Long Reads

Asian tycoons taking over British brands

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on September 2, 2021
Great Scotland Yard Hotel owned by M. A. Yusuff Ali. — Courtesy: www.twenty14holdings.com

Not just Indian companies, but even diaspora stalwarts have been snapping up iconic trade labels in the UK

Buoyed by the largest economy in the subcontinent and easier foreign exchange norms in recent years, Indians and Indian-owned companies have been snapping up iconic British brands. Some make headlines across the globe, such as Tata’s takeover of Jaguar Land Rover in 2008, or Reliance in April this year buying Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire that includes a hotel, spa and golf course. Other brands now in Indian hands include Royal Enfield (Eicher), Hamleys (Reliance), Tetley Tea (Tata), East India Company (Sanjiv Mehta), Corus (Tata Steel), Optare (Ashok Leyland), Imperial Energy (ONGC) and BSA Motorcyles (Mahindra Group).

M. A. Yusuff Ali, who heads the Abu Dhabi-based LuLu group, bought Great Scotland Yard — the iconic building that housed the London Metropolitan Police for over 60 years until 1890 — in 2016 and reopened it as a luxury hotel in 2019. In 2013, the Mumbai-based Lodha Group bought the Canadian high commission building in Trafalgar Square. But members of the Indian diaspora are not far behind.

In 2016, the Hinduja Group acquired the historic Old War Office building opposite Downing Street, from where former Prime Minister Winston Churchill took key decisions during World War II, with plans to convert it into a hotel and luxury residences. The heritage building, completed in 1906, contains around 1,100 rooms across seven floors, linked by more than two miles of corridors.

Zuber Issa and Mohsin Issa, sons of a Gujarati immigrant who arrived decades ago to work in the textile industry, acquired the retail giant Asda (valued at £6.8 billion) in 2020. Based in Blackburn, the brothers began small, working on a petrol station in Greater Manchester in 2001, and went on to build a chain of thousands of petrol stations in Europe and the US.

Besides such better known takeovers, the list includes one of the legendary brands in the world of cricket: Dukes ball, which has been used in the Ashes over the centuries and elsewhere. Established in 1760, when production began in the Tonbridge area of Kent, it was bought in 1987 by Bengaluru-origin Dilip Jajodia, a former chartered insurance practitioner and pension fund manager, who arrived in London in 1962 to study. At that time, Indians faced several challenges, he recalls, but is happy that now “people take you for what you are and it is an advantage now if you are an Indian”. Belonging to a business family with roots in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, Jajodia says his father once supplied uniforms to the British Indian Army and had business connections in England.

Jajodia’s business today offers the full range of cricket equipment used by the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and other international players. He says: “Cricket has always been a passion for me. I played with Brijesh Patel in school in Bengaluru, but could not take it further than club cricket in England.”

After initial years in insurance, Jajodia bought a company off the shelf called Morrant in 1973, which is a major manufacturer of cricket gear, particularly the ultra-light pads used by Tendulkar and others. The customised wicket-keeping pads (preferred by Dhoni), with the above-the-knee flap removed to ease movement, was conceived by Jajodia. His two main companies — Morrant and Dukes — enjoy a dominant position in the market but also supply hockey and rugby gears.

He focusses on the Dukes ball and personally prepares the polish and ensures its quality by selecting the best available raw materials, along with his five full-time employees in England and associates abroad. Former England player Bob Taylor looks after the company’s sales.

“A lot of people want to buy my company now. I can take the money and run, but in two years the new company will close. It is not easy to ensure the quality. It is not easy to develop the technical knowhow and the experience to turn out the required quality,” he says.

For someone who rubs shoulders with the great and the good of world cricket, Jajodia retains the simplicity of his origins: “My philosophy in life is to be modest, balanced, not overdo anything. Tomorrow if I go, I will have no regrets. I think I have served cricket well and I have had a good innings.”

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