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British Indian's success story bucks manufacturing trend

For years, the manufacturing industry in Britain has gone downhill but Daljit Mehal is one entrepreneur who refuses to shut shop or relocate.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2004 14:44 IST

For years, the manufacturing industry in Britain has gone downhill but Daljit Mehal is one entrepreneur who refuses to shut shop or relocate.

He is actually expanding, thanks to hand-on Punjabi grit and shrewd business acumen.

Daljit is the managing director of a clothes manufacturing company in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, but his card does not mention his title -- every morning you could find him helping sweep the shop floor.

LS International, Daljit's company, makes clothes for a wide range of internationally known brands, and employs Indians, Pakistanis, Romanians, Poles, Afghans and English.

Daljit, 41, is of Indian origin, but sales and production directors are English. The company also has operations in Portugal and China.

Last week, the company reached the critical decision to continue manufacturing in Britain.

"We have been deliberating on this for the last month and a half. With costs and red tape and all the added overheads escalating, it was very tempting to shut it down. But we decided to give it a really good bash in 2004 and try to expand our UK manufacturing.

"We are limited to niche markets and high value products that can take the overheads. We are looking to invest about 100,000 pounds in machinery as well as training here in Wolverhampton.

"There was no one factor that led us to take the decision to stay. A lot of it was down to tradition. I strongly believe we can still make it work here. It is not going to be easy, I know that," he told the local media.

Daljit reached the decision in full consultation with his employees in Wolverhampton.

The company was founded by Daljit's father Lachman Singh, who moved from India to Britain in the early 1950s to work in the mills of Huddersfield.

It is a familiar immigrant story of hard work, grit and determination to make good in a foreign land.

He later moved to the Midlands to work in the steel industry before illness forced him out and he began to make money out of the rag trade.

"After he came to the Midlands he was ill for a while and lost his job. He is one of these people who will think and let his mind do the work rather than actual physical graft and so he got into business himself.

"Mum was sewing clothes at home and he was selling door-to-door or at work and he progressed from there and started doing markets and bought a shop over at Bilston.

"He started manufacturing there, got bigger and took on staff. A few relocations back we bought these premises in the mid-80s."

Daljit, the youngest of three surviving children, learnt the rag trade by working on local markets from the age of 12 and set his sights on a business career.

"My father had one stall and I used to do the Saturday market in Bilston and Mondays and Fridays in the school holidays," he said.

"I also did a Sunday market down in South Wales. It was a good learning ground. It was a very good time and I learnt a lot, especially selling techniques."

Daljit and his family lived in the Parkfields area of Wolverhampton and Daljit kept the house on after his father retired and returned to India.

"I started working full-time for my dad when I was 18, and at 21 he signed over the overdraft to me and told me 'That's yours, get on with it and do what you want with it'."

The company at the time was turning over about pounds 300,000 a year and employed eight people and was "very profitable".

Growth in the early years of Daljit's stewardship of the company was gradual, but activity speeded up and he bought in Howard Chalmers as co-director.

"I was the only manager and I needed other senior people involved. Howard came along and took a lot of the burden off me on the financial side and really we have gone from strength to strength.

"It is all about getting the right people in the right jobs and we are very much a hands-on company.

"One of my first jobs still in the morning is to help sweep up", he says.

Outside work his life revolves around his family - wife Balvinder, who works with him on the shop floor, and their three children Karinder, aged 17, Jaideep, 14, and Darren, 12.

Though passionate about the business, Daljit emerges as a shy man who likes his private life to be just that -- private. Asked if he has reached millionaire status, he shakes his head and says he does not even aspire to it.

"So long as I am comfortable, I am happy. To be honest as I make it I spend it. I am not one of these guys to hoard it. I have three lovely children but whether they will follow me into the business, I don't know."

First Published: Jan 12, 2004 14:44 IST