‘My son is an accountant.’ This is the proudest boast for any Asian parent. It is the culmination of a lifetime’s hard work for first generation immigrants – and for those who came to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s to build a better life for themselves and their children, it is the jewel in their crown.
‘Along with medicine it is the most esteemed profession back home,’ says 56-year-old Biku Patel, a newsagent in Leicester. ‘From the moment we arrived in England we have worked hard to give our children an education and as soon as I had my boys I wanted them to go into this profession.’
Mr Patel’s vision came to fruition; both his sons are now fully qualified chartered accountants. And his story is echoed throughout the country as countless parents working from the cornershops and small businesses strive to educate their children to become accountants.
A recent survey in Asian Xpress, Britain’s leading Asian newspaper, found that nearly 50% of all Asian students going into higher education opt for economics and accounting-related degrees, with a view to a career in the profession.
‘We are becoming a nation of accountants,’ says Sarwar Ahmed, publisher of the weekly newspaper. ‘There has been a definite shift in the balance.’
Traditionally, medicine has the been the first career choice but now, having worked hard in Britain, the entrepreneurial spirit of the parents is rubbing off on the children. Growing up in a business environment they become naturally interested in all things financial.
‘Asians contribute a disproportionate amount to the economy, #10bn last year. Is it any surprise that British Asians now want to manage it?
‘It’s just a natural progression. First generation Asians are businessmen and their children become accountants, it’s as simple as that,’ says Ahmed. Or is it?
The dream can sometimes turn into a nightmare. The experiences of many trainees in the profession bears testimony to that, with many quoting examples of racism and the presence of a glass ceiling for Asians and Blacks.
Take one such case, that of Shivnandan Muralitharan who trained with a leading firm of accountants in London. The biggest obstacle to his future career proved to be his name.
‘I noticed I wasn’t getting the breaks I deserved,’ he recalls. ‘I was a “straight A” student and breezed through my professional exams but after a few years I was getting passed up for promotion time and time again. My name had a lot to do with it; not only my colleagues but also our clients had difficulty getting around it. It was seriously knocking my prospects. I don’t think you could call it racism – perhaps nameism.’
Shivnandan then decided to take drastic action. ‘I left my job and changed my name to Simon,’ he recalls.
‘It worked miracles. I’ve got a new job and things are already looking better. Since then I’ve had fewer problems, people take to me a lot easier and it has definitely boosted my career prospects. I’m determined to do what it takes to succeed and this is what it took.’
‘Nameism’ or not, it is clear many Asian trainees see racism and old-fashioned attitudes as a real problem in the big firms.
‘I often think clients believe they have drawn the short straw if an Asian comes to their place of business to carry out an audit,’ continues Simon. It’s a wider problem of acceptance, attitudes need to change not only in the workplace but in the wider arena.’
This week, a study by ACCA, Smaller Practices in Profile, found ethnic minority students are turning to smaller practices to gain a foothold into the profession.
Its findings highlighted the importance of small ethnic minority practices as a source of employment for ethnic minority students. Many felt that opportunities in large firms were limited, through a perception of racism.
‘It’s a colour issue,’ said one respondent. ‘I wanted to get into a top firm but I couldn’t. We can’t get in because the decision is based on colour not on calibre. For example, I recently went to a seminar. There were only two Asian people in a room full of accountants and the guy presenting the seminar said to his colleague, “look we have two blackies”. I heard this, so in the real world racism is a problem.’
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, many are using their backgrounds to their advantage. Ethnic minority accountants are increasingly being seen as a business resource for their ethnic minority clients.
There is a marked tendency for these clients to use the services of a co-ethnic accountant. The client relationship often has a social dimension, which extends well beyond the narrow provisions of accountancy services.
This leads to a situation whereby it is acceptable, indeed expected, that an accountant will be a general business resource rather than a purveyor of a narrow set of technical functions.
‘I can pick up the languages, which makes them feel at ease with me. I deal with first generation Asians who have a language barrier and they find it easy to communicate with me,’ said one respondent. Forced to diversify and with an exclusively Asian client base, many are now sitting atop rapidly growing practices and earning huge rewards. Despite that, the lure of the big firms is still the most enticing for new trainees.
‘The problem is we don’t have many role models,’ says trainee Mohammed Rizwan. ‘You can count the number of Asian partners in big firms on one hand. We live in a multicultural society but this make-up isn’t represented in the workplace, particularly in accounting, but people like me want to make a difference.
‘I look to the City and at successful Asians for my inspiration. We’re making it in City boardrooms and hotshots like steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal and Allied Deals’ Viren Rastogi, have proved we can achieve whatever we want. We will make it in this profession. That much I can guarantee.’
