SME Stories: Bhavic Popat

Bhavic Popat’s family arrived in Leicester as Ugandan refugees. Despite having only £42 to their name, today they are the proud owners of a textile and property empire.  Here is Bhavic’s incredible story.

The Popats first experience of life in Britain was as guests at a refugee camp. With no contacts and under £50 in their pockets they set about making a life for themselves in the capital of the British textile trade, Leicester.

The family’s first business was a small menswear shop on Belgrave road. This flourished and soon they expand to three shops across the city.

It was here that they encountered their first set of hurdles. The textile trade was under rising pressure from manufacturers in the Far East. High street competition was fierce and the days of buying from wholesalers were numbered. 

The family responded by moving up market and begun designing bespoke suits. They opened a factory in Derbyshire manufacturing ties, shirts and waistcoats. It was a huge success and expansion came quickly with blue chip retailers like Marks & Spencer and Fosters Menswear becoming major clients.

However, on October 19, 1987, Black Monday, the stock market crashed. Many of their clients went bust and the Popats became victims of the classic cashflow trap of a fast-expanding company.

It was back to square one for the family. But it was a fate they accepted. “We knew what it was like to have nothing. We’d been there before,” says Bhavic.

The family rebuilt their clothing business piece by piece, starting once more in a small shop. This time they concentrated on design and in 1996 Bhavic became a partner with his uncles in the bespoke menswear shop, Suit Yourself. 

Not long after, Bhavic spotted a new opportunity – above their shop were two empty flats. The family converted the flats and, unexpectedly, found a ready market in student lets. They sensed an opportunity. All around them were derelict textile factories. Initially, they bought one derelict factory and converted it into 27 flats. These they let out easily. With another factory converted into 33 flats, the family established SI Properties and sought out more derelict factories.

But then, in September 2008, the stock market crashed again. 

Bhavic and his family had to draw on every conceivable resource to survive. But this time their business was more established. Their property portfolio was a more diverse business then their textile offering and, crucially, they had built up loyalty with suppliers who extended credit.

Both Suit Yourself and SI Properties survived and Bhavic and to this day his family continue to develop their businesses.

But what are the key business lessons Bhavic learnt growing up? In Bhavic’s mind there are three key things every aspiring entrepreneur should keep in mind.

Accept educated risk

To build a successful business you have to take risks. But they must be educated risks. You must understand your market and take risks within what you know. Boldness can, and does, pay off. As one uncle said to Bhavic: “You can work like a dog and you can work 70, 80, or even 100 hours a week. You’ll never become a millionaire. But if you learn how to borrow £1 million and you can manage debt and pay the loan back, then you’re a millionaire.”

Accept your fate. Get up off the floor and try again

Building a business is hard. It’s crucial to be able to understand and accept the potential downside. As another of Bhavic’s uncles said: “At end of day, we live in a country where if everything fell apart tomorrow, how badly off are you going to be? The government will put a roof over your head and put food on your plate. It wouldn’t be the lifestyle you want, but it should give you the confidence to say to ‘hell with it, let’s have a go’”

Strong relationships diminish risk 

The importance of integrity and loyalty cannot be understated. Since the financial crash, relationships with banks are less important than they used to be, but relationships among business contacts and suppliers remain vital. Of course, you always need to be looking for better sources of supply, but the survivors in dire circumstances are often those who can call in favours generated by their own integrity and loyalty.


One comment on “SME Stories: Bhavic Popat”
  1. Roger Merry says:

    A really inspiring story. I’d like to have known more about that crucial first step, and in particular how he set up a shop with less than £50 to buy stock, pay the rent in advance, advertise etc. – it seems to me that you can succeed only if you can get on the ladder, and that must surely be the biggest hurdle for most people. What a determined family!

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