Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

"Slow and steady is how we define the way we do business"

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Sammer Sultan, co-Chairman, Shan Foods, speaks to Aurora about her organisation’s ascent to success.

AURORA: How did Shan Foods start and what has been your contribution to the journey?

SAMMER SULTAN: My father tells the story much better because he lived it. We started in the late seventies, early eighties. Due to circumstances, my father found himself in the kitchen. My grandmother had gone to Lahore for a wedding and was delayed there and the masalas she had prepared before going ran out. My father had always been interested in cooking from a young age, so he took charge of the kitchen and everything progressed from there. My aunt moved to the US, and as she was used to freshly ground masalas, she asked the family to send her some. They would send a kilo from time to time. My aunt started sharing the masalas with her friends and the quantities started getting bigger; it was then that my father started exploring the commercial aspect of this enterprise with regards to exporting. By that time, my parents were beginning to establish themselves and the local and export market began to develop almost simultaneously. My parents started this venture in my grandmother’s garage and scaled up from there to eventually owning their first purpose-built factory. My contribution at the time was not a lot, as I was still a child. However, all the products were tested by my parents in the kitchen and our job was to give feedback on every recipe developed – we often invited friends over to taste as well. So I grew up in a very social household. It was a home-centred business that over time – it took nearly 40 years – grew into a professional organisation. Today, most of the R&D takes place in a lab, but the roots of the organisation are embedded within the recipes my parents developed. It was about consistent hard work and taking risks – a culture that continues today. 

A: Was your father in business before?

SS: No. My grandfather passed away when my father was young. He first went into photography at the Goethe Institute; it was how he started to support himself. He had a strong work ethic and by his early twenties, he had opened a small activation/advertising agency. 

A: What was the focus of the agency?

SS: They were involved in everything from fashion shows to exhibitions. My parents had known each other before they married, and started the advertising business together. I don’t think my mother gets as much credit as she deserves, but she was always, and is still, a large presence in Shan. She may not be operationally as involved, but strategically she is.

A: Why did your father quit advertising? 

SS: He felt his values didn’t fit into the culture. When he was in his twenties he was not as religious as he is now, but his ethics were strong and he wasn’t comfortable in that environment. 

A: It must have been a big step going from advertising to running a food business?

SS: Yes, but it kind of happened. He was making a product and then he saw the commercial need for it. It could have been toothpaste or something else. It was a combination of his skills and the market potential of the product. In the early eighties, there weren’t many pre-made masala mixes. There was Naseem Masala and National Foods. My father felt he could add to the quality of what was available. 

A: What about the leap from working in a garage to a factory? It must have required substantial investment?

SS: From the start, my father wanted to be as close as he possibly could to the ideals of doing business according to the tenets of Islam, and any money saved never went into creating a lifestyle for us, it went back into the business. When he had saved up enough to buy and build a space, he moved. Then, when he had saved enough money to build a separate office and a separate factory, he moved again. The third move brought us to where we are currently located. Every 10 years or so, we were able to upgrade in terms of office space, resources and product manufacturing facilities. It was a question of consistently putting money back into the business. This is how we operate even today. My parents chose a turtle as the company’s symbol because it is slow and steady. We don’t market this symbol; it just reflects how we want to run the business. We are not in a race for growth or profitability; we want to grow sustainably. Slow and steady is how we define the way we do business.  

A: How did Shan develop a customer base? 

SS: My father would go to the market and see where the demand was, or he would set up a stall in the Sunday bazaars. It was from the ground up – nothing was handed to him and he worked very hard to build a customer base. Naseem were in the market, but their quality was not great and the variety was limited. There is so much variety in the market today and consumers take it for granted. Yet, were we to ask our grandmothers whether they ate Bombay biryani in their earlier days, they would probably say no because the product did not exist. Some of the products that are taken for granted today were developed by my parents. The Bombay Biryani masala is derived from my grandmother’s method of cooking biryani. My parents once took a vacation in Malaysia and explored the food there – for our family going on vacation meant eating everything, everywhere – and from that came Malay biryani

A: How did Shan break through the competition?

SS: The market was very new. From the eighties until the early 2000s, the usage of boxed masalas was limited. Today, we take it for granted that everyone uses a box, but in those days there was a lot of resistance. We began to notice the change when young married women started sending us letters saying they don’t know how to cook and their mothers-in-law will not allow them to use boxes – but our boxes tasted just a good, so they buy a box, store the masala in a jar, throw the label away and hide the recipe. It took about 20 years from the early nineties to 2010 to develop the market. Now everyone uses a box, but we had to work at it. 

A: Is Shan the market leader? 

SS: According to the metrics of the last couple of years, we are. Sometimes we are at 51 and sometimes our competitors are at 51. I would say that National and Shan are about the same. There are products in our portfolio that National don’t have and vice versa. However, if we compare spices with spices, we have been ranked ahead for the last two years. However, we compete with ourselves first; we look at our sales for the previous years rather than focus on beating anyone else. Our approach is to be bigger and better than we are today. 

A: Have consumer preferences changed recently?

