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Okhai the Noo! – a Dundee family success story

Updated: Jul 29, 2023


The Okhai brothers, Bashir, Ibrahim and Aziz, in their Wester Gourdie factory in 1984 (photo by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

It was a popular sight in Dundee in the early 1970s - vans painted with the logo “Okhai the Noo are here for you!” That was just the start of a remarkable story of business triumph and adversity from one enterprising family of immigrants to Dundee.


The Okhai family came to Dundee from Malawi, having emigrated there from Gujarat in India in the 1930s. Previously a British protectorate called Nyasaland, Malawi became independent in 1964 and many Asians feared they might face persecution under the new regime.


The name Okhai came from Okha Port in Gujarat – interviewed for the Colourful Heritage project in 2020, Bashir Okhai recalled: “the name Okhai stuck and we used it because it’s quite appropriate in Scotland as ‘Och aye the noo’, so it’s a very memorable name”. Back in 1981, his brother Aziz had stated: “We’ve inherited the name for 20 generations and never before has it been sullied in any way. Monetary considerations are insignificant compared to the importance we place on our name.”


Abdul Aziz Okhai (born 1943) was the first of the family to come to Dundee, arriving as a student of Medicine at Queen’s College, Dundee (now the University of Dundee) in 1961. While Aziz was in his final student year, his elder brother Ibrahim (born 1940) decided to join him in Dundee to go into business. Interviewed by the Dundee Courier in 1983, Ibrahim said that the decision was made for him by the new political regime in Malawi, claiming that he was “served with a deportation order and given a one-way ticket”. He arrived in April 1966 and was joined by the third brother Bashir (born 1955) in November. Their parents wound down their business in Malawi and followed a few years later.


Bashir (only 11 at the time he arrived in Scotland), recalls: “It was a great adventure as far as I was concerned, that you’re going to a new country and let’s see what happens… I settled in quite comfortably”. He was the only Asian child in his primary school but “I’ve always felt that the Scottish community is more attuned to accepting other nationalities… There are always people who will have an issue… but generally, I would say 90-95% of Scots accepted [us] readily”.


Ibrahim began his business career in Dundee by buying empty properties to rent. He also worked as a decorator and handyman but it was tough going. By 1968, he had decided that “the future lay in trading.” This was the beginning of what became the Okhai Group, with Ibrahim acting as chairman. Aziz, who was then working as a registrar at Dundee Royal Infirmary, was persuaded to give up his medical career and join the business as managing director. Ibrahim always referred to Aziz as “the doctor”: “I needed someone intelligent and hard working, but who would not have to be paid much of a salary – in other words, the doctor. He has contributed more to the business than I have. In 1968 the doctor travelled constantly for ten months to find clients abroad.”


They began by selling torch batteries and vacuum flasks, among various other products. Initially, they traded mostly in Europe but when their father joined them he encouraged them to sell goods in Africa. In 1968 their turnover was £30,000 – by 1981 it had grown to £8 million. Initially, they were just the middle men but by 1971 they were manufacturing products themselves, mainly plastic lollypop sticks made in a disused pub. Demand was so great they soon set up a factory at 44 West Henderson’s Wynd.


As well as making their own products they also branded existing goods with their name – the Okhai pocket calculator, for example, was briefly popular in the early 1970s. The Okhai Group always comprised various different companies focusing on different elements of the business – early names included Shadnam Investments and Soofi Confections Ltd.


In the mid-1970s they diversified into stationery and packaging, becoming “Scotland’s biggest independent stationery distribution business”. Their packaging materials were used to wrap a huge variety of products, from sweets to explosives. In 1979, the Press & Journal claimed that their wrappers “cover boiled sweets in Pakistan, blackcurrants in Mauritius… bonbons in Honduras and gingerbread cookies in West Germany.”


By that time Bashir had joined as company secretary and around 50% of their products were being exported overseas. A multi-million pound expansion saw them move to Rockwell Works in Rockwell Place, with additional facilities in Aberdeen and Glasgow. But their biggest challenge was yet to come – taking on one of Dundee’s celebrated ‘three Js’.


Keiller’s marmalade had been one of the most famous breakfast foods in the world but the company had not been Dundee-owned since 1919 when it was sold to Crosse & Blackwell, who were in turn bought over by Nestle. The Dundee factory in Mains Loan had continued to operate, however, making marmalade, jam and other confectionary. However, in 1980 Nestle announced that Keiller's would have to close unless a buyer could be found for the brand. The Okhais (who remembered eating Keiller’s marmalade as children in Africa) determined to save it. With financial backing from the Scottish Economic Planning Department, they bought the company for £3 million in August 1981.


“Nobody thought Keillers could survive,” Ibrahim later recalled. “My competitors laughed. They thought this could bring the whole Okhai Group down – and so it could have.” The company was reputed to have made an annual loss of £1.7 million before the Okhais took it on, and the Mains Loan factory was only making marmalade one day a month. But the product still had a high reputation: “There are very few companies in the world where quality is accepted as part of the deal,” said Ibrahim. “Keillers is one of them.”


Advert for the Okhai Group at the height of their success in the early 1980s

The Okhais’ international connections were crucial in developing new markets for Keiller’s products. In less than a year, they had quadrupled exports to over £2million. Keiller’s goods were being exported to Kenya, South Africa, USA, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, West Germany, Cyprus, Lebanon, Oman, Japan and New Zealand. They even succeeded in selling their orange marmalade back to Spain where the oranges came from!


Marmalade, however, was just a small part of the business. The Okhais focused instead on making boiled sweets for the growing pick-and-mix market. They placed 1000 pick-and-mix stands at retail venues across the country and were soon making over 2 million sweets per day. In 1983 the total turnover of the Okhai Group was £25 million. Rescuing Keiller’s was hailed as “one of the most astonishing business feats in Scotland”. National recognition soon followed – a visit to the Mains Loan factory by Princess Diana in 1983; an invitation for Ibrahim to meet the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in 1984; and winning a Queen’s Award for export achievement in 1985.


