Wanis International: The royal deal
After winning The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise this year, Wanis International is looking forward to further growth, although it’s looking backwards that provides the answers to the wholesaler’s success
There wasn’t anything palatial about where Wanis International pitched up when it first opened its doors in 1964.
A small shop situated along the busy Holloway Road in north London, Wanis was hardly the lap of luxury, with corrugated iron shutters and a handwritten sign on the street to attract passers-by inside. It might not have looked like much to the uninitiated, but it was the start of something special.
Wanis was full to the rafters with imported goods and soon became a home-from-home for the capital’s diaspora of Caribbean and south-east Asian immigrants who had settled in the area in the 60s.
“Our founder’s name was Tulsidas Wadhwani but known as Mr Wani because people couldn’t pronounce his name at the time, hence the name of the business,” explains Commercial Director George Phillips (pictured top left) from the decidedly plusher surroundings of Wanis’s head office in Leytonstone.
“Back in the 1960s, you just couldn’t find products such as Jamaican ackee in shops in Britain, for instance. So Mr Wani started importing small quantities of these products for the immigrant population and it all just snowballed massively from there.”
It was the first chapter of a story spanning almost six decades, which has seen the business grow beyond recognition into a successful wholesaler of products from all over the globe, providing for customers in the UK and exporting to 35 other nations.
And it’s that worldwide expansion that has led Wanis to the next step in its journey: a royal appointment at Buckingham Palace. The wholesaler received the invite after winning The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise 2022, primarily for its work in international trade, and was lauded for the business’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as its strong record in philanthropic work at home and abroad.
“One of the reasons, in our view, that export has grown so much is the big figure we’ve put as part of the award is that, in 2016, we set ourselves a target of doubling our export business in the next six years and by 2021, we were at about 180%,” Phillips continues.
“Because of those figures, it felt like the time was right to try to get the company recognised for our international sales. We’re proud of what we’ve done in export, so we decided to enter The Queen’s Awards. To win in a jubilee year is a great achievement.”
Managing Director Kapil – Tulsidas’s son – went to pick up the prize on the company’s behalf, shaking hands with Prince Charles and getting a snap in front of the palace. While any business would be thrilled to receive such recognition, the prestige meant something extra to the family because of Wanis’s roots.
“It means a huge amount to us as a company, but I understand why it’s so special for the family,” adds Phillips. “For Sanjay and Kapil, the sons of Mr Wani – who died 20 years ago – and his wife, they’re immensely proud of the company they founded in a place the size of this room nearly 60 years ago going to the palace.
“We’re such a close-knit company and a flat organisation; everyone at Wanis feels that and it means a lot to us too. These sorts of awards don’t grow on trees and you have to do something to get them and we’ve all played a part in winning.”
At the forefront of the win is Head of Export Bhavin Shah, who has helped to develop things from a one-man project supplying people in Europe and Africa to an entire department that now makes up more than 15% of Wanis’s business. And it’s continuing to grow.
With the full potential of export clearly due to the revenue it’s bringing in, it is now one of the business’s key focus areas. While other exporters are also based in this space, Wanis’s advantage has been its vast product range of nearly 11,000 products, which marries the imports from the early years with some British favourites.
“When you look at our customers in Europe, several are buying because they have big communities of West African people living there,” Phillips explains.
“Italy and Germany are great examples of that, although we also do big business in Ireland and there aren’t an awful lot of Caribbean or African people there. It shows that we’re seen as a world food specialist, not just in the UK.
“More than 50% of what we export is British brands. Customers may want to buy palm nut soup, rice, pounded yam or another one of the traditional products we sell in large volumes to ethnic customers, but at the same time we have a big demand for Kellogg’s, Heinz and Bird’s Custard
“It’s the same for our UK-based customers too. They come in for the international food, but they also want to buy Coca-Cola, Ambrosia, Fox’s Biscuits and all the other brands because they don’t want to come here then have to go somewhere else to buy those products. For export, that approach is incredibly valuable.”
