27 January 2015
Nothing British about this East India Company

By Chandu Gopalakrishnan

LONDON — “Welcome! May I help you?” an employee asked me as I entered the shop. I went ahead with my questions in English, but she turned instead to my Chinese friend, breaking into fluent Mandarin.

She then guided us to the store manager. He looked Indian, but his surname gave away his identity: Manoj Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan.

We were in London, inside the central store of the revived East India Company, “the first multinational company in the world,” but the staff was all Asian.

This came as no surprise. Almost all retail stores on nearby Regent Street have at least one Chinese salesperson. After all, Central London is a popular destination for Chinese real estate investment. The East India Company store was just a turn away, on Conduit Street.

“This is a store for premium goods — tea, gold, silk etc.,” said Mr Weerasinghe, explaining the reasons for the nearly empty shop. “But we have a steady stream of regular customers. And the number is definitively growing.”

News reports confirm this. Since Indian businessman Sanjiv Mehta opened the store in 2010 –the first storefront since the brand was revived in 2005 – The East India Company has grown steadily, albeit slowly.

The original East India Company opened as a trading company in 1600 and expanded across the globe, ruling India for nearly a century until power was transferred to Queen Victoria in 1858. The company was dissolved in 1873. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“The East India Company holds limitless opportunities across many products, sectors and countries. We are determined to capitalise on the impeccable pedigree and enviable heritage of our brand,” The Times of India quoted Mr. Mehta saying in 2010.

Shortly after, Indian business conglomerate Mahindra and Mahindra bought an undisclosed stake in the company.

The company opened two more London stores and then moved abroad. There are now stores across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

In October last year, UAE-based major retailer Lulu Group announced investment plans in the company.

Mr. Weerasinghe said the company plans to open more branches in Asia. “We are looking forbusiness groups with considerable finance and experience in selling premium goods. Last year, we got about 90 to 100 serious enquiries,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the majority of them were from Chinese businessmen.