SS: Consumers are more willing to experiment; they don’t want to keep eating the same five dishes they grew up with, and the options have expanded. For example, previously, Chinese food didn’t go much beyond chicken Manchurian or beef chilli dry; now, people know a lot more about Chinese food. Moms often complain that their kids don’t like desi food; they prefer sandwiches, shawarma, pizzas and pasta. Pasta has become a huge part of our national diet. Earlier, pasta was for kids and now everyone is eating pasta.  

A: Do you have plans to diversify?

SS: We already have cooking sauces in a jar. If you want to make biryani, they save on the hassle of frying onions or chopping tomatoes – fry the meat, add the sauce and the rice, and the biryani is ready. It saves a lot of effort, especially for working women or people looking for added convenience. Such products exist in the international market but they lack an authentic Pakistani taste. We want to provide that authentic taste, but with added convenience. We believe that our products should always reflect what people want to eat today. The jars target consumers who are looking for convenience rather than value for money.

A: Has Shan been affected by the trend to order in?

SS: We supply the ingredients for the food people order at home. We see this as a huge opportunity for B2B.  

A: Shan is marketing products under the label of ITT Foods. Is this a different business?

SS: I set up ITT as an independent business, separate from Shan. Shan is now a 40-year old company; there are hierarchies and there are processes involved in terms of approvals, especially when new projects are concerned. I was very young when I first started to work at Shan, but I had a lot of ideas. However, it was difficult to convince the management about their viability. I wanted more independence and that is why I set up ITT – it gave me more freedom to fail. A lot of people think my father set up ITT for me and I am just running it – absolutely not. I didn’t ask him for help. Of course, there were synergies. For example, I didn’t need a big factory, so I took a small room within one of Shan’s existing factories. To be clear, although ITT is a separate business, it comes under the Shan umbrella and to give credit where it’s due, Shan has helped in many ways. I have access to their management and my team can always ask for advice. There are a lot of advantages to being a separate entity; it allows for agility and speed in responding to the market. 

A: Was this a ‘rebel’ project? 

SS: I have always been a rebel; my parents can attest to that. My first business venture was Lollipop & Laddoo, which I started a year after graduating from Indus Valley School. Then I started a restaurant. I didn’t go to business school, so when I joined Shan, I felt I had some credibility missing; I didn’t have the IBA or CBM stamp or even a foreign education. I felt I needed to prove myself and the only way was by doing something concrete. When I joined Shan, I set up a creative department because I wanted to fix the things I knew I could fix, but I also wanted to do new things. Running my own company gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted. What worked and what didn’t were my decisions. 

A: Are there conflicts given that you are co-Chairman at Shan?

SS: It is complicated. I don’t want to be the CEO at Shan. Shan is now a very large organisation and someone who has worked 20 years in 10 different organisations can bring more to the company than I can. However, at the same time, at ITT I can do the things I really want to in terms of product development and at the same time have a say in the way Shan is run. It is conflicting, but it is a very interesting place to be. 

A: If I am correct, ITT focus on condiments? 

SS: Hot sauce was a category I wanted to explore. I wanted to develop a Pakistani hot sauce that tasted just as good as anything made internationally. There was no interest from the local players in upgrading the quality of their offerings. I was buying imported hot sauces and I felt that pain deeply because I love to localise whatever I can. I was running a restaurant at the time and I saw there was a huge opportunity, yet no one was taking it. When I looked up the price of hot sauce on Walmart’s website and compared it to the price I was paying here, I realised this can’t be legal. It cannot be cheaper to buy the same product in Pakistan than buying it from the world’s largest retailer. This cemented my belief about the scope that existed and I went ahead and began manufacturing hot sauces.

A: Initially, Shan’s communication attracted attention because it avoided showing the human form, but later this changed. What prompted the change?

SS: At Shan, shariah compliance comes from within. It is intrinsic to our values and not imposed from the outside. One of the reasons why my father quit advertising was because he saw women being sexualised. The respect Islam gives to women was very important to him. It was never about not showing a man or a woman, it was about using the female form to sell a product. Why did the advertising change? The understanding remains that Shan will never use sexuality to sell a product; we will never use women as the face of our product. The stories we tell are about a slice of life, not about glamorising women or men. We want our advertising to be as real as possible. Our advertising is value-driven, rather than driven by glamour.

A: What has it been like to be a woman in a leadership position?

SS: Challenging. I have two brothers and when I was growing up I thought one of them would get the opportunity because that is how Pakistani families work. It came as a surprise when, as the rebel child, I was given this opportunity. 

A: Your position has turned you into a visible role model for many women. How will you use this platform?

SS: I have recently started giving interviews and being vocal about some of the issues affecting women. I am a private person and I prefer putting my head down and working. However, my team is encouraging me to speak out. They say if women see that I can do it, so can they – and of course, if I can change even one person’s life for the better, I would love to do it. I am starting this journey by giving this interview. I would like to take advantage of the opportunity I have to bring change, but I am not in a hurry. I want to take it slow and see where I can add value.

Sammer Sultan was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: