The Curry King talks frankly
Curry King Lord Gulam Noon’s life is no less than a Bollywood film.
He’s an Indian immigrant who came to London with £50 in his pocket, built the £200m Noon Products and helped Britain develop a taste for Chicken Tikka Masala on the way. The once Indian pauper now counts Prince Charles and Prince Philip as friends. He boasts a bevy of honours like an MBE and a prefix of ‘Lord’ and ‘Sir’ before his name.
There have been a few thrills and spills like in 2006 when he was embroiled in the cash for peerage scandal but it ended with his name being cleared and Tony Blair writing an apology letter to him. Not just this, he’s one of the only survivors of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November, 2008.
Lord Noon set foot in London in 1966 on the day England won the football World Cup and was floored by the capital after seeing the Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussauds in all its glory – a site which he had only seen in black and white movies in India.
But it wasn’t until 1971 that Lord Noon tasted success when he set up a partnership to expand Royal Sweets, the 107-year-old confectionery company that his grandfather started in Mumbai. He then ventured into airline catering with Bombay Halwa and is the man behind “Bombay Mix”, a renowned savory you get in every other corner shop.
After yummy profits from two companies set up in the UK, Noon set out to live the American dream and bought a New York food factory to manufacture ready meals. But soon he realised that Britons would relish his Chicken Tikka Masala more than the Americans ever would.
So in late 1980s, Noon came back to London and set up the iconic Noon Products in Southall that replaced “insipid and badly packaged” curries with food that tastes like its “Made in India”. Today, the company manufactures over 500 different chilled and frozen ready meals from factories in Southall.
However, Noon Products’ success was far from satisfying his appetite and he was hungry for much more. So in 2000, he sold the company to WT Foods for £50m, keeping a stake and a board position. But he couldn’t digest the deal for long and teamed up with venture capitalists Bridgepoint to buy his company back. Next in 2005, he expanded the company, got more deals under his belt and introduced more products on supermarket shelves before finally selling it to Irish food company Kerry for £124m.
Today, Noon is the non-executive chairman of the company but holds influential positions in a range of companies. He holds directorships in health supplements company NeutraHealth plc and India’s media conglomerate Zee Entertainment Enterprises. Apart from that, he’s also got a hospital, call centre and a paper company in his portfolio.
Noon comes across as a very endearing man when I meet him at his office in St James’ Park. He takes my coat and waits for me to sit before taking a seat. Photos of him with the Queen, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other dignitaries sit on the mantelpiece while a Gandhi figurine and family photos are neatly placed on his desk.
He opens his drawer, takes out a business card and strikes off ‘Sir’ and writes ‘Lord’ against his name before handing it me.
“Shruti I’d say the only reason why you are interviewing me today is because I paid heed to my mother’s advice. She said that even if you have to stand in the corner of the street to sell ties, do it but never work for anyone.”
And indeed he didn’t. In fact, he made more than 1400 people work for him over the course of years.
“It wasn’t a bed of roses. Money was short, I lived in a small room near Victoria for one pound a day but I had the fire in my belly to make it big,” he says.
“But when you leave your country to come abroad your back is against the wall. You don’t want to go back home with your tail between your legs and say ‘I failed’.”
Failure is not a word you’d associate with Noon. Over the course of 46 years he has spent in Britain, he’s been awarded an MBE in 1996 and made a Knight Bachelor in 2002. In January 2011, he became life peer as Baron Noon and was introduced in the House of Lords.
He’s had his days spinning around Bentleys and Rolls Royces but now prefers a modest Jaguar. He lives with his wife Mohini in a six-bedroom apartment in St John’s Wood.
“No swimming pools or underground cinemas for me, I like to keep it simple,” he says.
He’s definitely more patriotic than your average British Asian. “I love Britain, this is my country,” he says beaming with pride.
A testimony to his love for Britain is that he “wholly and solely” chooses to cheer for England over India in a cricket match.
“A lot of people call me a traitor because I support England, but I don’t care. I am British and this country has given me everything, why won’t I back it?”
But there was a time when Noon contemplated leaving Britain altogether.
Back in 2006, he got embroiled in the “Cash for Honours” scandal where it was implied that Noon’s £250,000 loan to the Labour government was to get a recommendation of his name in the peerage. Lord Noon said that when completing a form for the peerage, he included details of the loan. He was reminded by Lord Levy, the then Labour chief fundraiser “to not declare the amount because it was a loan and not a donation.” Then, Noon amended the form and did not include the loan thinking “he was correcting an error”.
What followed was a police investigation and a media storm but Noon stuck to his guns.
The end? Tony Blair apologised to Lord Noon and Gordon Brown admitted to him: “We have treated you very badly”.
Talking about the scandal, a candid Noon says, “I didn’t do anything wrong. Any person walking on the street, be it a millionaire or a billionaire has a right to make a donation to the party they like. Why single me out? I liked Tony Blair, he and the Labour party impressed me and I made the donation and I still do.
“I got embroiled [in the scandal] for someone else’s mistakes.”
But Noon’s buried the hatchet and doesn’t bat an eyelid to say he came out “brilliantly well”.
“I got my Lordship under the Conservatives with Cameron as leader. Isn’t than an irony? Of course, it was proposed by Gordon Brown, pushed by Ed Miliband but still…” he laughs.
Noon then tells me that he’s proud to have “behaved in the most-dignified manner” and that he cooperated through and through with all the investigations.
“I never criticised anyone,” he says raising a finger in the air.
“I didn’t say a word about any politician or the media. Even if someone called me at midnight, I would pick up their call. I knew I was in a ditch and messing around would make me go further deep.”
He then tells me that he’s amicable with John Yates, the then Metropolitan Police officer leading the “cash for peerages” probe who grilled Noon on several occasions.
“I’ve met John Yates twice or thrice, we’ve had a nice chat. It’s all in the past now.”
But even after all the mudslinging, Noon’s hunger for power hasn’t abated.
“Politics is power, isn’t it? I tasted power from my early days in Mumbai so I wanted to make my presence felt here too. I like the fact that I am respected and
distinguished in political circles. The man who says he doesn’t care about hobnobbing with politicians is lying.”
As for politics today, Noon tells me that his loyalties lie with the Labour Party.
“I think Ed Miliband would make a better leader than David Cameron, he’s climbed up quite fast. He’s a clever man and he knows what he’s doing.”
However he’s a fan of a certain Tory. “Although I’ve always been a Ken Livingstone supporter, I think Boris Johnson has done a very good job with London. I know I am a Labour supporter but if someone’s doing a good job, we must applaud them”
Noon’s uber optimism is too good to be true sometimes, but his reaction to being trapped in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 convinces me otherwise.
Recalling the incident, Noon tells me, “I was going to my room at the Taj Mahal hotel and as I got out the lift, my butler told me that terrorists had entered the hotel and were killing people.
“We jarred the door together and I wrote 10 points on the hotel letterhead for my family, went to the bathroom, wrapped it in a hair net and put it in my back pocket. So that if I’m shot on the chest, at least the blood wouldn’t soil the paper.”
It was only at 7am the next morning that Noon was rescued by firefighters.
What impact did it have on him?
“Well, I went and stayed at the same hotel six weeks later! People thought I was mad, but I can’t let negative forces bog me down,” he says.
His reaction to the incident sums up his zest for life and his outright defiance to resignation.
“If you allow your fire to dampen, you become a vegetable! I’m not a handyman, an electrician, carpenter or a brick layer. So, I don’t need to retire.
“Also, if I sit at home, I’ll drive my wife mad,” he chuckles.