Andrew Davidson Interview: Steel tycoon who stands by Britain
Lord Paul likes to mix business with politics while
his Caparo industrial group expands.
But he never forgets the daughter who brought him here
From The Sunday Times
June 18, 2006
Lord Paul likes to mix business with politics while
his Caparo industrial group expands. But he never forgets the daughter
who brought him here
F the past is a distant land, then Lord Paul travels
back and forth all too frequently. Most weekends he can be found
at London Zoo, near the statue of his daughter Ambika, who died
of leukaemia at the age of four nearly 40 years ago.
Paul gave a donation of £1m to London Zoo in 1992 in memory
of his daughter. It had been her favourite place. Back then, the
money saved the zoo from closure.
And 75-year-old Paul, whose Caparo industrial group makes him one
of the richest Asians in Britain, still likes to see others enjoy
the animals. “I love to sit and watch children and their parents,”
he says. “Zoos are the best places for them to visit.”
He beams beatifically. In a fortnight Paul will hold his annual
children’s tea party at the zoo, a ritual he has observed
for 13 years. He invites all his friends and their families. With
Paul, who has links across the industrial and political worlds,
that is a lot of people.
A Labour party member since the 1970s, ennobled at Tony Blair’s
instigation in 1996, Paul is formidably well-connected. He is reputed
to have bankrolled Gordon Brown’s office before the 1997 election.
He was also close to Indira Gandhi in India during the early 1980s.
Though born in the Punjab, he has made Britain his home since 1966
when he came to London to seek treatment for his daughter.
Her death, he says, was the jolt that made him doubly determined
to start something special. His privately-owned Caparo group, launched
in 1968, now stretches to America and India, and with £700m
turnover and 5,000 employees is still expanding.
These days it is run by his three sons — Akash, Ambar and
Angad — while he remains as chairman. Another daughter, Anjli,
chose to leave the company when she started a family.
“In 1996 I would have left, too, but the boys asked me to
stay. They said they wouldn’t bother me,” laughs Paul.
“I try to stand well back, though they do come and talk to
He beams again, his face as round and brown as a hazelnut. Sitting
behind a big desk in his modest first-floor office overlooking London’s
Baker Street, he looks at least 10 years younger than his venerable
age, bulky in body but his smooth head still wrinkle-free.
Quite how much leeway he gives his sons only they will know. Behind
the genial buffer façade, you can sense Paul’s business
brain is still ticking over. Caparo, a clutch of firms with interests
in components, steel processing and steel trading, is growing rapidly
It has also recently developed its first high-performance track
car and has invested in hotels and films — Lock, Stock and
Two Smoking Barrels was produced by Angad, Caparo’s chief
“They used to say I made metal-bashing fashionable,”
says Paul, sipping his tea. “Certainly we believe in family
business, and we don’t stand still.”
Most of his time, though, is now spent in the House of Lords, where
he sits on the select committees for economic affairs, and for science
and technology. He was also on London’s victorious 2012 Olympic
bid committee, and chaired the Olympic delivery committee. In April,
he won the community award at the Eastern Eye Business Awards. Slowing
down, it seems, is not an option.
“I keep on doing what I enjoy doing. The day I don’t
enjoy doing it, I will quit.”
Those who have worked with Paul say perseverance and persuasiveness
are his key attributes. He started in India with his elder brothers
in the family steel business — always kept separate from Caparo
— then built his own firm with a knack for trading and an
easy charm that made many drop their guard.
“In negotiation, he always left others happy, even though
they often gave away most of what they had,” says James Leek,
his first chief executive at Caparo. “And he has wonderful
aphorisms. People would talk about ‘deal synergy’ and
‘two plus two making five’. Swraj would say, ‘where
I come from two plus two has to make 22’.”
Paul has also been careful not to flaunt his wealth, estimated
at £465m, and to keep his family close. All three of his sons
have flats next to his in the apartment block he bought and renamed
Ambika House in London’s Portman Square. It is the same block
in which he first rented an apartment in 1966 to be close to the
Middlesex hospital. “Whenever a flat became vacant I bought
it and gave it to a son,” he says.
Even when he drops what he calls his “frugal” front
— last year he invited 1,600 guests to a party at Lancaster
House to celebrate Angad’s wedding — he says he doesn’t
really do anything for show.
“The only thing that was opulent about the party were the
guests that came,” he chuckles. Supper was fish and chips
by Anton Mosimann. “Maybe the fact it was in Lancaster House
got it in the headlines,” shrugs Paul, with the hint of a
That lightness of touch characterises all his conversation. He
only gets serious if you ask him to criticise a contact, or query
just how bump-free Caparo’s rise has been.
His firm’s growth in recent years, for instance, has been
eclipsed by the steel empire assembled by fellow Indian Lakshmi
Mittal, who is now worth £14 billion. When I ask if he approves
of Mittal’s opulent lifestyle, he cuts me short.
“I would rather not answer that question. I admire him a
lot, but it is different to my style.” Later he adds that
he would be “uncomfortable” running so big an empire.
