Everyone in Scottish business circles knows Charan Gill. Or do they really know him? The gregarious, joke-telling Punjabi-born entrepreneur; the hilarious after-dinner speaker and author of Tikka Look At Me Now; the motivational ethnic business leader; the life and soul of so many Entrepreneurial Exchange spring gatherings at Gleneagles, has been searching for some kind of enlightenment in his life.
In more than one way, he has found it, beguiled by some Eastern inspiration, and finding a sense of peace, harmony and happiness with a spiritual sojourn to his birthplace.
The man who arrived in Glasgow, aged nine, and changed the face of eating out in Scotland with the Ashoka Indian restaurant in Argyle Street, bringing chicken tikka and lamb passanda to the Glaswegian masses, has fallen in love with Musselburgh, an east coast treasure.
The dapper Gill, with the thick wave of silvery-grey hair, explains: “It was about a year after I sold the restaurants. I wasn’t particularly looking for anything but I had come off the M8 at Charing Cross, near the Mitchell Library, passing the Koh-i-Noor, when I got a phone call from a property agent who said I should look at a place in Musselburgh.”
It might well have been Mumbai because it was the other side of Scotland, and on the windy east coast. “I had never been to Musselburgh before and I had to ask where it was. Graeme Brown, from Sutherland Brown, told me to go and have a look when I got a chance – just go down and see the building. I asked him how to get there and he said, ‘You just take the M8 towards Edinburgh and when you get there, take the by-pass’.”
It was nearly lunchtime, a beautiful day with the sun shining. He was heading up Woodlands Road and, as he was finishing the call on his car phone, he saw the M8 sign to Edinburgh right in front of him with the ramp down to the motorway.
“I have always been a great believer in fate, kismet. I saw the sign and I just went there,” he said. It was a whim. The purpose-built Quay complex, which had cost £5-6m to build, was being sold by the Co-op and it was haemorrhaging money.
Yet this was a cast-iron business opportunity in a great location for someone with the right skills. He believes it was written in the stars – because the road sign said: ‘Welcome to Musselburgh: the Honest Toun’.
He jokes: “I said to myself, this sounds like a place where a man can make some easy money.” As he pulled up, Gill could see that the building’s fabric was in good shape, and it was in a picturesque setting beside the stone-built harbour of Fisherrow, where the herring boats on the Firth of Forth would once land their catches.
He stepped inside The Quay and asked to be shown around, but the receptionist refused point blankly, saying he would need to make an appointment. He explained he had made the trip from Glasgow, coming through especially. But the girl on the reception was adamant: it didn’t matter a jot that he was one of Scotland’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, he was not going to get a look at the property.
He came back an hour later and the manageress was still busy. And he never got a look around. But it was empty and he poked about. It was already a brilliant setting for weddings and civil partnership and he could sense the potential.
“I thought if it was doing reasonable sales with that kind of attitude, then there is scope for expansion,” he says. “If they were doing everything right and there was no room for expansion, you would think, what can I add?” A few hours later, Graeme Brown rang back and Gill made a gut decision to buy the property.
In 2006, before the credit crunch, gaining the finance – particularly with Gill’s track record – wasn’t too much of a problem. He bought it for just over £1m, and then spent another £1m on upgrading the fitness club and spa, with the latest Technogym equipment, improving the swimming pool and the changing areas, and upgrading the function suites and the bars and restaurants. The deal was done before the banks shut up shop to lending and he set up Seagull Leisure Ltd in April 2007, describing The Quay as “a hotel without rooms”.
Five years on, Charan Gill is delighted with his investment, which undertakes over 100 weddings year.
“We’re happy; we’re making profits. We’ve turned it around. There were changes but they only happened because the older people didn’t want to hang about for whatever reason. One of my daughters came in and helped the wedding co-ordinators in the office; they’ve stayed on and they’ve taken on a new lease of life.”
He says that staff can’t really do much if there is no investment. The Fitness Club, which is competitively priced, is now going well with zumba, spin cycle and body pump classes, all creating a buzz about the place.
“If you can make people feel happy and proud of where they work, then it motivates them, because people like to say they work at The Quay,” he says. He’s a well-known face around the place these days and some of hard-core customers, who have stayed through the bleaker times, seem happier too. One recently approached Gill several months saying: “You’ve made the Quay smile again.” “This was something important to me,” he admits.
“The whole atmosphere of the place changed and the energy changed and, when it changes, it impacts on the staff and the customers. A lot of people who come here feel very comfortable. We want to make this the hub of the community in Fisherrow and Musselburgh. What we did was change the names of the two function suites we have upstairs.”
When Charan’s team arrived there was the Musselburgh Town Festival in July and during that time they have elections for the Honest Lass and Honest Lad. Charan found out that the first “Honest Lad and Lass” in 1936 were Jimmy Arthur and Ina Vass. So the two suites have been renamed the Arthur and Vass suite, rather than the more pedestrian, Schooner and the Clipper.
“We discovered they still have relatives in the town,” he says. “So they were invited to the openings. You try and work with the community and give them something back in a genuine way. We support the local football team and get invited in local charity events.” Charan Gill’s life has been as full and flavoursome as the spicy curries he once served.
He began working in the Ashoka in 1974 with his friend, Gurmail Dhillon. He started by cleaning toilets, peeling onions and making poppadums, while still working at Yarrow’s shipyard where he was an apprentice turner and fitter.
By 1980, he became the Ashoka’s manager, earning more than he did at Yarrow’s. It was long hours and hard work, but there was plenty of Billy Connolly-esque banter with Glasgow becoming the curry capital of Britain.
So when he got a chance to get a share in the business, he went to the bank for some help. He needed £6,000, but the bank agreed to give him £3,000 if he could get the other half himself. He borrowed it from friends, and then went on to buy the others out.
