‘I’ve always had a passion for food’By Paul Robins
August 12, 2008
Cooking has never been Pru Naik’s forte – but that hardly matters when you own 24 thriving fast food restaurants.
From humble beginnings working in his father’s bakery in Zambia, the 44-year-old has gone on to become the biggest McDonald’s franchisee in the UK.
In February he added all six Reading outlets to his growing business empire, which stretches right across the South of England.
He told Business Post: “I have always wanted to work for myself and what bigger organisation to be a part of than McDonald’s.
“It’s the number one restaurant chain in the world and to have that sort of backing, but still run your own business, is fantastic.
“I have always had a passion for business and a passion for food, although admittedly the only thing I can cook is a Big Mac.
“What’s important though, is to have a bit of your soul in the company you run, otherwise your staff won’t believe in you.”
As a franchisee, Naik has total managerial control of his restaurants and is responsible for around 1,200 staff and an annual turnover approaching £37 million.
“My day is usually full of meetings with my managers and my staff,” he explains. “I don’t have an office because I’m somewhere different everyday.
“I’m one of those people who has to be on the go all the time. The hardest part is managing my time, but I really enjoy my job and try to look at everything as a positive.”
Born in India and brought up in Zambia, Naik’s passion for business was evident at an early age when he began working for his father’s cash and carry distribution company.
However the economic situation in the mid 1980s “wasn’t very stable”, so he moved to Epsom to study business management.
After a brief stint as an ambulance driver, Naik opened his first convenience store in 1989 and this soon increased to five.
However he felt he had bigger fish to fry and leapt at the chance to become a McDonald’s franchisee in 1996.
“Signing for my first restaurant in Hounslow was a huge decision”, he said. “It was a probably the biggest of my professional life.
“Entering into a 20-year contract with McDonald’s is a huge commitment financially and a huge commitment to the brand.”
However signing the contract was easy, he recalls, compared to nine months learning the ropes on the shop floor.
“On my first day I broke the coffee machine and tripped out the electricity of the whole restaurant.
“It was a nightmare but if you want to run a business you need to know the nuts and bolts of it. I wouldn’t expect my staff to do anything I haven’t done.”
Naik has spent the next decade on an aggressive acquisition drive, picking up 18 restaurants stretching all the way along the M4 corridor.
But his biggest haul to date is his foray into the Reading market, taking over eateries in Reading Gate Retail Park, Oxford Road, Forbury, Lower Earley, The Oracle and Friar Street.
“There is huge potential here,” he told Business Post. “Reading is a very stable place to do business and I have a vision of where I want to take Reading in the next three years. That starts with refurbishing four of the six stores, but each one will be tailored to suit the local customer base.
“At Reading Gate we will be using mature colours and soft seating whereas at Oxford Road we will be going for powerful colours to attract the teenagers.
“We are always looking at what our customers want, whether that’s free WiFi access or better seating. The 17-25-year-old market told us they wanted touch screen ordering so we are introducing that soon as well.”
The refurbishments – costing £1 million each – are part of the ongoing crusade to change the stereotypical image of the brand, particularly in light of the damning documentary Supersize Me and a string of lawsuits brought by customers on health grounds.
“The old red fast food brand is well and truly gone but it’s difficult to shift the public’s perceptions,” he admits.
“There is a lot of debate over obesity and it is our responsibility as a company to respond and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“Our menu has evolved – our ingredients are top notch, we use free range eggs and our Happy Meals have 30 per cent less salt.
“Experts recently proved that a Big Mac contains less fat than a supermarket sandwich. The problem is trying to make people aware of it.”
The other stigma attached to the Golden Arches product is the use of the phrase McJob, which has become a universal term for all low-paid menial occupations.
But Naik says that it is out of date too and points to his own success – having won the prestigious Golden Arches Award for outstanding service in 2006 – as a prime example of the opportunities on offer.
“The McJob in no way reflects what we offer,” he argues. “A lot of my staff come through referrals from family members who already work for me.
“Ten people who started off as team members are now part of my senior management team.
“Three of the last four chief executives of McDonald’s worldwide started on the shop floor. That’s why I’m so excited to be in Reading because there is a huge pool of talented people here.
“My message to them is you can achieve your dreams with McDonald’s just like I have.”