It started badly, and with Idi Amin. In early August 1972 the president of Uganda ordered the expulsion of his country’s Asian minority, giving them 90 days to leave.
Tens of thousands of people were driven out, and one of them was the boy Shahid Sheikh with his prosperous father and siblings, all of whom were forced to quit the east African country. They lost everything.
And they settled in Britain; the start of a “rags-to-riches story” that helped define Sheikh’s character and career. In 1981, along with his three brothers, he set up Clifton Packaging. Today that company is a leader in flexible packaging for the food industry. Sheikh is managing director, while his 100-staff Leicester business has a turnover of over £20m.
That’s the career bit. The character-shaping bit is told in flashback reminiscences: the loneliness on landing in Britain in the early 70s, the lack of money and prospects for his family, the walk to school every day in cheap canvas sandals, the unhappiness on arrival at school, the eventual dropping out of school early. And the growing belief “society is made up of individuals who pull together – not apart – and who work together to make a team, company and society work”, he says.
Having built a successful career Sheikh wanted to use it as a tool for wider social good. Clifton Packaging is Sheikh’s social contract. He visits schools and colleges, is a cultural ambassador of Leicestershire County Cricket Club – the first Asian in the club’s history to hold the post – and is a former vice-chair of the Leicester DeMontfort 500 Round Table.
More recently Sheikh became a STEM ambassador. Ambassadors are volunteers in jobs and disciplines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) who offer their time and enthusiasm to help bring those subjects to life and demonstrate their value. The initiative is supported by government, charitable trusts and employers like him.
Sheikh has been an ambassador for five years, but points out his work in the wider community dates back far longer. In the noughties for example he was holding forth to school kids on the potential benefits of a career in business and life as an entrepreneur. He was chairing Leicestershire Institute of Directors and, as an avid sports fan, was a board member for the county’s Sports Partnership Trust Board.
“Connecting with your community has always been important to me; but more so to society now as cuts in education and college funding are hitting industrial sectors especially print and packaging,” says Sheikh. He echoes the ‘learning by doing’ philosophy of Dragons’ Den’s Peter Jones who set up his namesake enterprise academy in 2009 to encourage more entrepreneurialism.
“I didn’t enjoy school and left early. My life could easily have taken a different turn, but we had an idea and an opportunity and worked hard. What opportunities are we giving today’s youngsters? They not only have to live with today’s economic uncertainty, but training in business, enterprise and entrepreneurialism is neglected. Yet the British economy relies on this younger generation.”
If youngsters have it tough, so does packaging. The plastic pollution debate and the material’s image problem do no favours for recruitment. Most people – 95%, he says – come into plastics by accident.
Virtually no one chooses the career; like plastic, they get washed up on the shore. Trying to sell the sector to clever youngsters is like selling non-league football to a soccer star, he says.
“What we want to do at Clifton Packaging is not only teach school children and college goers about business and enterprise but packaging and plastics. It’s a story of art, design, science and technology, versatility, flexibility and creativity. It’s about turning theory into practice, encouraging children to come in with an idea, mock it up, and go through platemaking and the whole process.”
Most STEM ambassadors – there are 30,000 of them – applied for the role. Sheikh was invited. That might be down to his previous and ongoing community work, or it might have been that in the same year, 2013, he was awarded an OBE for services to business and charity. Or was it that in the same year his firm scooped manufacturing business of the year at the Asian Business Awards?
Ambassadors bring the boardroom to the classroom through activities such as presentations and careers talks, to mentoring and work experience. Sheikh rubs shoulders with soldiers, fire chiefs and paramedics at school careers days; a few months later he will be asked to give a talk to a class of kids on manufacturing, materials and technology in a school or at Clifton Packaging.
“I became a STEM ambassador because I love my job and this sector. I remember at school never having an opportunity for such hands-on advice on careers. Being an ambassador has given me the opportunity to be that person for other school children, and hopefully pass on my enthusiasm and passion to the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
Passion is a major driving force for Sheikh, be it for skills, sport or Britain. His passion for the latter is perhaps felt strongest. An export champion for the Department for International Trade, he looks with dismay as the UK packaging industry consolidates and shrinks. Brokers, he insists, do huge damage to the economy when they buy from overseas.
“I detest the brokers who buy from overseas and don’t support UK companies. If I can inspire one or two people with my passion for business, packaging and the UK, then hopefully it will have a pyramid-like effect and they might pass on that enthusiasm to three or four people, and so on. When they hear the rags-to-riches story of my family and about the canvas sandals hopefully they will see that successful companies are run by men and women just like them.”
Clifton Packaging is hoping to follow in the path of Dragons’ Den’s Peter Jones and launch an academy. The packaging centre of excellence will target not just schools and colleges, but the wider supply chain and other sectors. Students will learn through workshops and seminars about plastics and recycling alongside the core skills of business and enterprise.
Despite the negative news on plastic pollution, positive messages have emerged. After the Grenfell fire last June, for example, while the government and local authority in London dithered, a charity Sheikh was involved with responded within 12 hours by delivering food and supplies in carrier bags that went on to be featured in a GMTV news report.
Last month Sheikh was recognised across a record four award categories at this year’s Institute of Directors’ East Midlands Director of the Year Awards to go with dozens of industry and peer awards over the years. Sheikh said he was overjoyed “because not many people know the journey that we’ve been on as a company and a family.
“Each time I collect an award I always remember where I came from and each one is as humbling as the one before – I don’t lose focus on that,” he says.
“I don’t know what impact my community and charity work has; it’s hard to quantify. But I see my job as to try and inspire people in their working lives and, more specifically to print and packaging, to raise awareness of people’s surroundings and the positive impact our sector has economically and environmentally. My story started badly in Uganda, but it gets better and better in Britain.”
Clifton Packaging Group
Inspection host Managing director Shahid Sheikh
Size Turnover: just over £20m; Staff: 100
Products Packaging and contract packing predominantly for the food sector – plain, barrier and printed films, three-sided seal, spouted, stand-up, ovenable and vacuum pouches
Kit Two eight-colour KBA Flexotecnica Evo (an XD and an XG) presses, one Uteco Crystal HD flexo press, five Nordmeccanica laminators, three platemaking machines and three slitting machines
Inspection focus Connecting with your community
Host and attend events such as careers days, workshops, networking or motivational events.
Sponsor sport: Sheikh sponsors Leicester City and Leicestershire County Cricket Club.
Volunteer to help a local charity or other organisation and gain positive brand exposure.
Join a community board: Sheikh is an Amir Khan Gloves Gym advisory board member.
Work with other businesses: Sheikh explored an academy tie up with Dragons’ Den’s Peter Jones.