County Durham exporter to celebrate Royal Seal of Approval

Nagma Ebanks Beni MBE and Nima BeniAuthor: Micky WelchPublished 26th Aug 2021
Last updated 26th Aug 2021

Prima Cheese, the family run, County Durham based grated cheese processor and exporter is finally getting the chance to celebrate winning a prestigious award, over a year and half after their win was announced. The company, based at Seaham’s Industrial Park was handed the Queens Award for International Trade shortly before the country was gripped by the coronavirus pandemic and on 9th September, Prima’s staff, supporters and partners will finally get the chance to receive the glass trophy and Grant of Appointment from Her Majesty’s representative, the Lord Lieutenant of County Durham Sue Snowdon. The award comes shortly before Prima celebrates its 25th Anniversary, with a number of birthday activities and a commemorative book planned for the latter half of 2021.

Recognising outstanding achievement in business, the award places Prima firmly on the world stage with a globally recognised symbol of innovation, ingenuity, and pride. The award demonstrates the significant impact UK businesses make on the global market, of which Prima is now at the forefront. Awarded to only a tiny handful of remarkable businesses every year, the Queens Award marks a significant milestone in the history of this North East success story.

Prima Cheese

Plans for a formal presentation ceremony and staff celebration were put on hold until the business was able to mark the occasion properly, after employees worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to produce enough grated, shredded and diced cheese to satisfy the huge uptick in demand for takeaways, brought on by the national lockdowns which saw a surge in sales for restaurants offering take out and food delivery companies.

Combined with increasingly tough trading conditions brought on by Brexit complications during the transition period and beyond and the recent ‘pingdemic’ slowing production, the celebration comes at the end of a turbulent time for the north east business, a period that despite all its challenges has still seen huge growth for the company, including new product launches, increased hiring, a thriving apprenticeship programme and all without a single redundancy or lay off. Whilst the unhappy combination of Brexit and the pandemic has undoubtedly made a huge impact on the company, Prima has continued to weather the storm, its success attributed to a well thought out export strategy and a hard working team who continue to overcome the many obstacles facing businesses selling abroad. The event on the 9th September will include a site visit and tour with the Lord Lieutenant, company directors and founders, conversations with staff and partners and a formal presentation in the landscaped gardens of Prima’s Seaham HQ.

Staff will also be treated to an artisan food truck lunch and refreshments with the factory’s busy production lines taking a rare pause to ensure everyone on site can join in the celebrations. Plans for the celebration have been scaled back due to the continued prevalence of coronavirus cases in the region, with the event taking place socially distant and outdoors. Prima was started in 1997 by Behroz and Essmat Beni, who, struggling to find work despite their impressive CVs and needing to support their young family, set about launching what would become the market leader both here and abroad in the cheese processing industry.

From its humble beginnings, Prima’s Seaham HQ now produces enough grated cheese to top 5.5 million pizzas a week in the UK alone. It’s own fleet of Prima trucks travel the length and breadth of Britain, making enough trips to circle the Earth almost 29 times each year. The company made its move into exporting in the early 2010s, assisted by the North East Chamber of Commerce and has since gained customers in Malaysia, Jamaica, Hong Kong, Peru, and Lebanon to name but a few.

It’s this thriving export business that has earned Prima its Queen’s Award and its new found export prowess is something Nagma Ebanks-Beni MBE, daughter of the company’s founders and now Commercial Director is particularly proud of; “When we began discussing the big ‘what’s next?’ around Christmas time a few years ago, I always knew we were missing a trick by not exporting our products outside of our little UK bubble. A few stressful but incredibly rewarding years later and with the invaluable help of The Chamber, I’m so incredibly proud of the company we have become, excited by the diverse and vibrant markets we’ve been welcomed into and overwhelmed by the incredible hard work and determination of my team, without whom none of this would have been possible.

At exhibitions and events throughout the world (which sadly we’ve not been able to attend for sometime now), Prima’s name is regularly revered and this Queen’s Award is a huge honour for each and every member of the Prima family and a fantastic reflection of the hard work and determination of our founders and early supporters who took a chance on this untested plucky start up back in 1997,” “I would like to take this opportunity to thank Her Majesty and the awarding panel for recognising the work Prima does in this way and for the Lord Lieutenancy of County Durham for taking the time to formally present this award to the team,” James Ramsbotham, North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive said:

“This award is such a fitting tribute to the tremendous and hard-working Prima Cheese team. The growth in international trade from a standing start is exceptional and built on solid research and providing exactly the right product to the right marketplace. On behalf of the whole Chamber, I offer them our very many congratulations.”

As well as being a director of the business, Nagma Ebanks-Beni MBE is also chair of the Chamber’s Race, Ethnicity and Discrimination Commission to help business become more inclusive, a role which sits at the very heart of Prima’s ethos. The company to date has employed workers from over 24 nations worldwide and continues to feature a hugely diverse workforce. Having stepped back to enjoy retirement in March 2020, the award marks the pinnacle of Behroz ‘Mr’ Beni and his family’s journey, from international Uni student to a leading employer in the region and one of the most recognisable figures in the UK foodservice industry.

Arriving in the UK from Iran in the 70s, the couple only intended to stay a short while during Mr Beni’s studies at Sunderland Polytechnic but ended up remaining in the UK after the Iranian revolution that uprooted peace in the area for years to come dashed their hopes of returning. At the helm of the business that would become Prima ever since until shortly before the pandemic, the Benis were soon joined by the couple’s daughter Nagma and son Nima in the early 2000s, who continue the Beni legacy today. Prima now employs over 150 people at its state-of-the-art plant in Seaham and has provided countless opportunities for local job seekers and apprentices from the region’s colleges and sixth forms.

Now commanding a newly expanded site over 80,000 sq ft on Seaham Industrial Estate, exporting to more international and domestic customers than ever before and with another successful year’s trading on the books, the future has never been brighter for this local cheesy superpower.

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