There have been difficulties in India, too, where Paul’s
attempts to take over companies in the 1980s proved unpopular. An
argument with his brother-in-law over Caparo Maruti, a supplier
to Suzuki India, ended up in court last year.
And in Britain it has been up and down. There were angry words
earlier this year when pension-fund rules forced Caparo to put a
subsidiary into receivership. Caparo also suffered a 43% fall in
profit in 2005 — Paul says that was due to better-than-expected
results in 2004 and higher steel prices holding back production.
The group’s new push into India, where Caparo is building
a clutch of factories to supply components to vehicle manufacturers,
will boost profits again, he promises.
India draws him back increasingly. He was recently quoted in the
Indian press as saying he would retire to the country of his birth,
but he says he was misinterpreted. “I simply said that if
there was no more work for me to do here, India would be a more
comfortable place to live on the same money,” he says.
How that would go down with his elder brothers and nephews, who
have built up their own firms, is unclear. Paul was the sixth of
seven children from a farming family that started its own steel
yard making buckets and cups. Both Paul’s father and mother
died young, leaving him to be brought up by his brothers and sisters.
He was the first to travel abroad, studying at MIT in America after
encouragement from a teacher at his Christian college in Lahore.
After that he worked for the family firm in Calcutta, supplying
construction sites with steel. “This was the new India, emerging
after partition. Most of the competition was with British firms.
It didn’t take much to compete because their overheads were
But he cut himself off from the family business — now a conglomerate
— when he started Caparo, and there are suggestions that relations
between Paul and his elder brother Jit are competitive, if friendly.
Both have produced autobiographies charting the family’s business
That low-overhead style was key when Paul started again in Britain,
borrowing money, leasing plant, and drawing on his contacts. “I
already knew everyone in the industry as we had imported steel into
He has remained a determined advocate of keeping manufacturing
in Britain, even if Caparo is now bent on global expansion. That
has made him popular with politicians here, as has his willingness
to back warm words with money.
He has long been a political donor — he puts that down to
his family’s involvement with the movement for Indian independence
— but despairs of the current controversy over businessmen
“buying” honours. “I was one of the few to donate
to Labour before 1997, after that businessmen were falling over
themselves to give money.”
And what advice does he pass on to his sons about building the
business in the future? “Don’t make yourself miserable.
There is more to the quality of life.” Then he adds: “Look,
God has been kind to me. I have been lucky.”
But of course he hasn’t been lucky, as anyone who watches
him maintaining his vigil at London Zoo will realise.
He tells me he started Caparo because he thought the challenge
would help him get over the sorrow of losing a child. “I told
my brothers, I would make peace with myself, and that I didn’t
want to stay anywhere else but where she died. I’m still there.
It’s ... er, sorry.”
Paul stops, his eyes welling with tears. All these years on, it’s
extraordinary, perhaps, that he still struggles with the one thing
his drive and ambition couldn’t conquer. But it’s understandable
too. Then he pulls himself together and beams cherubically. Stay
for another coffee, he says. Please.
Born: February 18, 1931
Marital status: married with three sons, one daughter
School: Doaba College, Jalandhar, Punjab
First job: factory sweeper, family steel firm, India
Salary: £100,000 pension
Homes: London and Calcutta
Car: “I always use taxis or my Freedom pass”
Favourite book: Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen
Favourite music: Brahms
Favourite film: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Favourite gadget: TV remote
Last holiday: Mediterranean cruise
Lord Paul's working day
THE Caparo chairman rises at 5.45am at his apartment in London’s
“I make a cup of Typhoo tea — my nephew just bought
the company, he’s a very nice boy,” says Lord Paul.
“Then I watch the news on TV.”
Paul walks to Caparo’s head office on Baker Street at 9am.
“I read all the managing-director reports, and head the board
meetings once a month.”
In the afternoon he attends the House of Lords. “I have learnt
a lot there. People speak on subjects they know about and what you
learn is that in any subject people can have five different views
and be passionate about it.”
If the house isn’t sitting and there is a good one-day match
on at Lord’s cricket ground, he will sometimes catch the final
overs. He tries to be in bed by 9pm.
LORD SWRAJ PAUL relaxes by watching sport. “If there is a
good football match on TV, that’s where I am. I watch that
more than cricket now – cricket takes so long.”
He has no “one-club loyalty”, he says, but often attends
Aston Villa. “We employ more than 3,000 people in the West
Midlands and Villa’s chairman, Doug Ellis, is a friend.”
In cricket he supports both India and England. “I definitely
don’t pass the Tebbit test. I won’t reliquish my right
to always be on the winning side.”
He tries to spend as much time with his grandchildren as possible
and often takes them to Pizza Express, his favourite restaurant.
He attends events at the Albert Hall, where he sits on the board.
And he visits London Zoo most weekends.
“I like all the animals but the monkeys and gorillas are
my favourites,” he says. “They are just fascinating.”