Asian Entrepreneur of the Year bringing "community banking" to London


Watch out UK banks. You’ve got too much pie and Bhanu Choudhrie wants a slice

City boys take note: this Victoria-based former Asian Entrepreneur of the Year – with his fingers already dipped in aviation, healthcare, hospitality and real estate – is threatening to apply for a banking licence here in London.

Already a director of Customers Bank in Philadelphia and Atlantic Coast Bank in Florida, the Delhi-born chief executive of holding company C&C Alpha Group (CCAG) is ready and waiting to take on the titans of UK retail banking.

“We did an article a while ago and looked at where the big banks have taken advantage of customers, have taken full advantage of the situation here – a country controlled by four or five banks,” says Choudhrie in his accented yet impeccable English. 

“There needs to be more competition. In the US you have 14,000 banks. A person can get a loan from any different institution that he or she wants.”

“Virgin is trying hard, Metro Bank has come in and there are a few other people in the pipeline, but it really needs to be done and the people who are going to do this are the entrepreneurs”

Inspired by this model of “community banking”, the father-of-one businessman believes it is those like him, Metro Bank and Richard Branson who must salvage the UK banking industry. He has plans to nurture what he believes is a necessary burgeoning style of banking brought about by the Metro Bank and The Co-operative.

“London, Birmingham and Manchester are, of course, important cities, but we want to go outside that and into the villages, really create the community bank and work with the community.

“This is what we do in the US and that’s why we’ve been so successful there. Virgin is trying very hard, Metro Bank has come in and there are a few other people in the pipeline, but it really needs to be done and the people who are going to do this are the entrepreneurs.”

Choudhrie founded CCAG in 2002 after deciding to amalgamate the two London-based family-run businesses he was heir to: C&C Sons and Alpha Group.

Having completed a degree in international marketing and business at Boston University, at just 24, Choudhrie thought it time he made his mark on the family businesses.

“When I came here we had a small office in London which typically looked after investments for the family, for the group, all over Europe.

The 33-year-old millionaire looks like an Indian prince. But he doesn’t have Mughal coursing through his veins; banking is in his blood instead

“We started to invest heavily in the UK, in healthcare, and really look at our real-estate business – which is what we originate from – my great-grandfather started real estate in India in 1927.”

Almost ten years later, as executive director of the company, he has helped it grow from four to more than 40 staff with a turnover of £64m. He doesn’t assume all the credit, however, and cites the role played by CEO and ex-Tata boss Cherian Thomas as critical.

Choudhrie is telling me this in one of the meeting rooms at his tucked away offices a few blocks from Victoria Street. The building makes the corner of Vincent Square, a calm, stately area complete with a sporting green at its centre. 

Dressed in a charcoal suit and pale pink shirt, he is immaculately shaven except for his trademark goatee. The 33-year-old millionaire looks like an Indian prince. However, unlike his wife who is descended from royalty, he doesn’t have Mughal coursing through his veins. Banking, you might say, is in his blood instead.

The Punjab National Bank to be precise, run by his great grandfather until it was nationalised in 1969.

Choudhrie enjoyed a charmed childhood horse riding over Delhi’s cavalry grounds, taking summer holidays in London and representing India at polo.

His English hints at his privileged upbringing; flawless yet peppered with over-enunciations that speak of his expensive Delhi-based Brit school education.

He pronounces every syllable in “entrepreneur” – a little like the Americans do – with a heavy emphasis on the “pren”. He voices the silent h in ‘vehicle’. His smile and laugh seem tempered and he is equipped with typed-up notes ready for my questions– his team insisted on seeing these in advance.

He isn’t relaxed, but nor is he nervous. If anything, Choudhrie is unflinchingly confident behind his steady composure. I detect media training.

That Choudhrie might be a little paranoid, however, isn’t surprising. He has come under media scrutiny in the past for his company’s ongoing financial support to the Liberal Democrats (£220,000 in 2010 and £150,000 in 2009), which raised eyebrows in light of his non-dom status.

“We’ve been supporting the Lib Dems for many years now, since 2003/4 since the mayoral election. The Lib Dems were not known then; they were the third party.

