Asif Rangoonwala: He's got lovely baps, he wants to be the new Bernie and he'll save our students

The entrepreneur talks to Martin Baker about his eclectic business empire, his love of powerboats and his £1bn property venture
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Powerboat playboy, bakery baron, property plutocrat. If you tried to create an identikit picture of Asif Rangoonwala, you'd end up with the equivalent of a late-period Francis Bacon portrait: lots of really interesting – in fact, quite extreme – features that really ought not to gel. But by dint of craft and force of personality, somehow they do.

Rangoonwala, one of Britain's growing number of Asian entrepreneurs, is a classic study in the reconciliation of apparently conflicting cultural, business and sporting interests. One result of this is a personal fortune estimated at close to £100m, with considerably more on the way if there is take-off for the £1bn Swanbourne property fund he is now rolling out.

And if Rangoonwala can make a success of the P1 powerboat Grand Prix series, into which he has ploughed a decent chunk of his fortune (estimates put his investment at up to £10m), then the world will see an aquatic version of billionaire Bernie Ecclestone.

Rangoonwala was born in Karachi into a successful merchant family with a strong business ethic and a patriarchal ethos. The first cultural cliché one might reach for is that of the hard-nosed Asian businessman – polite but reserved and ultra-cool, a kind of Imran Khan with a calculator.

Yet Rangoonwala's style is the opposite of Karachi cool. For a start, there's one of the more extraordinary accents on the contemporary business scene: Rangoonwala, turning 50, with greying hair and the joshing humour of a favourite uncle, sounds three-quarters American with a hint of Pakistani spice thrown in. His accent leaves you with an idea of how Bill Cosby might have sounded had he spent a few years on the subcontinent.

"Yes, the accent's American," he confesses. "I was educated in Europe but also went to a US school. My room mate was from Texas. It took me three years to understand the guy. That's how I got to speak the way I do."

There is a wheezy laugh as he invites interlocutors to savour that oddity with him. And then he's away down the narrative path of a little rich boy who ran away from home and got a lot richer.

"When I have to give a talk, I tell people I'm an LSC with a PhD – that's a lucky sperm count whose father had dough," he cackles, before confessing that he left his expensive international boarding school early, much to the disgust of his father. For all the apparent insouciance, the scars of this failure are still evident in his conversation and his driven working habits.

The dropped-out Rangoonwala was offered a second chance: he could work in the family business or face estrangement. He chose the business, and did well.

But the conservative family ethos did not sit well with his individualistic streak. In 1992, he saw a market gap in, of all things, baked goods – "but the family rejected it," he says. "Then in 1997 I got a call from one of the guys I had the idea with. He'd been fired from his business for thinking about it, so we got together and today we have a great company."

Suddenly, Rangoonwala is into a routine about the name: "I thought of My Buns, His Buns, Her Buns, and I came up with Eurobuns because 'Euro' was the buzz word then and it soun-ded great.

"You will have definitely eaten Eurobuns whether you know it or not. If you go to a KFC, you have my buns. If you go to the movies, you have my hotdogs. If you go to Morrisons you have my French bread. If you go to the pub, you have my salad baps."

The manufacture of these weapons of mass consumption (Eurobuns is KFC's exclusive European supplier, for example) is Rangoonwala's, erm, bread-and-butter business, with a turnover of some £40m and more than 400 employees.

The icing on the cake is the P1 circuit. Rangoonwala's eyes light up when he talks about the project, which he has been building up for four years. "We have 22 teams and 12 races. Each Grand Prix has two races – one endurance and one technical. This is a test of the individual skills of the pilots and the racers."

Last year's British race around the Isle of Wight attracted 65,000 spectators, apparently, and was broadcast on 33 TV channels across the world. Rangoonwala recognises he has work to do to raise the P1 profile and attract more sponsorship, even though present sponsors include the likes of Coutts & Co and Fiat.

"It took Bernie Ecclestone 15 years to get the TV companies to pay him for Formula One coverage," says Rangoonwala. "I'm not expecting anything less than that – although I think the market's demanding more content."

The final element of his portfolio is Swanbourne, a £1bn property venture that provides "essential housing" for the likes of students and key workers.

"Swanbourne is a management company backed by three entrepreneurs including myself," he explains. "One of the others is New Look founder Tom Singh.

"I came up with the concept of student housing about five years ago, because I saw there was a huge requirement for it. My children were at university and, when I went to see the digs, I thought they were ridiculous. They were sad. I thought there was a lot of room, and the facilities that are available today are archaic, just tragic."

So is there a pastoral side to his business? "There is to an extent – it's part of corporate social responsibility. At the end of the day, if we do well and get rewarded for it, that's another thing."

This is altruism with a copper-plated bottom line: the plan is to sell the portfolio to institutional investors in five to seven years. Already the preferred accommodation supplier to the University of Huddersfield, Swanbourne manages a portfolio of £200m with more than £700m in the pipeline.

So do all the razzmatazz and cash and burger buns constitute success? At first, Rangoonwala offers the straight business answer: "I think maybe the most successful man, when he dies, is the one with the most notches on his gun. I am a very competitive person. I do not like losing."

But he is much more cuddly than that. His real values come from home, and the resilience he discovered in himself after he dropped out of school: "Strength comes from my family. My father taught me everything. It's possible to fail at something but you've got to have the courage to get back up and start walking again."