Brown pound: Rise and rise of Asian Biz in Britain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Bestway Wholesale in Manchester. — Alamy Stock photo
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Bestway Wholesale in Manchester. — Alamy Stock photo

Migrants from the Indian subcontinent have moved from humble beginnings to create business empires

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 2 Sep 2021, 11:23 PM

A 21-year-old Rawalpindi-born son of a farmer arrived in England on a ship in 1956. His first stop was Bradford, one of the hubs of the Pakistani community. He found employment as a bus conductor and also drove buses for some years, working long double shifts to save money and strike out on his own at some point. By 1963, he had saved enough to open a corner shop in Earl’s Court in London, catering to Asian communities in west London. It soon proved profitable, and he opened a grocery store in the prosperous area of south Kensington. One thing led to another, as he opened a chain of stores over the years, became a wholesaler over the decades and ventured into cement and other areas in Pakistan, and was eventually knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 for services to the food industry and charitable causes.

Today, that man, Anwar Pervez, 86, is one of the richest individuals in Britain and the richest in the Pakistani community with a worth of more than a billion pounds. His Bestway group is the second-largest wholesaler in the UK, the second-largest cement producer in Pakistan and the second-largest private bank in Pakistan, and employs over 25,700 people across the globe. He credits his success to “99 per cent hard work and honesty”, telling Dawn some time ago: “1 per cent is due to luck. How else would a man like me, from a village, reach where I am today? I was lucky to have come here… to have met good people… Sometimes in my dreams — the happy ones, not nightmares — I am back in Bradford, driving a bus and feeling content with life.”

In 1966, ten years after Pervez arrived, a 35-year-old Jalandhar-born man landed in London for medical treatment for his daughter Ambika, who had leukaemia; she, however, passed away. Distraught, the MIT-educated engineer grieved for over a year, seeking solace in religion and philosophy, before returning to the real world and plunged into work “to come to terms with myself”. He took a loan of £5,000 to set up a small steel unit. As in the case of Pervez, one unit led to another, as he expanded into steel conversion and distribution business, and eventually set up a group that opened units and offices in several countries, including India. In 1990, when the cash-strapped London Zoo in Regent’s Park was about to close, he donated £1 million to save it (part of the zoo is named after Ambika). Besides several high-profile roles, the UK government appointed him ambassador for British business for a decade, when he met the top leadership of several countries, including in the Gulf. Today, Swraj Paul, 90, is a member of the House of Lords, has business interests in Dubai, the Gulf, the US, and elsewhere through his Caparo Group, and figures among the richest in Britain. Sitting in his Baker Street office, where he reaches every day by 8.30am or earlier, he says: “I started small, that was my style. My father was not a big businessman, had a small factory, I have always been pro-poor. Basically, we wanted to work hard, make a name for ourselves. We were welcomed in Britain if we worked honestly. I never had any problem growing.”

The unlikely journeys of Pervez and Paul are at one end of the spectrum of enterprise in Britain’s Asian community, whose members have rejuvenated regions facing economic downturn due to historic decline in manufacturing and whose purchasing power is often termed as the strength of the ‘Brown Pound’. The scale of enterprise ranges from conglomerates set up by individuals such as Pervez and Paul, as well as the tens of thousands of corner shops and small businesses across the country. Entrepreneurs with origins in the Indian subcontinent can be found across all sectors of the British economy, including pharmacy, real estate, hospitality, tech and telecoms, financial services, engineering and manufacture, automotive and business services. These are individuals and family-owned businesses of migrants who have settled in the UK over generations; but a related to the Asian-biz-in-UK story is the growing Indian investment in Britain in recent years, of Indian companies setting up offices and projects, creating thousands of jobs and challenging stereotypes.

Brown is beautiful

Anjna Raheja, founder of specialist marketing group Media Moguls who coined the term ‘Brown Pound’ in 2003, says: “The term came about simply as a way of easily describing the growing economic power and disposable income of a community that at the time mainstream businesses knew or understood very little about. We already had the Grey Pound and the Pink Pound, so it seemed like a natural jump to use the one thing the Asian community at the time was identified by — the colour of their skin. Until then, being ‘brown’ had been a tool of negative discrimination… What the term has done is to continuously shine a light on some of the greatest strengths of the South Asian community: hard work, determination, ambition, aspiration to always do better, strong family values and commitment to make a better life for future generations. These are the values that have created a community of Asian entrepreneurs that was first acknowledged by The Sunday Times’ Rich List, and then by the annual publication of lists of Britain’s richest and most powerful Asians. The Brown Pound is certainly alive and kicking.”

Major companies owned by members of the Asian community often hit the headlines — with owners prominently figuring in ‘rich lists’ — but less highlighted is the large number of small businesses. Located mostly in London and other cities across the UK, such businesses and their owners have supported local communities during the Covid-19 crisis by keeping local shops open, or running takeaway food outlets. Analysts say their efforts are part of a largely untold story of the many ways in which the ethnic minority and migrant communities are helping to reshape the entrepreneurial landscape of the UK, forging vital trading links by leveraging international networks and providing employment opportunities in hard-pressed local job markets. Leading figures such as Pervez and Paul also help Britain forge closer trade ties with their countries of origin; others include Ragib Ali and Iqbal Ahmed of Bangladesh origin, and Subaskaran Allirajah and Ratheesan Yoganathan of Sri Lanka origin.

