Nilofer Saeed, former Proprietor of the HobNob Group, in profile.
The article was first published in November-December 2012.
Nilofer Saeed’s zest for life is infectious. She is vibrant, vivacious and bubbly to the extent that you can’t help but warm to the energy she exudes and the enthusiasm in her voice as she talks about the many facets of her life, be it her work, the charity organisations she is involved with or her family.
A trendsetter of sorts, Saeed was the brains behind the establishment of Copper Kettle in Karachi in 1993. It was a time when coffee shops and restaurants were few and far between in the city, let alone on Zamzama (then considered to be “the middle of nowhere”). And yet she did so in partnership with her brother, who had established the first branch of the restaurant in Lahore.
And how things have changed since!
Not only was Copper Kettle one of the first of its kind (a host of restaurants and coffee shops have followed since) but Zamzama is undoubtedly the ‘it’ place for most of Karachi’s trendy restaurants and cafés today.
“I was ‘with it’; Copper Kettle was the need of the time and people went there from day one,” says Saeed.
It’s a statement that could be interpreted as a tad conceited, but the way she says it makes one realise that she is telling it like it is – with her characteristic exuberance, of course.
And Saeed has remained ‘with it’ ever since.
She is now the Proprietor of The HobNob Group, which consists of 13 HobNob bakeries, HobNob Café (the recently revamped version of Copper Kettle), N’eco’s Natural Store and Café (the store has another branch in Dolmen Mall, Clifton) and two food outlets called HobNob Express.
I ask her how she manages to be ‘with it’. After all, she has set up three types of food businesses, that were not only the first of their kind, but have proved to be enduring successes, all of which requires taking risks, working hard, and an uncanny insight into the ever changing tastes of ever elusive customers.
She brushes off my query modestly by saying:
“I am just one of those lucky people who travel a lot and get a lot of exposure, and I can sense changing customer needs. Some of my customers at HobNob Bakery started requesting gluten free bread and sugar free products, so I came to the conclusion that they wanted healthy alternatives and so I opened N’eco’s.”
“I always want to be first in whatever I do; I don’t want to be a copycat. I want to be number one.”
The fact that they were the first of their kind was certainly not an accident.
“I always want to be first in whatever I do; I don’t want to be a copycat. I want to be number one,” she admits with a hearty laugh and I realise that behind the high spirits lies a person who is passionate, ambitious and competitive when it comes to her work.
Of all her businesses, Saeed seems to have a soft spot for N’eco’s, which she describes as her “labour of love”. She adds that a lot of people advised her to open N’eco’s at Zamzama instead of Bukhari Commercial Area, but she felt otherwise.
“I decided on the location because it is peaceful and parking is available easily. I think I am fearless so I take chances based on a gut instinct and not necessarily a market review.”
Indeed, many people can vouch for the tranquillity that the Café exudes, with a tree as its centrepiece, and soothing pastel yellow walls, not to mention the mouth-watering fare the Café serves.
Of all her businesses, Saeed seems to have a soft spot for N’eco’s, which she describes as her “labour of love”.
The Store itself offers a wide variety of organic products including hormone free milk, eggs, at least 10 different kinds of honey, spices, natural personal care products and rare finds such as gojiberries and chia seeds (hailed as super foods worldwide for their alternate medicinal properties). Many of these products are sourced from small-time entrepreneurs in Pakistan, while the rest are imported.
Not surprisingly, Saeed is a firm believer in good old fashioned hard work; she thinks that an empty mind is a devil’s workshop, and likes to keep busy; it’s something she feels that she inherited from her father.
“He was in the army and part of the 1948 liberation movement in the Skardu-Gilgit area, for which he was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurrat. He was from Srinagar and was always in search of his ‘Dal Lake’. He bought property in Gilgit, and every summer we were taken there on C130s, donkey carts, jeeps… no matter where we lived. We were expected to fish and pick fruit for lunch and clean up after ourselves.”
She adds that he was a tough taskmaster.
“He said there was no difference between men and women and that we must all work really hard.”
Clearly these are words Saeed has lived by.
In addition to heading The HobNob Group (the company was recognised as one the 100 Fastest Growing Companies at the Arabia Summit in Istanbul earlier this year), she has been involved with The Citizens Foundation since its inception and she is now the only female director of the Foundation.
When I ask her how she manages to do so many things, she says that she is an extrovert who loves “working with people, so it’s not really work. I enjoy talking to people whether they are two-years-old or 100.”
Despite having her fingers in so many pies, Saeed finds ample time for her friends and family. She is a “hands-on” wife, mother and grandmother, and travels frequently to visit her twin daughters who live in Dubai and Ottawa, and communicates with them via Skype and FaceTime (clearly, she’s ‘with it’ technologically speaking as well.)
“When my granddaughter was asked to write an essay in school about a hero, she wrote the most amazing story about me called ‘My grandmother, my hero’. I was so touched,” she gushes with the excitement of a young girl.
In the little spare time that she has, Saeed reads and watches films.
“I have read all of Barbara Cartland’s novels, although I read less thanks to my iPad, and I love going to the movies. For me, the best way to unwind is to play scrabble.”
Given that she has so many accomplishments to her name, I ask her which of these she is most proud of. She says that on a personal level, her children and grandchildren are her pride and joy, but on a professional front, it is the difference The Citizens Foundation has made in the lives of the children it has educated.
“I am very proud that we brought about a change to the lives of these children; one of them is at the IBA on merit and that is quite an achievement.”
She attributes her success to “eating plenty, and not worrying about my figure!”
When I ask her what keeps her going, she says it is life itself.
“I love it. I enjoy every moment. I think it is going too fast.”
Clearly, Saeed loves life, and this perhaps, is the real secret of her success.