Interview: why salmon-smoker Lance Forman is in the pink

H. Forman's building in London's East End
H. Forman’s building in London’s East End

Lance Forman, owner of a fourth generation London-based family business, doesn’t have much time for the Olympics, or at least the ones held in London in 2012. During the period leading up to the event, Lance and his salmon curing business H. Forman & Son were forced to sell their premises to the government because it was on land designated for the Olympic stadium.  

But not before a tremendous tussle between the family and the UK government took place. Lance even went to court to challenge the compulsory purchase of the land his businesses was based on. “There was a period of my life during the fight with the London Development Agency [the government body concerned] when I felt like a cross between an enemy of the state and some character out of the Da Vinci Code,” he says.

Although Lance wasn’t able to stop the compulsory purchase – the old premises were pretty much smack bang on the site where the 100 metre track in the Olympic stadium is today – he was able to get compensation from the LDA to build new premises for the business very close to the old location. That’s probably just as well, because H. Forman has been linked to London’s East End since the business was founded in 1905. Legacy and heritage are essential to the business, and the family. 

The business was established by Lance’s great grandfather Harry Forman and was one of many fish curing firms in the East End. Like H. Forman, many of them were established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – Lance’s family originally came from Odessa. Today, H. Forman employs around 70 people, has diversified into the hospitality and home delivery businesses, and runs a restaurant and an art gallery at the top of its new building, which is shaped like a salmon and overlooks the Olympic park.

Lance says that the salmon curing business in the East End was all but wiped out by the onset of fish farming in the 1980s and 1990s. “Smoked salmon became commoditised and devalued. All the smokehouses tried to compete and every single one went out of business as a result.” But H. Forman followed a different strategy, says Lance. “We didn’t try to compete and continued doing things in our very old fashioned way, with a big emphasis on quality.”

Forman uses salmon from Scotland, not Norway, where two-thirds of UK smoked salmon comes from. “It takes four days to get the fish to the UK from Norway, whereas Scottish salmon is on our doorstep,” he says. “Fresh fish only has a shelf life of one week; if you’ve lost half of the shelf life before you get it here, why bother? The whole point about smoking salmon in the first place was to preserve the flavour, not to make it taste like a kipper. Never compromise on quality because ultimately quality survives.”

Forman is also known for its mild cure that enhances the natural flavour of the fish, known as the London Cure. As a result, it’s popular with many of the world’s top restaurants and caterers.

Lance reckons being a family business has helped them get through difficult times like the Olympics saga. “There’s no doubt families have their positives, but they also have their negatives,” he says. “The big positive is that you have a whole different approach to the way you do business, based on long-term decision making. We don’t just slash costs to improve our short-term profitability. And we take a satisfying rather than maximizing approach to profits. The big negative is that you’ve got the weight of history on you running the business. You feel this pressure dragging you into it.”

Despite the weight of history, Lance says the third generation put no pressure on him to join the family business. But they must have seen considerable potential if he decided to do so. The 52 year-old gained a degree from Cambridge University, was president of the Cambridge Union, trained as an accountant at PwC and then worked as a special advisor to one of the UK’s top politicians.

The young Lance could have chosen a host of promising careers if he decided never to join H. Forman, but the weight of history proved too much of a draw. Did his outside experience help with the running of the family business? Lance isn’t so sure. “After qualifying as an accountant I could audit Lloyds Bank, but could I help my friends fill in a tax return? No. So, I’m not so sure being a trained accountant helps you run a family business.”

Like his parents, Lance isn’t putting any pressure on his kids to join the business – the eldest, 23, has just graduated from university. “My wife and I have said to all of our kids, don’t even think about coming into the family business.” he says. “When families put too much pressure on the next generation to join the business it often leads to failure. If the next generation join without any experience they’ve nothing to bring to the business. It also often creates friction with existing employees.”

He adds: “People are living longer. The next generation have got to ask themselves: do you necessarily want to be stuck in the same business for 50 years?” If history is any guide to the future, in 50 years time, the Olympics will be due to come back to London. A problem, or perhaps an opportunity, for future generations of Formans to deal with.