Mayank Patel: Making money from currency

Date: 07 Dec 2009


Mayank Patel, the Azibo Group, owns many companies but the one he earned his spurs at was Currencies Direct where he is still chairman. His family origins stem from Gujarat, India but following the large scale migration to Uganda in the 1960’s, Patel’s parents like many from the Indian community migrated to East Africa to seek opportunities on the back of large infrastructure projects encouraged by both the British and Indian governments (Uganda was then under British Protectorate). Many Asian Ugandans, as they have become known, became prosperous as Uganda became one of the richest countries in Africa at this time.

Patel says that most Indian families made the move because they wanted a better life. “There was a herd mentality to move to Africa,” he says. “The African family culture resonated well with the Indians who moved there. It was an easy life and family and friends remember it fondly despite the consequent terror reigned by Idi Amin.” Says Patel. “Africans were ambitious and had many trading businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit was firmly rooted in the culture.”

His father, a highly educated man, qualified as a banker, lawyer and chartered accountant and would have studied further when he was awarded a scholarship to study economics in London but couldn’t take up the chance because he didn’t have the funds to support himself. He became a banker at the Ugandan Commercial Bank and then later after the historic Idi Amin expulsion of 80,000 Asian Ugandans – Patel’s father and family were not in line for expulsion but decided to flee anyway – he worked at the Zambia national bank, opening branches in rural areas.

Idi Amin, known as the “wild man of Africa” and who was portrayed in the movie “The Last King of Scotland” is believed to have had a dream in which God told him to expel Asians in Uganda. Asians locally had become very wealthy and his move was viewed as envious vengeance and an opportunity to claim their property and businesses for himself.

Patel’s family weren’t in line for expulsion because some Asians like doctors and those perceived to be helping government objectives were ordered to stay but his family departed secretly. “My father said we were going to a wedding in Zambia and we didn’t return.” says Patel who was four years old by then. Despite the expulsion and consequent hardship he says, “Africa was a good place to be and everyone has happy memories of it.”

Patel’s brother was already in the UK when he decided to visit for a holiday after finishing study at an American University. He loved the UK so much, he says, because he’d led a very sheltered life. He ended up on a two year business course at the University of Birmingham at the young age of twenty, which made him the youngest undergraduate to attend. He says that his peers had much more work experience and although he has become part of a group of the most prestigious alumni that Birmingham University Business School has had in its 100 year history, he felt very strongly when he left that it was time to enter the job market to get more than hypothetical experience under his belt. Patel interrupts to say. “I was in a list of alumni which also featured David Gill, Chief Executive, Manchester United, David Gilbey, Vice-President, AOL, and Sir Peter Walters the former Chairman of BP.” Patel loved Birmingham because it gave him a first taste of freedom and independence.

After his studies he came to London, where his brother was based and fished around for jobs, thinking perhaps he might be a lawyer or accountant. He spent a year not knowing what to do. His father introduced him to an accountancy practice but he couldn’t spark any passion for the profession. His eureka moment arrived, after seeing the LIFFE futures exchange on television. He knew it was where he was meant to be. “It just looked so exciting.” He exclaims before saying. “I just didn’t want to be behind a desk doing the same thing day in day out.”
His parents had moved to the UK in Marylebone, London by this stage so he moved in with them and he applied for a job in a futures and options broking house. “I psyched myself up to get the job.” he says laughing. “It was like the X factor. I truly believed I had the talent to do the job, I was invincible.” He cites his father, who died in ’95 as a motivating influence in his life and says he was very inspiring. “He said do whatever you want to do in life and make sure you excel at it. If you want to sweep the streets then sweep them but come back with a medal for doing so. Don’t be average.”

Patel got the job as a trainee broker at David Coakley but says he felt more embarrassed the first month when he got his pay check for ¬£400 than pleased. The sum was less than his monthly allowance. “My father reassured me, I was at the beginning of something great.” Of his time at David Coakley, Patel says it was the best place he could have ended up. “I worked twelve hour days literally with a telephone book ringing up hnw individuals trading derivatives. I didn’t complain about the hours, I loved the work too much. It was a hard knocks first job but I was with like minded people and they were fair. I think I learned how to survive and the value of being street smart.” he says. He also learned the value of a good team of people working together. “I saw how a team with chemistry that was fully charged up, could really make the impossible happen.”
In 1996 he moved to a City institution Linnco who had c 500 people, for four years managing a fund management desk dealing with uhnw and professional investors. “I learned how to run the desk which operated like a self contained business.” He says. Mayank also started globe trotting and spent his time travelling to Holland, Germany, Singapore and Thailand. By the time he left he had thirty people working for him and was bringing in net ¬£3milllion in fees.

