Opening banks in London – all in a month’s work for one former distinguished Mumbai family

At India’s largest annual banking conference in Mumbai in September, the British Minister for Commercial Services in the Treasury was asked about the development of Islamic banking in England. Lord Sassoon was able to spell out how a number of UK banks had started to offer specific services for Islamic customers.

Some overseas visitors to the conference may have been surprised to realize, if they had come to India without doing some homework in advance, that millions of Muslims live in Mumbai and that Islam is the religion of over 100 million in the country as a whole. Lord Sassoon was unfazed at the question, as his antecedents were key players in developing Mumbai to be the key business and financial centre of India that it is today, and he retains close links with the commercial capital of India. His family, who were settlers from Iraq, were among the most successful traders in the 19th century in the city. A number of Mumbai’s landmarks, including the ever busy docks and an elegant building opposite one of the city’s most popular restaurants, still bear the Sassoon name.

James Sassoon’s great-great grandfather was sent by his family to the UK from Mumbai at the age of 26 in the mid 1800’s to start a bank, which apparently he was able to do in one month flat. By a curious quirk of fate the ex-financier, Lord Sassoon, returned to Mumbai to encourage more Indian banks to look at establishing a presence in London. This was a key part of his speech to Indian bankers, along with opening the Indian market to more foreign branches. After the conference Lord Sassoon launched a guide the British Deputy High Commission, Mumbai has produced with Deloitte for Indian financial services companies looking to open a business in the UK.

As well as the Governor and Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Lord Sassoon met a number of Indian CEO’s who have established banking subsidiaries in London. Chanda Kochhar for example, head of India’s largest commercial bank, ICICI, told us that the bank is now using London as its base for all its commercial operations. OP Bhatt, chairman of India’s huge State Bank of India, said that his bank also aims to expand into other European countries, using London as its base.

It may take longer than a month these days to set up a bank in the UK compared to the week  for Lord Sassoon’s antecedents, but there is no shortage of Indian banks lining up to provide competition and services to British customers.

Leave a Comment