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Nader Haghighi, pennyless refugee

By Darius Sanai
The Independent (London)
November 8, 2000


There must be, if the records are correct, at least three people called Nader Haghighi. One of them lived in the ancient city of Shiraz during the time the Shah still ruled Iran. In the early 1970s, as a child from an impoverished family, he set up a street kiosk selling bric-a-brac at the age of nine, becoming the family's sole breadwinner. The second Haghighi was a penniless refugee holed up in a bedsit in Croydon, south London, in 1980. A young man from a Middle Eastern country who spoke no English and had no friends or contacts in Britain, he worked as a kitchen porter in a local Pizzaland surrounded by an alien nation.

The third Nader Haghighi is sitting confidently in a plush office in the City, sipping mineral water and outlining the expansion plan for his company, Parisa, the fastest-growing cafe and off-licence chain in Britain. "It is my aim to become one of the country's biggest leisure retailers within the next few years," he says. This Haghighi, aged 41, is worth at least pounds 30m. Parisa, of which he is founder, chief executive and the largest individual shareholder, has more than 500 shops, cafes and bars across Britain under various brands, employs more than 4,000 people and is developing two new high-profile cafe/restaurant brands with 35 establishments set to open in the next 12 months. Turnover in the 12 months to the end of September 2000 was pounds 187m, with a pre-tax profit of pounds 14m.

The three Haghighis are, of course, all the same person, making his growing success in the British retail market all the more remarkable. He created Parisa in 1997 through a pounds 56m management buyout of the off-licence operation of Greenalls. Since then the group has diversified its retail operation, running the Right Choice and Booze Buster cut-price chains, the upmarket Wine Cellar off-licence-plus -cafe concept and the trendy Parisa Cafe-Bars, of which 35 more are due to open across the country in the next 12 months.

He cautiously confirms reports that he is seeking to take the company public in the next 12 to 18 months. "We haven't finalised the timescale for flotation, but it will happen sometime in the foreseeable future," he says. A flotation could see the company valued at up to pounds 100m. There are also rumours, which Haghighi won't comment on, that he is negotiating the takeover of a large high street leisure retailer which would transform Parisa from a medium-sized company into one of the industry's prime movers.

Haghighi is launching an ambitious new concept, PerSia, a Persian restaurant with a bar and a dancefloor, early in 2001, with the aim of starting a new trend of eating and dancing Persian-style. "My country (Iran) doesn't always have a good image in Britain," he explains, "and this is my way of promoting all the most wonderful aspects of it." Both Parisa and PerSia are named after his daughters, though he has yet to find a concept to name after his son, the less exotically named Oliver.

Haghighi would know a thing or two about the wonderful aspects of Iran, as his hometown, Shiraz, is a beautiful historical oasis of palaces and walled gardens. His childhood was far from romantic, though, and one can't help thinking it's a rather different aspect of Iran's historical legacy that Haghighi has transplanted to Britain a tireless instinct for doing business founded in the city's 3,000 -year history as a trading centre. "I love customers," he says. "My life has been all about the enjoyment I get from giving customers what they want."

Haghighi, known in the industry as a lively character not averse to a little self-publicity, is fond of saying he has been in retailing for 32 out of his 41 years. His customer experiences started when he was even younger. His father's dry cleaning shop in Shiraz "was never a very good business", he says, so from the age of five he took to the streets, selling glasses of home-made chilled plum sherbet to parched shoppers and office- workers during the hot Iranian summers.

The family of eight - five brothers, a sister and his parents - all lived in one room. "It was a very important lesson for my future business life," he says, "when you learn from a very young age how to live with people and get along with them, whatever the circumstances." Haghighi is an outgoing, well-built man who rips off his tie and undoes his top button as soon as he settles down on the sofa in a meeting room at his company's PR firm in the City. Beneath his informal friendliness is the absolute determination and quickness of wit that has seen him rise so far in the industry. He also has an astonishing memory for figures, remembering everything from company results to key dates in his life to prices of his products instantaneously.

