You could say Athif Sarwar was always destined to become either a politician or a businessman. His father Mohammed has been involved in politics and built up a business empire, while one brother, Anas, is a Member of the Scottish Parliament and the other brother, Asim, runs United Wholesale, the family business that’s taken on the German Doner Kebab franchise. So as you can imagine, dinners with the Sarwars inevitably turn into lengthy discussions about either business or political issues.
In fact, while they were still kids Sarwar’s dad would typically identify which family members might be suited for politics and who would be cut out for the business world. But the choice was always crystal clear for the entrepreneur. “Politics is too boring and there’s no money to be made,” he says. “I’ve been drawn to business since I was 16.” Hungry to learn, Sarwar would help out in the family shops whenever he could and when he went to the University of Glasgow, he chose business-related courses like management and economics.
All this prepared him for his big break at the age of 21, when he took over the family’s cash and carry business. While most of his friends were still at university or delaying adulthood, Sarwar was steering the direction of a company that was turning over around £35m a year. Although this might overwhelm some, the plucky Scotsman felt quietly confident. “It wasn’t that intimidating because I was already familiar with the business,” he says. “I knew exactly how the buying worked and who the customer was. I was also working with a team of people who had been there for years, even decades.”
His first foray into franchising came a few years into his role when, along with younger brother Asim, he decided to bring a number of existing United Wholesales stores together under the banner of Day-Today. But rather than slowly franchising the stores over time, Sarwar jumped in with both feet. On April 1 2004, he announced to the press that he was about to take on 30 franchisees – all at the same time. Was it a joke? Could he really be so daring? The media lapped up the story, which spread both online and offline. But underneath his cool exterior, Sarwar was feeling the pressure. “I was bricking it right up to the night before the announcement,” he admits. “It was a very tense six months preparing the franchisees for the launch.”