Between a lox and a hard place!

Between a lox and a hard place!

The boss of the UK’s oldest smoked salmon maker tells Jewish News how London’s Olympic Games almost wrecked his 100-year-old family firm

Owner Lance Forman with his staff
Owner Lance Forman with his staff

Amid all the euphoria that greeted London after it was chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games, one man wasn’t cheering quite as loudly as the rest.

Lance Forman, the owner of H. Forman & Son, a company that has been called “the finest smoked salmon purveyor in Britain”, operated from business premises that were almost exactly on the spot where the Olympic Stadium was destined to be built.

He had been engaged, ever since the possibility was mooted of the Games coming to London, in a battle with the powers-that-be to protect and preserve, not only the 100-plus-year-old heritage of his fourth generation company, but also the livelihoods of the people that worked for him.

And he was not alone. Marshgate Lane in East London and its surrounding area was home to 350 businesses employing more than 12,000 people – but he had learned the hard way how to deal with setbacks. The Forman factory had already been devastated by fire and had no sooner recovered than the adjoining River Lea burst its banks and flooded the place.

Forman was implacably determined that the enterprise founded in 1905 by his great-grandfather Aaron [known as Harry, hence the ‘H’ in the company name] and carried on by his grandfather Louis and his father Marcel would not now die.

Marcel Forman (Lance’s father) with salmon curers at the Ridley Road smokehouse in the 1960s
Marcel Forman (Lance’s father) with salmon curers at the Ridley Road smokehouse in the 1960s

In his recently published book, Forman recalls the struggle that preceded the Olympic announcement and the tragi-comedy of errors, obfuscations and what he sees as downright foul play on the part of the authorities that followed it.

Forman’s Games could easily be seen as just another David and Goliath saga, but the author’s handling of facts and figures allied to close knowledge of the characters involved makes it more. Ultimately it is an inspiring tale, but in between there was much misery and uncertainty.

“A lot of people just gave up,” he tells me now, from his new premises opposite the stadium that caused all the trouble. “Many buried their heads in the sand; they just assumed, like the London government, it [the Olympics] was never going to happen.”

Once the city was chosen, he says, “it’s an impossible battle to fight; the government just wears you down. A lot of people just didn’t have the tenacity, the support to go off and fight this thing.”

Anyone who thought Forman was just another small businessman who could be worn down, however, was in for a surprise. Before joining the family firm, he served as special adviser to the then-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Lilley. Not incidentally, he had also been president of the Cambridge Union. He had contacts, and he had experience of dealing with argumentative opponents.

Among these were Tony Blair, Lord Coe and – especially – Ken Livingstone, mayor of London at the time and caught well in the cross hairs of Forman’s book.

The mayor’s relationship with the London Development Agency (LDA), charged with “assembling” the land for the Olympics, is a particular target.

Lance Forma
Lance Forman

In one of the milder references, Forman writes: “Overweening and opaque, the LDA was ruthlessly exploited by Livingstone. I’d learnt to my cost that while the mayor and his cronies paid lip service to ‘vital small businesses’ during hustings and public debates, their calculating actions were far removed from their soaring rhetoric.”

Forman, who lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb and is a member of Norrice Lea shul, quotes the Yiddish proverb, ‘Mann tracht und Got lacht’ [man plans and God laughs], early in the book as a way to explain the troubles through which his company went.

But, he adds, it was those very traumas that helped him in his struggle with the LDA and others. “It was partly my heritage, partly an innate survival instinct,” he tells me. “But also, having had these other disasters, I was just annoyed with what was going on and I didn’t want this thing to end in the way it might have done.”

In the end, Forman won his battle against the compulsory purchase orders and relocation “nitpickers” (his word) and agreed to the installation of H. Forman & Son on a site on the appropriately-named Fish Island, from where he can gaze, if he wishes, on the Olympic Stadium across the road.

The new H. Forman & Son factory at Fish Island
The new H. Forman & Son factory at Fish Island

He is clearly happy the saga is over though, as he writes, he is still counting the cost in terms of uncertainty and stress. “The whole thing has been a roller coaster,” he says. “As I say in the book, a lot of people come (to the new premises) and say, although not in a bad way, that I seem to have done quite well out of the Olympics.

Lance’s book about the company.
Lance’s book about the company.

“I thought it was important to set the record straight, get people to understand how we arrived at this point and all the trauma along the way. There are some interesting life lessons in there and business lessons; that’s why I needed to get this down in writing.”

On the day of our interview, he is hugely amused by the fact he will later be attending West Ham’s opening game of the new season at their new ground – the stadium itself. “I haven’t been to a football match for about 45 years,” he told me. “And now I’m going, they’ll be playing on top of my old smokehouse!”

• Forman’s Games by Lance Forman is published by Biteback, priced £20 (hardback) and is available now

Clockwise from top: The new H. Forman & Son factory at Fish Island; owner Lance Forman with his staff; Marcel Forman (Lance’s father) with salmon curers at the Ridley Road smokehouse in the 1960s and Lance’s book about the company. Inset: Lance Forman

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