Crunching the numbers has proved to be the backbone of Wanis’s success. Instead of offering customers what they think will sell, Shah and his team are constantly talking to people in different nations to understand their specific needs and closely follow market demands, whether that’s for a specific product or pack size.
It means with the 35 nations Wanis serves, there’s an eclectic mix. As well as a host of European nations and big hitters such as USA, Australia and Canada, there are West African nations, such as Nigeria and Senegal. The wholesaler even had a recent approach from a prospective customer in Vietnam. The strategy isn’t simply to gather customers and nations willy-nilly, though.
“We tend not to approach it as a box-check exercise to set a target of being in 100 countries and not caring as long as we get to 100 – there’s more thought goes into it than that,” Phillips says.
“When we look at the product range we have, we think about what the potential is in a country’s market and so it might not be worth spending a lot of time on Laos, for example, because there might not be a lot in our product range that would appeal.
“So it’s not just about getting new countries but doing more with the existing ones we’re working in as well. We always interrogate ourselves and ask, ‘are we selling everything to the customer that we possibly can be? Is our customer buying products we sell from other companies?’. We look at where the opportunity is for us.
“Success is not how many countries you’re in, it’s how deeply you’re in them. If you go to the supermarket, I’d rather have three or four products in 500 stores than 100 products scattered around 20 stores because you’ve got no depth, no penetration and, logistically, it’s horrible. Less is often more.”
One of the big considerations for Wanis has been the ever-changing international markets. And while it has posted five successive years of export growth, it has also had to contend with some big challenges along the way: namely Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, Brexit is the one that has been the most consistent headache in recent years, with continuing confusion and misunderstanding of rules across the EU nations.
Assumptions that it’d be a uniform approach across the continent have proved wide of the mark, with different trade policies and duty structures meaning the paperwork needed changes depending on the final destination of deliveries. It has meant previously straightforward consignments of the same products are held up because the likes of Italy, France and Germany each require different documents.
“It was impossible to plan properly [for Brexit] because on 2 January, I had a quick look at the government website thinking, in my naivety, that it would set out the things you’d need to trade with Europe. But no, all it said was, ‘the rules have changed, be ready’,” Phillips smiles wryly.
“Actually, we thought we had an idea of what would be involved with Brexit, but it wasn’t even close. Even now, you can’t really predict it because the regulations seem to be changing daily and if there’s a trade dispute over Ireland, you can be sure the EU will tighten its import regulations, so we’re hoping that will pan out acceptably for both.
“Flexibility is what gets you through. I think we’ve made a success of Brexit in so far as it was a challenge – the same as every exporter has had – but actually, I think we’ve largely been able to navigate through it.
“We’ve almost had to sit down and say, ‘forget the way we did it before’ and build new relationships. Bhavin now has about half a dozen trusted hauliers and agents and now he can say, ‘OK, we’ve got a shipment going to Germany, this is who I need to talk to’ in the knowledge that they’re the best-placed person to get the shipment through all the various tick boxes and paperwork.”
But it was that quick adaptation and understanding of other markets and opportunities outside of Europe that has helped Wanis to grow, with its global network coming to the fore. And also the wholesaler’s roots in supporting diversity at its headquarters in London, even if the operation is much bigger than when the business first started trading.
“Things like diversity and inclusivity are buzzwords, but they’re important,” Phillips concludes.
“We have 28 different nationalities working for Wanis – we’re like the United Nations.
“The flip side of that is we sell a lot to the Asian communities, West African communities, Caribbean communities and south-east Asian communities and the best way to sell to these people is to have someone working for you because then you understand how to represent the products and how to get the message through to consumers. If you’re selling to an international market, you want an international team to be doing the job.”
It was the same ethos that worked in the 60s. Spotting a gap in the market, understanding how to fill it and catering for that niche. Wanis may have come a long way since Mr Wani opened his store in 1964, but in some ways, it hasn’t changed at all.
Feature first published in Wholesale News September 2022. Photography: Harry ChambersGeorge Phillips Queen's Award for Enterprise Wanis International