The Ashoka faced stiff local competition, so Charan Gill dreamed up some brilliant marketing stunts to raise the profile, including employing a certain Richard Shaw, so he could deliver takeaway by rickshaw. They bought some nearby restaurants, creating the Harlequin Leisure Group in 1995, which helped changed the face and the taste of Indian food in the UK.
There was more sophistication and new styles of cooking that were transforming the Indian restaurant scene. In 1998, he was awarded the MBE for services to the food and catering industry and, in 2004, he was made Entrepreneur of the Year at the UK’s Asian Business awards.
The following year, the Harlequin Restaurant Group, with 17 restaurants, reached a turnover of £12m. It was then that he decided to sell out and concentrate on his property portfolios. At this stage, Charan Gill said he wanted to do more than just be known as Glasgow’s Curry King.
He has a host of awards and gongs and has been a Secret Millionaire on television, but now he is much more reflective about what success is all about –and his time at The Quay.
“I really don’t see this as a business,” he says. “It’s something I enjoy doing and being with. In the summer there are a lot of tourists but it’s about our regulars – such as Mr Bishop who comes in every day and sits at his usual table and seat. If he’s not coming in, he actually phones to tell us.
He has his seat.” While the Indian restaurant industry – like the Chinese and Italian – remains extremely popular, the costs associated with running restaurants have rocketed.
“From when I remember it, the costs of running a restaurant were really low,” says Gill. “There was no VAT and no PAYE. The raw materials are far more expensive – even the price of lamb and seafood – and labour costs have risen. There were no such thing as water rates – and they are going up and up. Rates bills have been introduced that were never there in the past. But also the expectation of the customer in terms of fit-outs and a decoration is much higher today. They want to eat in a nice place.
“Some places are costing £500,000 and you need to get that back over ten years which is an extra £1,000 a week to be made on the cost of the meals.”
Relatively speaking, a curry at an Indian is still good value for money, but running a business in Scotland today is much more complex, especially VAT, with 20% of everything in the till going to the taxman.
While Charan Gill is still the same effusive individual, there is a different demeanour as he relishes the prospect of a trip to India.
“I can’t remember a time when I’ve been more upbeat about life. As far as business is concerned, it is a means to an end now. When sometimes, as business people, we make it our whole lives and we don’t see anything beyond it, well, I think that is where I was.
“We do things ultimately because we want to achieve happiness, whether it is through business or material goods, or for our families. Ultimately, the only reason we do this is to be happy. What I started to realise was that I was always chasing happiness.”
So there was never enough time to enjoy the pleasure of his business success.
“You weren’t actually realising that happiness was there all the time. It was always a destination, never a journey. And with successful business people it is always a destination, there is always the next target, the next acquisition, and then you will be happy. But somehow it’s always elusive.” He says that looking back on his life, he said he thought he would be happy when he left school, and then when he left school, he thought he would be happy when he served his time as an apprentice, and then married with kids. Then it’s a bigger house, and you want your children to do well.
“You achieve all these things and you are wishing your life away,” he says.
“Yet you still haven’t achieved happiness, and at some point in your life you realise this and there is anxiety, stress and pressure. It depletes your natural energy.” A deep conversation resulted in the question: what are you trying to achieve? His response: “I’m trying to achieve contentment”.
Then the questioner said: “But what exactly is contentment, do you know what it is?” He said at this point he couldn’t really explain what contentment meant to him, so he began a spiritual journey looking for some basic answers.
“Contentment was when you are happy to live and you are not dependent on any of your five senses,” he explains.
“It’s not taste, to hear, what you see, smell or touch, it’s beyond that. So none of these matter, if your happiness depends on any of the senses, then it is temporary and superficial. To be content, you have to ask is there is more beyond our physical needs. It has to come from yourself, internally.”
He asks rhetorically if he should really be stressing about Scottish independence or not? “Should I worry about things I can’t control? But it is very difficult to leave them alone.”
Charan Gill has recently been at Mount Abu in Rajasthan to spend some time at the Rajyoga meditation of Brahma Kumaris, founded by Prjapita Brahma, listening to Rajyogi Dadi Janki Ji, Chief of Brahma Kumaris.
The spiritual Brahma Kumaris movement has 8,500 centres in 130 countries. Suresh Oberoi, the famous Indian actor, asks “What is the meaning of happiness?” Sister BK Shivani answers: “If there is one thing that everyone is looking for now, we are looking for happiness.” The trip to India involves early-morning meditation and turning the day around by going to bed at 9pm.
No more late-night shindigs. It’s a return to how Charan Gill was brought up in the Punjab as a child, going to bed when the sun went down.
“We would wake up at 4.30am, that’s when the farmers and the animals are awake, and work begins before the heat of the day,” he says.
“When I looked at what I was doing after 9pm, I don’t do anything constructive.
“Happiness is a state of being, created while working towards the goal, not a feeling to be experienced after achieving the goal. If we believe that happiness is after achieving, then we create stress, anger and fear while achieving and thus do not experience happiness,” says BK Shivani.
Charan Gill agrees: “Before I take the responsibility of those around me, I need to take responsibility of my own thinking and feelings. When I am happy and take care of others, then they will be happy too.
“My spiritual search has always been a part of my life – but I think more recently I’ve taken a deeper interest in it. People don’t talk about people, they hold back.They’ll say, yeah the business is doing well – or may not so well. I think you’ve got to live your life among the people you love, your family and your friends.” It’s not often a business interview ends up looking for deeper meaning in the quest for life, but perhaps if a few more figures opened their souls, then Scotland might be a bit less strait-laced.
Perhaps Charan Gill’s journey will prompt others to travel a similar path?