Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, but we usually only read about the 0.1% who really hit the big time. At Tenzing, we have a deep respect for every entrepreneur who gets up every day and pushes on, despite the hiccups, hurdles and setbacks. Today, we’re honouring Raghbir Singh who won his big prize – a better future for his family. Interview by our roving reporter, the BBC’s Tanya Beckett.
I am fascinated by what makes an entrepreneur. How do they think? Do they have a specific mentality? What made them take up such a precarious path? I have interviewed many entrepreneurs over the years and try as I might to find commonality, clearcut characteristics have proved elusive. There are, however, unquestionably similar threads: a passion for a particular product or service, an open-mindedness towards risk and failure, and an innate sense of drive, resilience and determination to succeed certainly feature amongst the most prevalent.
Sometimes entrepreneurs have a burning desire to bring a particular product to the market or have long harboured a dream to lead something of their own creation. Others find themselves doing it because of their circumstances: perhaps they inherited an empire or found that the line of work they were in was no longer viable when a family came along.
But today I’m reporting the story of a man who came from India in his teens and launched and ran businesses as a means to survive and in order to give his family the best life that he could. Raghbir Singh’s tale is one of a gutsy husband and father who picked up as many skills as he was able, so he could build a lifestyle for the next generation and to achieve goals that he and his parents could only have dreamed of.
Raghbir came from India to the UK with his parents at the age of 16, one of many immigrants from Punjab in the sixties. Britain was suffering labour shortages and there was work going in the manufacturing, textile and the service sectors.
Raghbir’s first task was to improve his English and pick up some sellable skills. This was a daunting prospect when everything was so unfamiliar, but Raghbir is the type who never shies away from a challenge and so he threw himself into building his life, brick by brick.
His first professional qualification was to get qualified to drive a bus. He is an early adopter of lifelong learning and amongst his many tough qualities is a very strong stomach when it comes to trying new things.
By the time he married in 1970, Raghbir was working two jobs, driving during the day and working in a restaurant on weekends. This planted the seed for a business venture that came to fruition much later.
Still in his twenties, Raghbir and his wife had their first child: a boy they named Sandeep. Like many new fathers, Raghbir wanted a more stable income, so he trained as a TV repair engineer for Granada. This helped him build his English vocabulary and gave him valuable insight into dealing with customers.
But repairing TVs was not the end game. It was part of a bigger plan to gain technical expertise and build his own business back in India. Raghbir moved his family back to Punjab to start a TV business empire. But these dreams quickly faded and his son Sandeep says Raghbir’s vision was just too premature.
“In 1977, we moved back to India to set up a TV repair shop in Ludhiana, which is a big city in Punjab. Unfortunately, it failed because it was 1977 so he was ahead of his time. My Dad was probably about a decade too early.”
Raghbir learned the hard way that timing is everything when it comes to business success. Importantly, he had been astute enough to keep hold of the property he had bought in Glasgow as an insurance policy, so he had something solid for his family to come back to.
The episode had had its benefits: it gave Raghbir a better understanding of retail. So, when he returned to the UK, he was able to turn this knowledge to his advantage. He started selling shoes in an undercover market in Glasgow. His son Sandeep takes up the story.
“It was like a shopping mall but with shutters in the market rather than a proper glass shop front. Candleriggs in Glasgow was open Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week. It was called Shoe Spot. We were selling shoes and slippers, everything from £1.99 for a slipper and I think the most expensive thing was at £28.99.“
But as most successful entrepreneurs would advise anyone starting out, Raghbir had the sense not to give up the day job until things got going. Another sometimes unwelcome lesson entrepreneurs discover very quickly is that setting up businesses is very hard work – not just for them but for all of the family, who are often involved in supporting the project either directly or indirectly. Sandeep has fond memories of helping out.
“Monday to Friday, my Dad did TV repairs. Friday, my Mum and I used to work in the shop, and then Saturday, Sunday my Dad would work in the shop as well. He worked seven days a week.“
Soon Raghbir was able to open a second store and ditch the day job. Running the shoe operation was a full-on exercise, managing stock and suppliers by himself. In 1980 Raghbir and his wife expanded their family with the arrival of a second child. Sandeep remembers them as hectic times.