Then suddenly, it was all over. In November 1985, the Okhai Group announced it was selling Keiller’s to the English company Barker & Dobson for £4.9 million. Ibrahim told the press: “now that it is well established there is nothing more to do here… I need a fresh challenge.”


In fact, the Okhais were already experiencing considerable challenges. Just a few months after the acquisition of Keiller’s they had also bought the Carnoustie-based Stangate (Softdrinks) Ltd, best known for the Meri-Mate fizzy drinks brand. Moving the company to a factory on Brunel Road in the Wester Gourdie Industrial Estate, they expanded the bottle production side of the business and were soon Europe’s largest manufacturer of PET bottles. Unfortunately, Meri-Mate showed little return for the investment the Okhais had put into it, and by 1985 they began to realise that they had over-reached themselves. According to an academic paper by Farag, Leonie & Nixon published in 1994, in 1985-6 the Group was making losses of over £5 million, which nearly placed it in the hands of the receiver. The basic problem was thought to be that it was still using the informal practices of a small family business, which were no longer suitable for a company of its size. The Okhais had continued to expand without recruiting staff with the necessary skills in computer systems and other new technology.


The sale of Keiller’s was followed by a management buy-out of another subsidiary, Chessbourne Ltd, which made office furniture and supplies. It had grown to become the largest company of its kind in the north of Britain, with a turnover of almost £11 million. In 1987 the Okhais sold it for £3.1 million. These sales helped to subsidise the on-going losses made by Meri-Mate, whose financial difficulties now became apparent. In 1986 a 19-day strike at the Brunel Road factory was followed by over 60 redundancies, with a further 78 the following year. To save money the Rockwell factory (which had continued to make flexible packaging) was closed and all the Okhai Group’s production was now based on Brunel Road. Meri-Mate ceased to make fizzy drinks and concentrated solely on making plastic bottles.



The Brunel Road factory at Wester Gourdie

In 1990 there was further bad news when a major fire broke out at a warehouse on Brunel Road, destroying a huge amount of stock. It later transpired that this was the 12th fire to hit the Okhais’ premises in eight years, suggesting a series of racially motivated attacks.


The Okhais had deliberately kept a low public profile during these difficult years, but in 1994 they announced a major programme of expansion. The workforce increased again to over 300 (still far short of the nearly 600 they had employed in the early 1980s). They purchased a bottle-producing factory in Wales and moved all its equipment to Dundee, where production was massively expanded. They were determined that past mistakes would not be repeated: “Formal planning procedures, budgetary control techniques and information systems are now in operation”.


Unfortunately, the business could not be made profitable again and receivers were appointed for Meri-Mate in December 1995. No buyers could be found and the workforce was gradually wound down until all production ceased in November 1996.


Only the packaging side of the business remained, and in 1997 the Okhais formed a new company, Rockwell Solutions, to take this forward. Focusing on peelable lidding films for the food industry, the company remained family-owned until 2017 when it was sold to Sappi, who have continued to run it at the Brunel Road factory.


In 2002, Bashir Okhai formed a new company, Unibev Ltd, with his children Yasin and Rashida. Based at Pearce Avenue on the West Pitkerro Industrial Estate, it became Sweetzone Ltd in 2015 and makes a wide variety of sweets for supermarkets and convenience stores.


Ibrahim’s son Yusuf has also found considerable business success. In 1997 he co-founded the computer consumables company Medea International, based at the former Levi’s factory. It specialised in cut-price ink cartridges and achieved almost £20 million in sales before the printer giant Epson launched High Court proceedings against them. The case was eventually settled but caused the collapse of the company.


Undeterred, Yusuf has since found remarkable success through his current company Aydya Ltd, formed in 2009. It makes two award-winning products, the Any Sharp knife sharpener, which now sells around a million units a year to more than 50 countries; and the Ion8 water bottle which has also become a million-a-year seller. In 2021, Aydya was given a Queen’s Award for Industry, the same award given to Ibrahim and his brothers 36 years earlier. “My dad died four years ago but I remember him winning in the 1980s,” Yusuf told the Courier. “It’s like it’s gone full circle.”



The Okhai family tartan

Several other members of the Okhai family are also now involved in businesses in Dundee. Their love for their adopted country was demonstrated in 2020 with the creation of an Okhai family tartan. It includes orange strands to represent Keiller’s marmalade and white on blue for the Saltire flag. The black squares comprise 66 threads to commemorate the year that the family settled in Scotland.


“Although I wasn’t born in Scotland, I consider myself Scottish,” said Bashir Okhai in 2020, “because I’ve spent the majority of my adult life here and I love the country – it’s home to me…Whenever you come back to Scotland, if you’re coming over the Tay Bridge and you see Dundee… you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m home!’”



Written by Matthew Jarron, University of Dundee Museums



Sources:


Various issues of the Courier and Press & Journal


https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/business-environment/business/2174935/dundee-entrepreneur-devastated-by-5m-legal-battle-bounces-back-to-win-top-honour-for-million-knife-sharpener-sales/


Mr Bashir Okhai interview for Colourful Heritage at https://www.colourfulheritage.com/portfolio/mr-bashir-okhai/


L E Farag, A ALonie& W A Nixon, ‘The Okhai Group: Origins of a Turnaround Strategy?’, Dundee Discussion Papers in Accountancy and Finance (University of Dundee, 1994)


https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/


Okhai tartan at https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=12870


https://www.rockwellsolutions.com/


http://www.sweetzone.co.uk/


https://www.aydya.co.uk/

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