And at this point he started to think about setting up his own business but he had no savings, spent more than he earned and had only a conviction that he could succeed and his wife Jigna, who worked in HR software behind him ready to support a move. He laughs and says, “My conviction was so strong, even if someone said your idea wont work, I would have done it anyway.” We agree that ignorance is bliss but he adds, “It’s always easy to think of a hundred reasons for not doing things.”

He set up Currencies Direct, because he saw a gap in the market in 1996 for foreign exchange services to sole traders and small businesses who he felt weren’t being served properly by high street banks. Their offering promised cheaper transaction fees and pro active monitoring of money markets to help clients buy currencies at the best prices, to get more from their money.
He started out with an equal partner sharing one computer and a thermal paper fax machine based in Paddington and says they relied completely on enthusiasm, energy and a dash of pride to keep their momentum. “We offered something very simple: better exchange rates and service with a smile.” he says. “No-one was ringing up wine merchants and saying there is lots of economic activity coming up, you may want to get more francs or dollars now. We were managing their currency risk for them. Whilst banks offered rates that were no better than a bureau de change, we acted like a dealer, looking for best prices for currency to fit in with when their invoices needed to be settled.” He got his leads from import and export directories and just cold called prospects.

Whoopee moments came not when a big deal was signed but when they bought things like a new photocopier. “It felt like progress.” he says laughing at the absurdity of this statement now. “Times were very hard. It was a lot tougher than I’d imagined. We had no track record and were asking small companies to give us money in ¬£20,000 sizes to buy currency that would wipe them out if we’d of lost it. Any astute trader or SME would have carried out a Dun and Bradstreet report and said no, but we felt very strongly that people were buying into us as individuals and generally people do so before they use a company. People could see we were in need of a few breaks and really tried to support us.”

They charged a fee to register of ¬£250 simply because they needed the income stream. He says some weeks were great and some they got nothing. “Word of mouth became very strong for us.” adds Patel. “We really learned business and would send a bottle of wine to a client who helped us, in as much as we could with our limited resources. We realised early on that without your customers you are nothing. I never forgot that.”
One client ‘whoopee’ moment was a wine merchant customer who said: “you’ve made me feel very special and well looked after. I have a friend, give him a call.” The friend turned out to run Chelsea Village Plc (they own Chelsea football club) and the transaction sizes increased immeasurably securing their business fortunes. The company broke even in twelve months mainly because Patel says, “We didn’t have the time to wait three years to break even.” He split with the partner after four years because they differed in their views about ongoing expansion but he says he learned a lot from the shared experience.

The company has developed into a group now – the Azibo Group which has Currencies Direct with fourteen offices globally. A US company (UVS) he bought out in Atlanta who specialise in reclaiming VAT for large corporates, Norton Oak “which is similar to Currencies Direct” and he has investments in the hospitality and leisure industry.

As well as this Patel, who says he is now fortunate to do what he wants without financial considerations, has also diversified into the charity world, spending a substantial amount on a proprietary web based software interface which sits on IP address FX 4 charities allows individuals or businesses to register to be a donor so that when they work with Currencies Direct, ¬£1 per transaction will go to the charity the purchaser has chosen. “We only need 250 people to buy ¬£2000 each through the system and we can raise ¬£50,000 for charity.” He explains. Charities can also register and promote themselves on the service.

The Azibo Group is a privately owned company with a minority shareholder who has been involved for ten years. Whilst other people run the businesses for him now Patel receives regular financial updates to keep a keen eye on progress. The Azibo Group has zero leverage “not even one pence of debt” says Patel and he built the business completely “off my own back”. He has three hundred staff which includes hires in India and Patel says if he had to guess he would say the group was worth about ¬£100million but this calculation is not something that really lights interest in him. Currencies Direct India is the” next big thing.” Patel adds “I am from a Hindu background who believe in reincarnation but I prefer to deal in the now.”

He is married to Jigna (also called Bobby) and has two children who are nine and six. Although he likes spending and admits guiltily to a passion for sports cars, he says his wife is simply not interested in living the highlife. “She is happier in M&S than Prada” he says chuckling. Philanthropy is a next step, and perhaps an educational foundation in Africa or India. “I want to do something with my wife.” He says. Jigna, who studied maths and science at Imperial College, doesn’t want to play the role of Chairman’s wife and I’ve realised as I get more mature (he is forty two) that I can make a big difference to a lot of people.”

Three things that will take Mayank Patel forward

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