Nader Haghighi, pennyless refugee
By Darius Sanai
The Independent (London)
November 8, 2000
BORN IN IRAN IN 1960, BY NINE HE HAD HIS OWN KIOSK. BUT BY 1980 HE WAS
A PENNILESS REFUGEE IN A CROYDON BEDSIT. THEN A JOB SKIVVYING AT PIZZALAND
GAVE HIM HIS BIG IDEA. NOW HE RUNS PARISA, THE QUICKEST GROWING OFF-LICENCE
CHAIN IN BRITAIN. MEET MISTER NADER HAGHIGHI, A BUSINESSMAN WITH BOTTLE.
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
"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
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
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
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: winecellar.co.uk, 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 Parisa.com, 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.