Like many immigrants before him, Ali Kizilbash left everything behind when he immigrated to Canada. Unlike most others, what Kizilbash left behind in Pakistan was a huge chemical distribution company he had founded and grown as its president. Upon arrival in Canada, he chose to found TWI Foods Inc. (TWI), his current specialty foods manufacturing firm, in Toronto in 1997.
When Kizilbash started TWI, the company was a 1,200 square foot operation producing a small line of cake rusks (a type of baked/hardened cake) and cookies. Today, TWI has been featured in Canada’s Food & Beverage Top 100 and operates out of two facilities: one in Toronto (measuring 185,000 square feet) and another in Mississauga (measuring 35,000 square feet). The company’s 227 per cent growth over the last five years earned it a spot on Canada’s “Profit 500” list.
BY INCREASING ITS EXPORTS TO THE UNITED STATES, AUSTRALIA, EUROPE, SINGAPORE, AND DUBAI, TWI ALSO EARNED AN ONTARIO EXPORT AWARD IN 2013 AND 2014.
TWI produces cumin cookies, pistachio treats, butterfly cookies, naan, roti, tea toast, frozen/specialty desserts, and all kinds of other exotic treats under its Crispy, Sunrize, and Crispy St. brands. By specializing in South Asian baked goods, TWI carved out a niche market for itself in the otherwise intensely competitive food industry. “We saw an unmet need, and [we] made sure to take care of it,” recalls Kizilbash. “We were virtually the first ones, so retailers appreciated [that] and bought from us.” TWI’s brands can now be found in over 2,000 retail outlets in Canada, including in corporations such as Walmart, Loblaws, Costco, Sobeys, and FreshCo.
With remarkable acuity, Kizilbash steered TWI through the 2008 global recession while attaining a 200 per cent increase in sales. The key, he confides, was ensuring that 50 to 60 per cent of TWI’s products are staple foods. Cash-strapped consumers are not going to stop buying bread or other necessities—in fact, they might even substitute luxury food items with TWI’s reasonably priced cookies. Kizilbash has observed that comfort food consumption spikes during recessions, as people seek inexpensive material indulgences.
TWI’s success and ethnic focus has led many people to suggest that Kizilbash relocate the company to India, to which he responds, “Of course not!” So far, the firm has only touched one per cent of the North American market, and Kizilbash is hopeful about what could happen if TWI could reach the other 99 per cent. Therefore, he has a clear strategy to grow TWI’s product lines: keep the best of the company’s ethnic foods, but add mainstream appeal. As consumers become more health conscious, TWI is primed to capitalize on the trend with new product lines, such as low-fat, low-sugar “naan thins.” “Everybody loves to eat!” Kizilbash observes, and because “everybody” undoubtedly includes at least some portion of the untapped North American market, he is more than happy to stay in Canada. “It’s a great place in terms of what people have achieved,” he reflects.
HE EXPLAINS THAT IN CANADA, SUCCESS IS NOT DEPENDENT ON YOUR BACKGROUND, FAMILY’S WEALTH, OR RELATIONSHIPS WITH GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS: “IT’S A LAND OF OPPORTUNITY AND EQUALITY.”
Kizilbash also believes in the superiority of the Canadian workforce. The minimum education level of all TWI’s workers (even for positions with fewer required accreditations) is excellent compared to that of many other countries. For skilled positions, TWI can easily hire from nearby institutions such as the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Humber College. TWI takes care of its employees, fostering their potential for improvement and growth within the company. Thus, it was no surprise when TWI emerged as a finalist for Deloitte’s “Canada’s Best Managed Companies” in 2014.
Intriguingly, Kizilbash affirms that labour costs are, in fact, lower in Canada than in many other countries, despite higher wages. He credits the Canadian belief in hard work. In other parts of the world, he says, he would need to hire twice as many people to do the same amount of work. Another plus for manufacturing in Canada is the efficiency achieved through automation. TWI orders custom-designed machines for its specialty food manufacturing needs. In fact, TWI is so efficient that manufacturers in Asia sometimes call the company to ask for advice.
Kizilbash is also thankful for the support of the Canadian government. Over the last decade, TWI has repeatedly received funding from government research grants like the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive program (SR&ED) and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).
For all of these reasons, and as the biggest company in its niche market, TWI is here in Canada to stay. Kizilbash is confident that as long as the firm continues to manufacture good products, it will continue to grow. “Doubling our revenues in the next two years? For sure, no problem!” he exclaims. After all, there is still 99 per cent of the market for TWI to serve.
Visit TWI Foods online for more information about their products.
TWI Foods is a manufacturer of high-quality specialty food items such as cake-rusks, cookies, cakes & frozen food items. It caters to the South Asian ethnic populations in Canada and worldwide.
Headquarters: 40 Shaft Road, Toronto ON M9W 4M2
Other facilities: 2600 Drew Road, Mississauga, ON L4T 3M5
- Ali Kizilbash, Founder & President
Year established: 1997
Number of employees: 250-300
Revenues: 24 million CAD (2013), est. 25-50 million CAD range
Line of business
NAICS: 311814 Commercial Bakeries and Frozen Bakery Product Manufacturing.
Cake rusks; naan; roti; tea toast; specialty (South Asian) cookies, cakes.
Customers: South Asian specialty and mainstream retailers, 2000+ retail outlets in Canada, including FreschCo, Loblaws,Walmart. Co-packing with PepsiCo and 2 other large US manufacturers.
Exports: US, Singapore, England, Dubai, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany; int’l sales 70% of total.
R&D, Skills and Educational needs
Employees: mostly unskilled labour supplemented by in-house training; some graduates from the University of Toronto, Waterloo, and Humber College.
R&D: product and process innovation, e.g. designing the machines to make non-standard baked goods, quality innovation: ease of use, shelf life.
Ali Kizilbash, founder, was chemical engineer in Pakistan and worked for large oil companies before founding own chemical company. 1997, he moved to Canada and started anew with only 1,200 sqft, later expanding to 32,000 and then 185,000 sqft.
Growing competition, but TWI larger and has been in business longer.
- No formal partnerships with educational institutions, but does recruit from nearby colleges/universities
- Very satisfied with government relations and support; long-time participant in research funding programs like SR&ED, IRAP
- Well-established in niche market
- 50% products are staple foods
- Latest automated production & packaging technology
- Almost too niche/limited market
- Increasing popularity of intl foods
- Huge growth in food sector
- Growing trend for healthy eating
- Increasingly competitive niche
- Low price without sacrificing quality
In talks with buyers from UAE, Japan and Saudi Arabia, considering shipping from Middle East to Australian markets.
- Canada’s 2014 Profit 500
- Top100 Canadian Food & Beverage Company
- Deloitte’s 2014 Best Managed Companies Finalist