Aged just 16, Afzal Kahn got his inspiration for a specialist car parts business from an unlikely source a factory making plastic coffins. There he rapidly learned different plastic moulding techniques and also how to manage a factory. By the time he was 18 he was ready to put his skills to a new use.
"I always liked cars and wanted to start up an accessories shop." Kahn bought the resins he needed to make plastic car parts and began churning out niche products, such as specialised spoilers for rally car enthusiasts. He didn't supply customers directly, but sold the parts he made to vendors of car body kits.
His artistic designs and willingness to undercut his competitors on price quickly won him business in the Midlands. The booming mid-1990s British economy and growing racer boy' culture also helped as more customers started to customise their cars. As sales grew he took on more staff, expanded his product range and moved to new premises. By 1996 the business had an annual turnover of around £500,000.
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But Kahn wasn't happy. "Everyone was getting rich apart from me. My trade customers were incorporating my designs into their product range. I had been nave and didn't understand about intellectual property and patents." So he decided to start making more products, but to sell direct to the consumer.
He designed a five-spoke wheel rim "it was different to everything else out at the time" and travelled to Italy to find a factory to make it. "I took out two small advertisements in Auto Trader and Top Car and had the wheels sold before I even landed in Britain." Selling direct to customers increased his margins and that allowed him to experiment with a wider product range. "We became experts in lots of different parts of car design."
By 2002 Kahn was ready to take his business to the next level. "Customers had been asking me to redesign their whole cars and not just sell them accessories." He bought some Land Rovers and once the cars were in his studio he "stripped them and built them back up again in our style We weren't just changing how the cars looked, we were re-engineering them." Exhausts, steering wheels, dashboards and roofs were all changed. "We invested in technology. Other rivals used clay models, but we made a digital model of the car so we knew exactly what we were working with."
The remodelled cars were a hit with celebrities glamour model Katie Price was an early customer. That helped business. "Thanks to word of mouth and celebrity customers I didn't have to spend any money on marketing." Kahn also drove his latest models around his upmarket London Belgravia neighbourhood to attract more wealthy customers.
Last year he signed a deal with the owners of Jeep to sell a modified version of its Wrangler truck, which he rebranded the Chelsea Truck. He has also partnered Audi, Porsche and Ferrari. "They might be foreign cars but we make them more British. I only use British parts. The Midlands has a proud history with cars and I want to see that continue."
The 38-year-old Kahn's unique approach of melding foreign luxury cars and British styling seems to be working well. Last year Kahn Design Group's annual sales hit £30m.
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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