“We have always favoured change and advancement; ethnic minorities coming up in representation. That’s really where I’m from, I moved to this country. I am, of course, British, but I’m an ethnic minority in this country.

“A lot of people ask: ‘Wouldn’t you want to move, you know the taxes are crazy’ and I say to them ‘look, look at the quality of life you get out of it, are you going to move to the back of beyond, Switzerland? Or Monaco, where people are falling on top of each other?’”

“Our contribution to the Lib Dems has been to really promote ethnic-minority candidates.”

What follows is a rosy ten-minute discourse on the coalition and Nick Clegg.

Choudhrie is animated and declares Clegg “a young and very dynamic individual who has brought the party from being the third party to being in government”.

That the party’s popularity in the polls has nosedived since the coalition isn’t mentioned.

As for his non-dom status, he is sensitive on the subject. “The fact is I wasn’t born in this country, I didn’t elect to be a non-dom: I am a non-dom. I cannot change what I am not,” he says with sudden vigour.

What about being resident elsewhere and why choose London to headquarter CCAG?

“A lot of people have asked me this question. ‘Wouldn’t you want to move, you know the taxes are crazy, blah blah blah’ and I say to them ‘look, look at the quality of life you get out of it, I mean are you going to just move to the back of beyond, Switzerland for example, or Monaco, where people are falling on top of each other?’

“You know? There’s no real culture, there’s nothing, and what would you do? The language barrier for one thing…”

Choudhrie has a contempt for Monaco that is unusual among the very wealthy, it’s evident that he adores London, “It really gels for us being Indian, having been born in India, having that affiliation to the English. We’ve been brought up speaking English.”

“Today, the success that I am, is contributed to by the learning, the regiment of the London environment”

Choudhrie is a royalist too: “There’s a deep amount of history here, it was very recently reinforced by the royal wedding, people flocked to London for that. They don’t flock to Sweden.

“You’ve got a lot of history here and that’s what I find very fascinating.”

But his decision to live and do business in London isn’t all about history and culture. He cites London’s attributes: its “wonderful connectivity” to Europe, America and “even India” and how “it’s uniquely situated if you want to do business in Europe and Asia”.

He goes so far as to credit the city with his good fortune: “Today, the success that I am, is contributed to by the learning, the regiment of the London environment”.

But it’s not all been plain sailing – a natural state of affairs, according to Choudhrie. “If you made money everywhere there would be something very wrong. You would probably be doing a Ponz
i scheme.”

He is quoted as saying that three out of five investments end in failure. And, at the very start of his career, in the late Nineties, that included the acquisition and investment in a German telecommunications company.

 “It was bulk messaging on mobile phones – so the people you blame for getting those very random SMSs on your phone were people like us,” he says, laughing.

At first business was good and the model was launched in the UK as well as Germany. At the time telephone legislation didn’t really exist, he explains, but then the European Union brought in stringent laws. Then the mobile operators themselves began to catch on to the market.

“Mobile companies did not see this as a revenue-earning business when we started it and then subsequently they did. They started to do this business on their own, which led the entire business model to fail.”

How much was lost? “A few million,” he says gravely. “But you learn from the experience.” CCAG’s portfolio has been shaped from experience and lessons from one investment regularly influence decisions relating to others.

He cites online travel agency ebookers.com as one of the company’s most successful, risky investments. After exiting in the post-dotcom bust years, he quickly invested in India’s first low-budget airline, Air Deccan, which was sold to Kingfisher in 2006.

Now he’s ready to apply the knowledge gained from the US retail banking sector to the UK.

“It really needs to be done and the people who will do this are the entrepreneurs – that is where we fit in,” says Choudhrie confidently.

So Britain’s village high streets had better prepare: Bhanu Choudhrie has a history of living and learning. He isn’t just here to play polo and cheer on Nick Clegg, he plans to spice up the banking sector good and proper.

Choudhrie on London

Favourite Restaurant: Moti Mahal in Covent Garden and Oliveto on Elizabeth Street

Favourite bar and club: Tramp, the bar in The Connaught and anywhere new

London in five words: Eclectic, robust, progressive, yet commercial and home