“I do remember my childhood, a lot of it was spent figuring out what had been sold in the shops and what extra stock he had to replenish from our warehouse – which was our garage in our back garden.“
Raghbir worked dawn to dusk managing stock and the shops seven days a week, but Sandeep said this monumental work ethic was very common in the Punjabi community.
“We didn’t see it any differently because that’s what my parents, friends and family all did. Everyone just worked. We didn’t really have days off.“
The shops were successful, turning over thousands every week, but when Raghbir looked at where things were headed, he saw that margins were getting smaller. Big retailers were encroaching on his turf, and he didn’t want to be caught misjudging the market as he had when he went back to India. It was time to get out and start something new. An Indian restaurant seemed an ideal next step where Raghbir could apply his knowledge of food and customers. Once again all the family were involved – Sandeep was, by this time, 18.
“I remember we would have to empty the till once a night on a Saturday. I was putting all the money through. And my Mum was behind the bar. It was so busy.“
Raghbir had learned from experience to keep an eye on what competitors were doing. So, like the smart operator he had become, he went to his rivals’ restaurants and took a look at what they had on the menu and at what price. He also had an active marketing campaign, putting flyers through doors. The restaurant became a success. Soon they were open all day, every day.
Managing staff and keeping customers happy kept Raghbir busy, but with a success on his hands, he still had ambitions to expand. The banks, though, were less enthused and their support was not forthcoming. Despite approaching retirement age, Ragbir was unperturbed and decided he had time for one final venture.
Raghbir’s swan song was a step back into retail, but this time he wanted to try a business turnaround. It was a corner grocery store that wasn’t doing well. Raghbir gathered what he had learned from how customers like to shop, and with the help of his daughter, who redesigned the interior and layout, he transformed a failing business into an enjoyable and successful retail experience.
“And he literally turned it around, this little rotten shop, to become absolutely amazing. A really, really good corner shop making a lot of money.“
Another shop followed with the same formula and then a third. Before long, Raghbir felt he had achieved what he had set out to do. His journey had allowed him to educate his children in private schools, put them through university, to invest in property and build up a nest egg. His priority was never expensive cars or watches, it was always planning for the future of his family, his children and now, importantly, his grandchildren. The childhood retail experience also positioned Sandeep well – he is now Director of Merchandise for a major, global fashion brand.
Now retired, Raghbir has diverted his drive to his personal health and giving back to society. He runs marathons and has reconnected with his roots, by working as a translator for Punjabi and Urdu- speaking patients in the NHS.
This latest incarnation of our hero – as a translator – brings us the final and rather fitting lesson of his story. At a time when the pandemic has caused many of us to look at our lives and bemoan the loss of our pasts, Raghbir just keeps moving forward. In difficult moments he doubles down, summons his energies, draws on what he knows and finds a way to learn more. And that’s what makes great entrepreneurs. A tiny few make the big time and get splashed over the pages of the FT when their businesses sell for millions. But thousands more find success in a lower public, but equally valuable and rewarding way – building a better life for their loved ones.
So to come back to our questions at the start ‘why do people set up businesses? And what drives entrepreneurs?’. Raghbir’s motivation was simple and clear. He wanted to build a future for his family, learn and explore what life has to offer and always work hard. Sandeep says whatever he did was not the end of a journey but always the beginning.
“His biggest regret is that he’s not made enough money to help support us the way that he wanted. So his constant thought is he’s not done enough for us. That’s why he keeps going.“
This is where Sandeep disagrees with his father: Raghbir has moved heaven and earth to support his children by educating them, supporting them whilst embarking on their careers and helping them buy their first homes. Sandeep’s love for his father is inspiring and deeply touching. It also leaves us with a rather philosophical thought: whatever money Raghbir made over the years, it was his hard work and dedication that earned him the most valuable reward of all: respect.