Salmon business on Fish Island is first big winner of London Olympics despite ‘disaster’
The man behind one of the East End’s oldest companies, whose business was threatened by the Olympics, is now entertaining Games dignitaries and celebrities after turning a disaster into a booming business opportunity.
Lance Forman, 49, now prides himself of being “the only Olympic success story” as Games organisers and sponsors, international sport stars and politicians flock to his smoked salmon empire to zip champagne and enjoy gourmet food.
Everyone from Boris Becker, Steve Redgrave, Sally Gunnell and Princess Anne to Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone and the Mayor of Rio have been to his Fish Island venue.
Alongside his traditional H. Forman & Son salmon smoke house, the site on Stour Road boasts a small restaurant and large events space with an art gallery overlooking the Olympic Stadium.
And soon Mr Forman will turn a piece of wasteland he owns next to the building into a �2m entertainment Riviera lined with bespoke hospitality suites for the Games.
For after the Olympics he has his own legacy plans for transforming the land into a residential led scheme with artists’ galleries, boutiques and cafes.
But Mr Forman has had to drive his own faith as he battled against what he describes as three major disasters in just four years.
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First the family business burnt down, then it flooded before relocating, only to be kicked off the land to make way for the Olympic Stadium.
Mr Forman said: “A lot of people come here and they say it looks like you’re doing well out of the Olympics. What I would say is that it was a very hard battle.
“It was a nightmare with years of uncertainty and we didn’t know if we would survive it.”
The company, the only remaining of London’s original smokeries, was founded by Lance’s great grandfather Harry, on his mother’s side, in Stepney Green in 1905.
Arriving from Russia Harry was one of many Jews who brought fish smoking from Eastern Europe to the East End.
But in 1998 Lance’s father watched the family business, which had relocated to Hackney Wick, burn down before retiring.
“That’s when my father couldn’t face it anymore. I had returned to the business four years earlier after training in the factory as a teenager. I then said to my dad I would rebuild it and carry it on.
“But within nine months of opening this fantastic new facility the whole thing was three feet under water.
“That’s when we relocated to inside that place later earmarked for the Olympic Stadium when London bid for the Games in 2003. So it was just disaster after disaster.”
And looking back Mr Forman says it was “certainly no thanks” to the London Mayor’s business arm, the London Development Agency, who threatened him with a compulsory purchase order that he managed to secure a site only a stone’s throw from the old site and turn a disaster into a Games success story.
“The LDA were a nightmare. They strung us along knowing they could steal the land anytime they wanted.”
But Mr Forman, who graduated in economics and management from Cambridge University, said: “It was almost as though God had primed me with the perfect skills for this challenge. Before joining the family business in 1994 I worked as an accountant, political advisor and in real estate in Eastern Europe.”
But even with his financial, political and development planning skills Mr Forman said he had to “slay the dragon” a different way.
“There was no point in trying to fight it out in the courts because compulsory purchase law is unfair and needs severe overhauling.
“Instead we decided to become the biggest nuisance to the government and authorities. We asked awkward questions at every public meeting, bombarded them with letters and got ourselves into the media.
“To some extent the publicity turned our faith. Literally a day before we were due to question Seb Coe at a public inquiry we got a phone call offering us to a deal and we finally did a deal.”
Asked whether he had ever felt like giving up returning to his old career an emotional Mr Forman admitted:
“I love a challenge but no I did, it was just horrible, my friends said you must be the unluckiest man in the world.
“But I’m a fighter and the harder the challenge, the more I begin to rise to it.”
Mr Forman said the could not have done it without the support of his wife Rene, his teenage sweetheart, with whom he has three children, and who had an early career as an actress starring as Pamela Cartwright in the BBC drama Grange Hill and a Sting pop video.
His fighting spirit he attributes to his father: “My father spent his childhood in a Siberian prison camp because he was born in Poland. He was a prisoner of war taken by the Russians and escaped as a child refugee to London. So there is a bit of fighting for survival down the line.
“You’ve got to drive your own faith.
“When the Olympics came along a lot of the businesses just sat there and sucked their thumb, panicked, and didn’t know what to do. If you want to make positive change you have to be open to change.
“We made a strategic decision to do a deal quickly. There were 250 businesses, 75 of them didn’t survive it and 100 are still fighting for compensation.”
Under the deal the LDA paid for Forman’s new site to the extent that it matched the old place. But Mr Forman decided to invest himself by adding a restaurant.
“We could have put the Olympics behind us. But we had five years of lost time, when the economy was booking and we stood still because weren’t focused on our business while fighting this battle.”
“So I thought lets see if we can turn the Olympics into a positive experience for us and capitalise on some of the people coming to the Games.
“Then after a year of moving here in 2007 we kept looking out the window from this huge loft space we have thinking: There is a big stadium, what can we do with it?”
“We decided to turn in into an events space, which is also an art galley, and we have now hosted three quarters of all Olympic related events.
“We were the only show in town and the only Olympics success story organisers could show off to people from all over the world.
“It has been a complete life changing experience. I now meet all these celebrities and get contacted by media all over the world who like our story.
He now expects to make more from his �2million investment in Olympic suites and from other Games entertainment than his factory’s annual turn-over.
One of the biggest lessons Mr Forman says he learned is to delegate if you want to grow as a business.
“In many owner managed small businesses they don’t want to trust anyone else. I was that person but when the Olympics came along there was no way I could continue to run the business and fight this battle.
“So I said to my team you are going to have to run the show while I go and slay the dragon. And it worked.”
It means I’ve come back to a much more professional team who can run the place. Among his trusted people are a chef manager who helps develop the restaurant and corporate side while his factory manager now gives factory tours to people from all over the world.
“My job has changed from coming in at four o’clock in the morning to select salmon as it comes out of the kiln to instead being the strategic figure head developing new ideas. And my staff saying: “oh no, not another one.”
Mr Forman now has 85 staff and has managed to retain all the staff from the previous site. He also expects hundreds of jobs will be created during the Games to cater for his Olympic suites.
After the Games Mr Forman hopes the area will become a trendy post industrial environment showcasing urban art.
“This area has the highest population of artists anywhere and as food artisans we feel a natural affinity with the art community.
“We would like to work with a developer to rebuild our riviera site with a residential led scheme, but have lots of galleries studious, boutiques, cafes.”
But despite all these plans Mr Forman believes he will get 90 per cent of his life back once he has come out on top after the Olympic Games.
“One day I will then sit down a write a book about the whole thing full of intrigue of how we acquired this site.”