Haghighi's father died when he was nine, leaving the family with no income at all. There was no social security in the Shah's Iran, so the young businessman enlisted the help of one of his brothers to set up a wooden kiosk on Darius Street, the city's main thoroughfare. "I went to the bazaar in the morning and I bought a selection of goods which catered for the impulse purchaser, things like chewing gum, shampoo, toothbrushes and nuts," he says. Haghighi often talks like this, in grammatically perfect sentences laced with marketing jargon, a result of learning English while on the job after he arrived in the UK.

In Iran, he would go to school in the mornings, and then, as his schoolmates were hanging around or playing football, would man the kiosk during the afternoon and evening, doing his homework in the breaks between customers. "When I started running the kiosk, I found myself confronted with the complexity of running a business at a very young age," he says. "Even in a small environment like a kiosk you still have to worry about cash flows, the profit you're making, the merchandise you're buying and where you source it from. You have to work out how best to present your proposition to the consumers who were passing by in the street who would just look at the merchandise with one glance."

The kiosk business went well, with the young Haghighi the family's sole breadwinner in his early teens. When he was 17 he had enough money to start a shop, a clothes boutique on the spot where his father's dry cleaning shop had been, which he says "did very well". He bought a house for his family and saved up for his studies, as he still wanted to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

In 1979, when Haghighi was 19, Iran erupted in revolution. Although his family had been in opposition to the Shah, Haghighi decided to leave the country, leaving his family - and his money - behind. "I thought it was a good time to come to Britain and try and pursue my studies as a doctor," he says, diplomatically, when asked why he left.

In those days Iranians didn't need a visa to come to Britain, so on 20 May 1979 the 19-year-old Haghighi found himself blinking at the damp hubbub of south London. He arrived in the country with a little cash in his pocket, two words of English ("yes" and "no") and one contact, an Iranian expatriate with whom he lost contact after his first week. He found a space in a bedsit in Croydon, got a job as a kitchen porter, and enrolled in an English course at the local higher education college.

"I really wanted to become a doctor but in the first year of my arrival I realised that the fees were very high, the cost of living was very high and it would be impossible. So I considered what to do with my life, and the only thing I knew well was retailing." Needing to earn money anyway, he quit his kitchen job and became a part-time shelf-stacker at a Thresher's off-licence in Croydon. Haghighi says his manager "had an autocratic style" and would not listen either to customers' requests or suggestions by his own staff. Meanwhile the young charge was observing what customers asked for, and which brands and kinds of wine were the most popular.

After a few months, the manager went on sick leave for four weeks and Haghighi was asked to run the shop. "I made a great success of it," he says. "What I had learned from an early age was to consider what customers wanted, look at what we had and work out how we could enhance it. The merchandising was very poor, so I enhanced it, and the shop had a high working capital, which I reduced." In those four weeks, Haghighi says, he made "a big difference", and when the old manager came back he was sacked and Haghighi was given his job.

There followed a stellar rise within the off-licence group. Within 18 months he was asked to be regional manager of the west London area, and moved the area's profits from being bottom of the list of 43 regions to top within six months. "It was very simple," he says. "It was about understanding what the consumers wanted, and we ensured through training, delegation and coaching we actually got the management to respond. We had to roll up our sleeves, clear and remerchandise the shops and make the consumer environment better."

Haghighi says the most difficult aspect was not sorting out the shops but getting the company's own management and staff behind him. "But I found it relatively easy to do because I had done that in my own home as a child. If you live with your whole family in a small room you learn the art of motivating other people, ensuring they share the challenge of life."

Through the 1980s, Haghighi worked through the ranks of Thresher, making board level in 1989 when he became national operational director. He remained in the post until 1994, when he was headhunted by the Greenalls group to become managing director of Cellar 5, their struggling off-licence chain, moving to Warrington, which still houses the headquarters of Parisa.

"Straightaway," he says, "I came up with a new strategy which was based on market segmentation. I looked at the portfolio of properties we had in different market sectors and the portfolio of consumer groups and created new brands that would fill the aspirations of those groups." He developed the Right Choice convenience store chain and started a new upmarket wine store chain called Wine Cellar, where wine shops shared premises with cafes, meaning you could buy your bottle of Shiraz in one room and wander over and drink it with a chicken sandwich in the next, all the while enriching the coffers of the man from Shiraz who ran the place. The division's profits grew under Haghighi's guidance from pounds 2.9m in 1994 to pounds 6.7m in 1997.

