Mohsin and Zuber Issa : garage tycoons who put Asda in their trolley

The supermarket’s new owners are Mohsin and Zuber Issa, two brothers from Blackburn who started with a rundown petrol station 20 years ago. But their success has always been about food as much as fuel.

The latest chapter in the remarkable rise of the Blackburn-based brothers Mohsin and Zuber Issa caught even those who observed their rise at close quarters by surprise, says The Times. Last month one of them met a senior member of the local district council. “Zuber kind of mentioned that he thought they were in pole position to buy Asda,” the latter relates. “I was tempted to say: ‘What, the one round the corner?’.” 

The brothers’ £6.8bn deal to buy the UK’s third-largest supermarket from Walmart has been almost universally welcomed as a great British success story. After 20 years in US ownership there was a sense of the business (founded in 1965 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire) returning home. Indeed, the supermarket’s chief executive, Roger Burnley credits them with being “the most Asda non-Asda people I’ve ever come across” – even if, as he joked, the Lancastrian-born brothers hail “from the wrong side of the Pennines”.

An empire that started with a garage

Even before Asda came onto the radar, the publicity-shy brothers’ progression from small-time garage owners to billionaire petrol-station tycoons was a remarkable rags-to-riches story that has largely gone unnoticed, says the Daily Mail. Born to Indian parents, who moved from Gujarat to the UK “with nothing” in the early 1970s and found work in Blackburn’s textile mills, Mohsin, 49, and Zuber, 48, grew up in a modest terraced house in the town – and learned the value of hard graft early. After leaving his job at the mill, their father bought his own garage and, in their teens, the brothers helped out selling petrol and refreshments. Although the family later sold the business, “the seeds of a billion-pound empire were sown”, says The Manchester Evening News. In 2001, when they bought “a rundown garage” on a busy road in nearby Bury for £150,000, they pushed the site’s retail potential, adding a newsagent and grocery business. The idea was to turn petrol forecourts into places people chose to visit – “motorway services, off the motorway”, as Mohsin later put it. 

The brothers expanded rapidly: snapping up ailing garages across Lancashire and then the whole of the UK under the Euro Garages (EG) brand. Those who watched their progress put it down to “entrepreneurial nous and a bucket load of debt”, says The Sunday Times. Still, the timing was spot on. Faced with declining fuel sales, the oil majors were pulling out of the market leaving plenty of cheap sites available. 

Food, not fuel

The brothers – who later boasted they made more from selling a cup of coffee than on the average tank fill-up – had spotted the direction of travel: a crucial early move was to partner with well-known names such as Spar and Subway. International expansion (EG has 6,000 forecourts in ten countries) coincided with deals to run outlets for Greggs, KFC and Starbucks. In 2017, they bought 77 Little Chef roadside restaurants. 

EG is valued at £10bn, with £7.3bn in debt (the brothers own 50% and private-equity group TDR holding the rest), so Asda will be their biggest deal yet. But the brothers think it will complement their business, while their experience will re-energise it, says the Financial Times.“We grew EG from nothing. We’ve been on the pumps, we’ve been stocking the shelves, cleaning the toilets. You do everything,” says Zuber. “Once you do the foundation work, it’s no different wherever you go in the world.”

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