardiff and Chelmsford. After 20 years of successfully running the chain of Café Naz, he decided to exit from Restaurant trade recognising he had taken that opportunity as far as he could. He is still involved in a handful of restaurants through Quantum Securities, but this time as their landlord.
“There were several reasons to get out of the restaurant industry,” he says. “There was personal stress, gross profit margins became lower, we suffered from staff shortages and the European HACCP & laws. It became harder to ensure the chefs are properly trained and you can’t be everywhere – sometimes too much can be just that.”
Ahmed had also established a bakery and a food manufacturing business alongside running Cafe Naz. With several of his restaurants preparing thousands of meals every week, moving into the industrial production of ready meals seemed like a natural progression – and one which again filled demand at the time for ready-cooked meals. The warehouse Ahmed purchased for his ready meal production facility turned out to be a lucrative move – he sold it for more than three times the purchase price, which led him to where he is today – property investment under Quantum Securities.
So what would Ahmed say to the younger generation? His advice is simple: identify what you are good at and what you enjoy doing, Believe in yourself and do your best and give it your best shot. If you have ‘it’, don’t give up and if you are not successful, keep on trying.
“It’s essential to aim high, but not too high that you cannot reach,” he says. “To retain success is an art in itself. Be focused, diligent and plan your enterprises in a structured way. Ambition and motivation and a desire to succeed should propel you to your destination.”
And if the warehouse fire taught him anything, Ahmed says it’s that no matter how hard you try, accidents can happen. “Consolation and encouragement does go a long way, and you can feel incapacitated and debilitated. You’ve got to pick yourself up again; it’s difficult, but life must go on.”
A firm remainer during the Brexit process, Ahmed feared that if the UK left the European Union, the country would suffer from a number of issues, labour shortages for example being his main concern. He has since changed his mind however, and says that leaving the EU is a better position for the UK to be in.
Only time will tell whether or not this is the case, but one thing is certain: as a businessman, Ahmed is proud to give his support to a Conservative government and has campaigned for the party over the years in a number of general and local elections. He was the co-founder of Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, an organisation that aims to develop relationships between the Conservative party and the British Banglasdeshi community. Currently he is serving as the Patron of CFOB.
“When you are faced with a situation like Brexit, everyone looks after their own interests,” he says. “I am convinced now that we will be more successful on our own. I believe in meritocracy – in a socialist-type state, there is no incentive for the individual to thrive.”
Unsurprisingly, we touch on immigration – a subject very close to Ahmed’s heart, who says the current situation is ‘far,’far better now than some 40 years ago’ when he first arrived. Without immigrants, he says, he would not have been able to run his businesses. “Immigrants come here with nothing – just their hopes and aspirations, they make a life for themselves here by working hard,” he says. “If you have the ability and determination you can achieve anything;
you can be anywhere if you have this belief in yourself.”
Working with and for the local community is another of Ahmed’s passions. He is adamant about having worked hard to make a difference to the lives of those in London’s East End, and helping the Bengali community integrate into mainstream British society.
Ahmed was previously the chairman of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce (serving three terms), and played a prominent role, overseeing a number of seminars and trade exhibitions, including The Expo Bangladesh 2005, held at London’s Barbican Centre, the first ever one-country trade show held internationally by Bangladesh. This helped to raise the profile of the Bangladeshi on an international front.
His take is very much that leadership is about actively lifting people up to your level, not just showing people how you got there. “Our community is a new community, we have been here not even 60 years and we have achieved glowing heights. In the field of politics, we have four member of Parliament, we are in the House of Lords, Queen’s Councillors, Judge, Doctors, Scientist and City High flyers, High Commissioner/Ambassadors in the British foreign service. We are a young and vibrant community and are certain to achieve many more distinctive heights in the years to come.