If you've ever enjoyed a punnet of strawberries from your local supermarket, there's a good chance it came from WB Chambers, a family-run fruit production company with 20 locations across the South East of England. At the heart of this agricultural powerhouse is Salih Hodzhov, the company's Chief Operating Officer, whose life story is as rich and vibrant as the berries he helps produce.
Born 43 years ago in the village of Brashten, located near the Greek border in southern Bulgaria, Salih Hodzhov grew up in a world far removed from the sprawling berry farms he oversees today. Brashten was a small community of 900 people, most of whom were engaged in small-scale farming. Salih's parents were tobacco farmers, and from a young age, he was accustomed to the rigors of agricultural life.
"We used to wake up very early to avoid the sun. Once it's out, the tobacco leaves start wilting, making them difficult to collect," Salih recalls. "We would then hang them out to dry on ropes."
Life Under Communist Rule
Salih's childhood was marked by the constraints of living under communist rule in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989. The village was closely guarded due to its proximity to the border. "We were very cut off," he said. "Movement was restricted, and there was a military base in the village."
A Chance Opportunity
While studying history and Bulgarian language at university, Salih got the opportunity to participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allowed Eastern Europeans to work part-time in the UK. Salih was among those who took the chance, arriving in the UK in May 2001 with a six-month visa.
"One of my first memories was leaving Heathrow airport," he said. "I bought myself a coffee in a paper cup and thought, 'this is brilliant.'"
Rising Through the Ranks
Salih was initially assigned to Belks Farm in Maidstone, the original site of WB Chambers. Over the years, he climbed the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the Chief Operating Officer.
Today, he oversees the entire farming and packing process for the company, which employs 250 permanent staff and 1,200 seasonal workers.
A Family Affair
Salih met his wife, Magdalena, on the fruit farm, and they have two children, Sufyan, 15, and Leena, 12. Remarkably, around 350 of the seasonal workers employed by WB Chambers are from Brashten and its neighbouring villages, a testament to Salih's influence and the opportunities he has created for his community.
A Multilingual Success Story
Fluent in five languages—Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Turkish, and English—Salih embodies the multicultural spirit that has made WB Chambers a success. "What I am doing now has been my first-ever job—I've never gone anywhere else," he said.
A Journey Beyond Imagination
"If you told my younger self I'd be living here now with a family, I would say that it is out of the question," Salih mused. "But it has been a good journey. I love communicating with and working with people. I feel like I have grown with the company."
In a world often divided by borders and differences, Salih Hodzhov's story serves as a reminder of the transformative power of opportunity and hard work.