Sarosh Zaiwalla was studying maritime law and working part-time at a prestigious City firm when one of the grandees pulled him to one side. "He told me that, as an Asian, I'd never make it to the top of the firm and that I'd be better to start out on my own."
It was 1981 and "times were much different back then. All the top City maritime firms were headed up by Britons or Europeans. Asian and black lawyers' firms stuck to practising immigrant law in the suburbs." So Zaiwalla came up with a plan for an Asian-headed maritime law firm that could deal with Asian firms doing shipping business in the City.
"In those days, London was the centre of the maritime world. Shipping contracts were traded on the Baltic Exchange and nearly all disputes were handled here."
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He asked NatWest bank to lend him the £10,000 he needed to set up, but was rejected. "The manager told me to come back when I had finished my studies." When Zaiwalla returned after his graduation, he was as good as his word, lending him enough to set up an office. His first customer was a teacher with a property dispute. "It wasn't my speciality, but I was desperate for business."
After some hard graft, Zaiwalla landed his ideal customer. As a Parsi Persians who emigrated from what is now Iran to India and Pakistan more than 1,000 years ago he had links with both Iran and India. His connections helped him land work with Hinduja Group a powerful Indian corporation that made its start by trading with the Iranian Shah's regime.
The group had survived the fall of the Shah and was still active in handling shipments. "I helped to handle their maritime disputes in London."
Working for Hinduja opened doors. "I did good work for them and I became well known." By the end of the year, Zaiwalla had come to the attention of the Indian High Commission, which appointed him as its maritime specialist. "It was a very busy period. At the time, India was suffering from a terrible famine and had to charter ships to receive wheat aid from the United States. Nearly every one ofthose shipments would involve some sort of dispute."
As his workload increased, Zaiwalla started to hire extra solicitors for his firm, Zaiwalla & Co. By the late 1980s, he had 11 other lawyers working for him. By 1991, with British business booming, he brought in a "new right hand man". The new partner helped the firm expand to new business areas and by 1999 the company had gained ten more partners, scores of extra lawyers and an annual turnover of £1.8m. Then disaster struck.
Zaiwalla found out that someone in the business had "effectively been stealing from me", leaving the company in a difficult financial position. It was time for drastic action. "I had to cut costs and downsize."
Eager to build the business again, Zaiwalla went back to what he knew best and looked to harvest international contacts. He also began offering international arbitration and sanction dispute resolution services in Iran and China. The strategy worked: Zaiwalla & Co now has an annual turnover of £3m. Zaiwalla's experience has taught him one vital lesson. "When something goes wrong it's your responsibility and you fix it."
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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