Wed, 19 Jun 2019
A burning entrepreneurial spirit has driven Umar Khan his whole life and the hard work and determination is now paying off, as he heads up two successful Snappy Snaps stores.
Born in North West Pakistan, Umar went to school there, taking his A-levels and preparing to go on to university.
Having enjoyed physics and mathematics at school, he looked destined to go into medicine.
But the family decided to follow his father to the UK and moved in 1984, just before Umar, then aged 18 years, started medical school.
Initially he tried to continue his studies at Acton Technical College and Southall College, taking language classes and signing up for a ‘Pathway to Further Education’ course.
He was studying more technical subjects now leading to an engineering degree, while working part-time at Heathrow Airport.
When he finished college for Christmas in 1986, he decided it was time to move into full-time work and he left his course six months before it was due to conclude.
“My parents found out I had left college and they weren’t happy at all,” he admits.
“Although I was enjoying the courses and doing very well, the need to support family financially took precedence, so I wanted to develop within the work environment.
“So I started as a cashier in retail at Heathrow and within six months I had been made assistant duty manager.
“After a few years I moved to a new retail company, still based at the airport, to manage their store.
“It looked like the decision to leave college was definitely the right one.”
But unfortunately the company went bankrupt during the recession of the 1990s and Umar found it virtually impossible to get a job in retail again.
So he spent six months as a bus driver, before heading back to work at the airport for Travelex.
“I then moved to Nationwide Building Society as it could offer me better opportunities,” he explains.
“The manager supported me to study for my banking exams.
“After two years there I decided I wanted to do something myself and I started a small business, working in market trading.
“A few years later, in 1994, I started a small business at Brighton Palace Pier. It was very profitable, but very seasonal.
“I had just wanted to try something different and it went well.
“I wanted to go back the following summer, but the rent had doubled so it would not have been viable.”
By 1996, Umar was writing to rail companies and airports asking for an opportunity to set up a store selling T-shirts, caps and souvenirs. Luton Airport offered him a place.
“It was a failure from day one though,” he remembers.
“We managed to survive by buying a lot of Euro ’96 products and selling that.
“We ended up with heavy losses but we survived our lease period.”
Putting the experience behind him, Umar’s entrepreneurial spirit was still alive and he looked to follow in his father’s footsteps and began renting property out, as well as chauffeuring.
The birth of his daughter in 1996 then brought an unexpected change.
“We believe that daughters bring good luck,” he explains.
“My daughter was born in 1996 and, unbeknown to me, my wife had filled in an application for a job with British Airways on my behalf.
“I just got a call one day telling me to come in for an interview and I got the job.
“It meant a stable income and the opportunity to do a lot of overtime.”
Things were looking positive for the family and Umar spent more than 15 years with the airline. He started in the passenger services team before being promoted to manage check-in for Concorde passengers.
He then moved to the customer relations team and eventually joined the engineering department in 2005.
“It was a very good job and I learnt a lot,” he adds.
“I was there until 2012. We were financially stable and so I started looking again for a business opportunity.
“I looked at a number of franchise opportunities, including Snappy Snaps, then in March 2012, the Newbury store became available.
“I enjoyed taking video and photos. It was a real passion of mine, but it is very different to run it as a business.
“The Newbury store was run-down and it was a real challenge to begin with.
“It was running 30 per cent down when I took the business on, but by August we had come out of the negative.
“By then the Uxbridge store had also come up and I really wanted it, but head office said I was not experienced enough yet.
“That summer I had a review meeting with them and it went really well so they agreed to me taking Uxbridge on too.”
So in November of the same year Umar took on another, run-down, store.
“The rent was much higher than in Newbury so it was very scary,” he recalls. “The store also had a lot of staff; overheads were big and the business was making very little money.
“That first Christmas was very bad and we didn’t hit any of our targets.”
Umar’s enthusiasm and willingness to invest in new equipment – he completely refitted the Newbury store the first summer and has replaced the entire printing system in each store twice – has helped secure the support and admiration of his head office.
Since then things have just got better and better and profits continue to rise year on year.
Umar, who lives in Southall with his wife and two children, says he is now at a stage where he would like to expand his portfolio of stores again.
“In 2013 Snappy Snaps was sold to Timpsons so the support I get from head office is now from a much bigger and very experienced retail organisation,” he adds. That kind of support structure gives me the confidence to expand more.
“It is a business I really enjoy being involved in.
“There is some uncertainty over Brexit at the moment but that seems to be very normal for retail.
“We’re facing all the normal challenges you get in retail but I have confidence we will be okay.
“There have been times when I’ve had virtually nothing, but there are always tough times and you ride them through and then look back at them as experiences.
“I am now very happy and really enjoying what I do. Whatever you do in life, you need to believe in yourself.”