To date, the most notable success for Asian accountants was when British-based executive Jim Wadia became chief of accountancy at Arthur Andersen (now Andersen) during the most controversial period in the firm’s existence, just before it split into two.
A one-off example maybe – but Asian executives are making rapid progress elsewhere. In 1997 Rana Talwar became the first Asian to head a FTSE-500 company when he was appointed group chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank.
The news was heralded by the Indian Times with the headline, ‘I love the sound of breaking glass’ – referring to the glass ceiling. The appointment was all the more poignant because Standard Chartered had been the bankers to the British Empire.
High-flyer Keki Dadiseth, masterminded a top to bottom overhaul at multinational giant Unilever and took the best job in the restructured company, and there are many others crashing through the glass ceiling at remarkable speed.
‘That’s the kind of news we love to hear,’ says Rizwan. ‘If they can do it, so can we. People like me are determined to shatter that glass ceiling and once it breaks there will be a lot of us coming through.’
– Nadeem Khan is editor of AsianXpress
Rana Talwar and Keki Dadiseth are the frontrunners of a small ‘almost microscopic’ group of Asian executives who are moving quietly into the upper echelons of British industry.
Although there do appear to be barriers to moving forward in Britain, shareholders want results and companies have to choose the best man for the job. Things have certainly changed since the 80s when corporate boardrooms and the City of London’s merchant banks were ‘whites-only’ zones.
Arnab Banerji is chief investment officer at Foreign & Colonial, Britain’s largest fund management company but he remembers being the odd-man-out when he first moved to a City job in 1983. ‘As far as I know there were only two other Indians in the City at the time,’ he says.
By the 90s, brown faces had become more commonplace. But there was still poignant irony when Talwar was headhunted from Citibank and became the first Asian to head a FTSE-500 company. After all, Standard Chartered was the inheritor of two great colonial traditions. In Africa, the Standard Bank of British South Africa was the Bwana bank, founded in 1862. And the Chartered Bank of India, China and Australia first began taking deposits back in 1853. The two banks merged to form Standard Chartered in 1969 when Talwar was just beginning his career with Citibank in India. Change appears to be coming most swiftly in companies or banks focused on international markets.
For instance, Ivan Menezes is president of venture markets at drinks giant Diageo. From a base in London he heads operations in 120 countries, from Argentina to the Philippines. He is also on Diageo’s key decision-making executive committee. Says Menezes: ‘Our business is very international.
We couldn’t have a better location to cover the world.’ It’s important to make one point clear: Asians are still rare to find in the boardroom of most British companies. It would be easy to pick 10 British companies at random and discover all senior executives are white.
But there are occasional exceptions, such as Ajay Chowdhury, who moved to a top-level job at the Express Group while still in his 20s and briefly headed the group’s internet service provider, Line One. Chowdhury has since moved on and is now a partner at venture capital firm IDG Ventures where he helps to administer a $100m (#70m) fund.
So what are the factors helping Asians up the corporate ladder? Globalisation and international markets have certainly played a major role. Asians – both from Britain and the Indian sub-continent – were first hired by investment banks in the early 90s to staff the rapidly growing emerging markets divisions.
Some like Nishit Kotecha, at Lehman Brothers, have become fast-rising stars.
But don’t forget British corporations are far behind their counterparts in the US, where Asians have been moving rapidly into the boardroom. Out in front are executives such as Rono Dutta, president of United Airlines and Rakesh Gangwal, president of US Air.
Also in the front rank in the US is Rajat Gupta, managing director of McKinsey and Co, and Victor Menezes, chairman and CEO at Citibank, who joined the bank as a trainee in India and moved through the ranks to the top. In fact, organisations like Citibank where executives like Victor Menezes and Talwar flourished, are light years ahead of British corporations.
Citibank has a sizeable number of Indian and Pakistani executives rising swiftly through its corporate ranks. For instance, Indian executive Sanjib Chowdhury is a group managing director based in Britain.
By comparison, multinationals such as Unilever have been slow to promote Asians, though Unilever itself is now striving to make up for lost time.
Dadiseth was the chief of Unilever’s Indian arm, Hindustan Lever, until he moved to Britain. He now heads Unilever’s home and personal care division globally. There’s one important, and slightly uncomfortable, fact that must be pointed out. Many top executives, such as Dadiseth and Talwar, are Indians from the sub-continent who have parachuted into top jobs in Britain. And Ivan Menezes and Chowdhury studied in India and did MBAs in the US before reaching Britain.
So is it easier to reach the top via India or the US, rather than Britain?
If that’s true, it has serious implications. It means Asians are more acceptable at senior level but it’s still awfully tough for British Asians to climb to the peaks.
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