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Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia knows the power of immigration.
Born in Uganda when the British Empire was in its heyday, he was forced to flee his home country for a new life in Britain in 1972.
Then he went to work.
Ahluwalia was 19 when he bought a struggling auto parts business in London. He sold the company — Euro Car Parts — for £280 million ($375 million) in 2011 after creating thousands of jobs.
Now, as Britain tries to slash the number of people coming to its shores, the former refugee is quick to remind people of the economic benefits of immigration.
“I believe the backbone of this country is immigration, and we should never, ever forget it,” he said.
Here’s how one refugee made it big in Britain:
Ahluwalia was born in Uganda in 1958. At the time, the former British Colony was home to thousands of families, like his, that had emigrated from South Asia to work on railways and other infrastructure projects.
Many of the families thrived in their adopted country, playing prominent roles in business.
“[We] were doing very well,” said Ahluwalia. “We all grew up in very, very comfortable surroundings.”
That all changed when army commander Idi Amin seized power in a 1971 military coup. He would preside over one of the bloodiest regimes in Africa’s history.
“This crazy man … Idi Amin just got up one day and said that these guys [Ugandans from South Asia] are bad for our country … they are all agents of the British and we need to get them out of here,” he recalled. “Within 30 days we were expelled.”
The family — Ahluwalia, his two brothers, mom and dad — landed in Britain. Despite being packed into cramped dorms in a cold new land, there was a bright spot.
“I could never forget the kindness and the goodhearted spirit of the British,” Ahluwalia said. “In times of crisis they come together and they want to help … they don’t care about themselves.”
After a year in temporary shared housing, the family moved to their own apartment.
Ahluwalia didn’t find British schools to his liking. Disillusioned, he found refuge in the hustle and bustle of London’s street markets, and the work they provided.
“When you have nothing, you really just will give it all you’ve got,” he said. “I guess my skills and my intuition for business and commerce and trade [came] from the markets.”
Building a business
In 1978, when he was just 19, Ahluwalia started Euro Car Parts.
Using a £5,000 ($7,500) loan, he took over a failing auto business and set about turning it into a titan. It was a steep learning curve: “The first day, I didn’t know anything about car parts,” he said.
But he worked hard. Ahluwalia said the previous owner worked nine-to-five; he worked seven-to-whenever customers were satisfied.
Ahluwalia expanded his inventory and opened new locations, spreading across London and eventually the U.K.
“From employing 10 people, then it became 50, then 100. It was all systems go, and it was a roller coaster after that,” he said.
The next chapter
The ride reached a high point in 2011.
With Euro Car Parts employing 3,500 people across 89 locations, Ahluwalia sold the business to American auto parts company LKQ Corporation.
Ahluwalia now sits on the global board of LKQ, which has a market value of around $13 billion. He is confident that selling was the right call.
“The decision has allowed me to do so many things,” he said. “I’m an investor in six or seven companies … I am now a serial entrepreneur.”
Ahluwalia is chairman of Dominvs Group, an asset management firm specializing in property. His three sons oversee the day-to-day running of the enterprise.
In the coming years, he hopes to move to India, the home of his forefathers.
“I’d like to forget the tough times and remember the good times,” Ahluwalia said of his journey. “The tough times were very tough, and the good times now are very good.”
CNNMoney (London ) First published January 16, 2018: 10:25 AM ET
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