Talking Business with Iqbal Ahmed

In the latest in a series of ‘Talking Business’ interviews, Iqbal Ahmed OBE of Seamark Group, chats to the editor of Chris Barry, and Grant Thornton North West partner John Loebl.


Bangladesh banks on entrepreneur Iqbal to help drive its  economy  forward

 Many entrepreneurs talk about putting something back into their local community but Iqbal Ahmed is an example to us all.

He describes setting up NRB Bank Limited as the biggest achievement of his career – which given the success he’s enjoyed with his brothers Kamal and Bilal taking Seamark from East Manchester to the world is saying something.

The bank owes its existence to Iqbal’s ability to persuade other Bangladeshi business leaders, who now live outside the country of their birth, to invest in a project designed to providing funding to the businesses in Bangladesh.

Operating under the banner “Not just another bank” he talks about providing the right solutions that combine professionalism, expertise and financial strength. Iqbal also identifies values that Grant Thornton itself would strongly identify with – dynamic, innovative, global and techno- centric.

In effect, NRB Bank acts as a focal point inward and outward investment. 
john loebl grant thornton

Seamark itself has become a talismanic tale for anyone want to see how you can take a local business global. 

Established in 1976, Seamark now has a group turnover of $100m million.

It is now one of the leading processors and exporters of a wide range of seafood products serving a huge customer base worldwide.

John Loebl, senior partner, Grant Thornton North West

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AS one of three enterprising brothers who came to the UK from Bangladesh as children and created a £60m-plus  seafood processing, restaurant and cash and carry empire, it’s no surprise that Iqbal Ahmed has been asked to lead a major project to help boost the Asian country’s growth.

Having built up the Seamark Group with brothers Bilal and Kamal over the last 40 years, providing hundreds of jobs in east Manchester, long before the high profile recent investment in the area by the owners of Manchester City, few could begrudge the genial Mr Iqbal as he is known, an opportunity to help Bangladesh to thrive.

At the behest of the Bangladeshi government he has been playing a major role as chairman in the formation and funding of NRB Bank – a lender for non-resident Bangladeshi’s to invest back in their homeland and to help businesses in Bangladesh grow and access international markets.

Mr Iqbal, who is 58, this year, and who received an OBE for services to international trade in 2001, says: “I could not really refuse to help when I was approached by the minister for finance to launch the NRB.

“I have travelled all over the world to meet other Bangladeshi-born business people, which has been challenging, rewarding, and of course exhausting. We have secured more than 40 investors in the bank, which has become the biggest job of my life.”

Meeting Mr Iqbal in the surrounds of his luxurious Vermilion restaurant – which is next to the HQ of Seamark- his energy, passion for hard work and importance of family soon come to the fore. 

While he’s been happy to leverage his international contacts for the start up of the bank, Mr Iqbal’s influence at a regional level is impressive too.

Chancellor George Osborne is his local MP,  Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim is a friend, while Prime Minister David Cameron has been his guest at Vermilion for a private dinner.

His current bugbear is energy costs – a subject close to the hearts of many other business people, particularly those with high usage and therefore costs.

Seamark has mitigated the impact by switching the majority of its seafood processing  to its own operation in Bangladesh, which employs more than 4,000 people, including the crew of its own fleet of four trawlers.

He explains: “We started to invest in Bangladesh around 10 years ago and Princess Anne came to open the factory there.

“I am very glad we did it as it has helped us protect the business – most of our competitors no longer exist.

“Manchester is obviously still our headquarters, it’s where we do all the sales and marketing and packaging, and where we run the wholesale business too.

 “I think we have to be careful in this country, manufacturing is very important, and unless there is some strategy about energy, at a UK and European level, the same thing could happen as what took place with the cotton industry”.

He admits he has had to delay some planned further investment at Vermilion – including a new dining hall – due to challenging trading conditions overt the last few years, but says he 2013 was a better year for the business, which saw a 14% fall in turnover to £59.8m.

Expansion of the cash and carry business, which trades as Restaurant Wholesale, and has just opened at a second location in Essex, is also part of the company’s strategy.

Mr Ahmed says: “The cash and carry warehouses sell 60% of our own products, so it gives us a root to market and control of margins. The second site, on the A13 in Barking, is trading very well, it’s supplying dozens of restaurants in London, just a few miles away.

“We will invest in the right way – it was important to focus on the core business, but 2013 was better and we have some good sales forecasts for this year.”

As the eldest brother and head of the family, he sees only positives in working so closely with his brothers.

“We are working together for the family. I could not have done anything without their support. We are brothers, friends and business partners.

“It’s not difficult to switch off from the business away from the office, in fact sometimes we even go on holiday together too.”

Looking ahead, it gives him great pride to see the next generation from the family coming through. His son Manzur runs Vermilion, while one of his nephews is involved in the cash and carry business.

“It is great to see this, and it makes me even more ambitious for the future, ” he adds.