Jaideep Prabhu, professor of business and enterprise at the University of Cambridge, says: “When the East India Company was spreading its influence across the subcontinent it could scarcely have imagined that one day the tables would be turned and that the empire might eventually strike back. In some ways, that day has arrived. If we look across the British economy today, the influence of the subcontinent and its people is everywhere. At one time this influence was mainly through the humble yet ubiquitous corner shop, many founded and run by first-generation immigrants of South Asian origin who came to Britain from Africa where they had helped run local economies since colonial times stretching back to the 19th century. And now a new generation of Indian entrepreneurs is discovering that Britain is a good place to set up or list their fintech, medtech and edtech start-ups because of its open culture and economy. Finally, the growing presence and affluence of the South Asian community in Britain has created a large market for meeting Indian tastes in food, music, culture and sport. Hence the growing power on the demand side of the so-called ‘Brown Pound’.”

A new report by the Federation of Small Businesses says that from small beginnings in the 1970s, in terms of numbers alone, the growth of business activity in Britain’s non-white communities is impressive. Its report, Unlocking Opportunity, found that there are over 250,000 ethnic minority-led businesses, contributing over £25 billion to the British economy, adding that “their collective contribution to the British national economy is indisputable and rather more important than implied by the term ‘minority’”. A key finding is the growing prominence of South Asian women in self-employment. The report says that early research in Britain found that business ownership among the numerically dominant South Asian communities was almost exclusively male, but by 2018 female-headed Asian/Asian British businesses made up 39 per cent of the female and ethnic minority-led business community. First-generation Asian entrepreneurs were associated with the corner shop, but their children and grandchildren are more likely to be engaged in knowledge-rich upmarket mainstream activities. A growing proportion of young British-born South Asians, often themselves the product of business families, are increasingly using their UK educational qualifications to open up careers in the professions. Senior academic Monder Ram, one of the report’s authors, says: “At £25 billion, their contribution is considerable and needs to be taken seriously by policy-makers.”

Among communities linked to the subcontinent, for various reasons members of the 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora figure more in ‘rich lists’ and business activities. The diaspora includes those who arrived from India as well as the tens of thousands who were expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the early 1970s, many of whom ran flourishing businesses in east Africa. Many settled in the east Midlands city of Leicester, where manufacturing was declining. They were initially unwelcome, but went on to revive local economy and integrate so well over the decades that the city is considered a poster town of Britain’s multiculturalism. Paul Winstone, former race relations policy officer of the Leicester City Council, told me some time ago: “We were lucky we got a commercial class of Gujaratis from East Africa between 1968 and 1975. Their sheer business culture has saved us. They came with some capital and complete families. They had a sense of commerce, having been businessmen or skilled workers in East Africa.”

The diaspora effect

There are no comprehensive diaspora-specific studies of business activities in the UK, but a beginning was made in early 2020 by consultants Grant Thornton in collaboration with the Indian high commission and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, titled ‘India in the UK: The Diaspora Effect’. It says a flair for entrepreneurship has helped Indian diaspora-run businesses make an increasingly important contribution to the UK economy. Its research suggests that there are more than 65,000 Indian diaspora-owned companies. Of these, 654 companies (having annual turnover of at least £100,000 each), register a combined turnover of more than £36.84 billion and pay over £1 billion in tax. Besides Paul, business leaders from the diaspora include Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja, Lakshmi Mittal, Karan Bilimoria, and Kartar and Tej Lalvani. They follow in the footsteps of one of the first notable Indian entrepreneurs, Gulam Noon (1936–2015), who arrived in the 1970s with just £50, and went on to build a business empire catering to Britons’ love of curry, generating a personal fortune of £65 million.

Analysts have also noted growing engagement by Indian companies with Britain. Grant Thornton’s latest tracker for 2021 says that there are 850 Indian companies operating in the UK, with £50.8 billion turnover, employ 116,046 people, and pay £459 million in corporation tax. The tracker found that Indian companies were involved in 10 acquisitions (the highest of any single EU country) throughout the year, including four in the technology and telecom industry and two in manufacturing. Over half (53 per cent) of the fastest-growing Indian companies are located in London, confirming the capital as their continued preferred location.

Says Anuj Chande of Grant Thornton: “Our research finds that the number of Indian companies operating in the UK has increased and that many continue to grow at a rapid rate, with some recording triple digit growth. As the UK government looks to supercharge the economic partnership to support growth, jobs and prosperity, and India continues its journey to becoming one of the world’s largest economies, the ‘living bridge’ between the two countries, formed by more than 1.5 million Indian diaspora, will be more important than ever. India is also likely to benefit from the major modifications made to the UK’s immigration policy, with the new point-based system for visas for skilled workers likely to benefit India significantly due to the creation of a more level playing field.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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