The Wine Cellar shops typify Haghighi's way of thinking. Spacious and well-lit with bouncy, friendly staff, they offer an array of Middle England's favourite wines - Australian Chardonnays, cheap clarets, New Zealand sauvignons - at good prices, without showcasing anything particularly unusual or exotic. They are safe, friendly places to buy familiar wines, just as his Cafe Parisa cafe-bars are welcoming, good value but not particularly exciting places to eat.

The innovation came with the combination of off-licence and eating place, with his outlets being the first in Britain (after a court battle) to allow you to purchase alcohol to drink either on the premises or to take home. The innovation continues in much more dramatic form next year with the launch of the PerSia restaurant chain.

The Cafe Parisa concept itself was only launched in 1998, a year after Haghighi led the management buyout of Greenall's off-licence operation. With the support of his senior management and two venture capitalists, CVC Capital Partners and Bridgepoint, he completed the buyout on 8 September 1997. "There was a clause in the agreement saying we could not launch a leisure retailer (like a cafe or bar) for 12 months, so we opened the Parisa Cafe-Bar in Putney (south London) on 8 September 1998," he says, grinning.

There are now 15 Cafe Parisas, with an aggressive opening campaign over the next year, and almost 500 Wine Cellars, Right Choice shops and Booze Busters, concentrated in the Midlands and North of England near the company's historical headquarters. It has not all been an easy ride for the new company, though. In 1998, as the off -licence industry was consolidating, Haghighi spent considerable effort in negotiations trying to buy either Thresher or Victoria Wine, only to be rebuffed when Allied Dunbar and Whitbread, their owners, formed the First Quench alliance between the two groups, leaving Haghighi as a minnow.

"That created an obstacle, and 1998 was a lousy year in the off-licence business generally," he says, with the combination of a rainy summer, an increase in the number of illegal imports from the continent and the industry's consolidation leading to a change of tack on Haghighi's part and the emphasis on leisure retail - the cafes, bars and restaurant - which the company continues to this day.

The creation of PerSia is Haghighi's boldest move yet. Persian food may be one of the world's great cuisines, but it is relatively unknown in Britain. Will consumers take to eating Persian then dancing the night away on the restaurant's dancefloor? "Consumers in the UK have Indian, Thai, Chinese, French and Italian food but little chance to try one of the world's most ancient and distinguished cuisines," he says. "We have to create an environment that is modern, chic and stylish and maintains all the values of Persia."

With his chefs and designers, he has spent seven months creating an environment that is "airy, modern and great fun" and a menu which is "both healthy and traditional". The first restaurant is opening in Manchester, he says, "because it is recognised as one of the most difficult venues in Britain for a cafe-bar to open. The competition is very tough. But I've always told myself that if you're creating a new proposition for the consumer you need to experiment with it in a tough environment." If the pilot restaurant in Manchester has a successful first few months, he plans another five PerSias next year, with more to come.

The Parisa group also has an internet operation:, which is recognised in the trade as being one of the better online off-licences, and which is developing next year with the launch of, a more comprehensive "leisure portal". But Haghighi plainly doesn't want to give up the delight he gets from dealing with the consumer in person.

It is now 21 years since Nader Haghighi arrived in Britain, with an imminent flotation an apt coming-of-age ceremony. His whole story seems like something more likely to happen in America than on Britain's more conservative shores. Did he encounter much racism during his rise to the top? "Not at all," he says. "When I moved here from Iran I decided to adopt the British culture and live as a British man; if you actually become British I think there's no reason for racism. "Sure," he continues, "with the difficulties of language, education and environment I had to work harder than anybody else and I had to be more focussed than anybody else, but at the end of the day, if you are determined and you have a clear vision of what you want and when you want it, then you can do anything." He says he considers Parisa to be "only the beginning" of his business career. Given what has happened in the last 32 years of his life, one can only imagine what kind of Persian empire the man from Shiraz will be in charge of by 2032.


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