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Adding spice to UK business

Melanie stern is section editor of Families in Business.

Three of the top 20 entries in the recently published Sunday Times Rich List are Indian families. Melanie Stern reports on how Asian family businesses have brought a certain flair and determination to the UK economy – a good reason to celebrate

Currently up for debate in the UK is the concept of a day to celebrate being English. There is talk of a new bank holiday. But some are worried about how such a day assigned to patriotic celebration would work, and some fear it would end up hijacked by progress-resistant, nationalistic, racist factions. Perhaps it's because what has been under debate for even longer has been the question: what or who is England? If we can't define this, some say, how can we celebrate it? It's certainly multi-cultural, and this may be reason enough for celebration.

For our economy, it's double cause for merriment. Immigration has brought with it entrepreneurialism and ingenuity, backed by hard work and business smarts that have seen market traders become high street kings (the Singh family of New Look; Philip Green's Arcadia), transformed mum's home cooking into gastronomic empires (foodservice companies Patak's, Noon, W Wing Yip & Brothers) and, for good measure since we're talking patriotism, put the wind up the French (Lakshmi Mittal's bid for steel rival Arcelor). It is no accident that most of these companies are Indian. With their determination to succeed, a throng of Indian families have risen to become the toast of our economy. Mittal, property tycoons David and Simon Reuben, and the banking-to-telcos Hinduja brothers, are in the top 20 of this year's Sunday Times Rich List, combining well over £21 billion in cash and assets.
 
The achievements of these families can't be underestimated. These are all still young companies, yet their proprietors sit alongside the likes of the Duke of Westminster – third in the List this year – who had a 500-year head start, inheriting 300 acres of rented land across London's exclusive Belgravia and Mayfair enclaves. These days, the Duke is second in command at the Territorial Army, a life he is said to prefer over managing his family business. Meanwhile, Britain's successful Indian families have been down in the trenches forging a legacy and a very nice living for themselves – and for Britain. This was recognised recently at the 10th annual Asian Business Awards, held in London this April by Britain's Asian-readership broadsheet, Asian Eye. Many of the names of the winners may not ring a bell, but they are all successful family businesses.

Rita Sharma, co-founder of online travel agency BestAtTravel.co.uk, took the gong for entrepreneur of the year. Born in Punjab and raised in London, she dropped out of university to work before founding her company, now a leading player in the UK luxury holidays market, back when the Internet was largely an unknown concept. Sharma says she is now looking at the possibility of floating her company.

Young Achiever of the Year Karl Sandhu, owner of gym-operating chain Golds, also seemed primed for an entrepreneurial future. "Completely inspired" by his father, he and his two brothers started out as teenagers selling whatever they could to whoever they could in markets across London, before Sandhu founded his own property rental business and taking his interest in health clubs on to build a chain of his own. Today, Sandhu is worth an estimated £50 million – peanuts compared to the Mittals of the world.
 
Mike Jatania, 62nd in the Sunday Times Rich List this year, crowned his family's £850 million pile by winning Eastern Eye's business of the year award for their white-label beauty goods company Lornamead. Four brothers run the company, led by Mike and Danny, buying up poorly-­performing Sunset brands (British readers will recall Harmony hairspray and Lypsyl lip balm, as two examples) at a discount from companies like Unilever and Sara Lee. They pump cash and marketing muscle into them that their parents could not justify to their shareholders, and churn them back out onto supermarket shelves with a fighting chance of some sales.
 
Philanthropy is a popular word among the filthy rich, but it takes on a different meaning among Indian families, with alms being as important to tradition as the notion of family. These families are not only powering the British economy, but are also donors to many of our causes: Indian wealth has built hospitals and schools the world over.

If we are to have a truly English day of celebrating our identity in the 21st century, perhaps it could start with a vindaloo washed down with a nice cup of tea.

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