x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Frank Kane’s working lunch: V Shankar is a private equity investor with a wide world view

Over lunch at Cipriani, V Shankar explains why he would rather invest in fast-food buns than in some high-tech stars. The former regional head of Standard Chartered is in private equity now and takes a wide view of the world from his base in Dubai.

Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

When, in the course of lunch, your guest starts a sentence with the phrase “The big question for mankind is…..” you just know that you’ve got it right.

The idea of Working Lunch is to put an important and interesting person in congenial surroundings and let them talk about whatever is on their minds. My job – apart from picking up the lunch tab of course – is to steer the conversation towards areas I think will be of interest to readers of The National.

I had no doubt V Shankar would provide the content. He’s well known in the UAE and beyond, mainly because of his 14-year stint as head of Middle East, Asian and African business for Standard Chartered, during which time he moved the bank’s regional HQ from London to Dubai.

I’d also seen enough of him in social situations – most recently at a glittering farewell party at his Umm Suqeim villa for the outgoing Singapore ambassador Umej Bhatia – to know there was more to Shankar than just banking.

The V stands for Viswanathan, but like many of his Indian compatriots he prefers to use just the initial and be known by his surname only. Even “Mr” he regarded as superfluous, he told me.

He had suggested Cipriani in the Dubai International Financial Centre as the venue for his first interview since leaving Standard Chartered and I was very happy to go along with that. I’d had dinner at the restaurant the previous week – my first visit there since it opened to much fanfare last year – and wanted to see if the lunchtime crowd was as exuberant as the eclectic evening mix.

Cipriani is the sort of restaurant where you go to be seen, but in the certain knowledge that the food and service will be top notch. Now it has restaurants in most of the great cities of the world, but it began life as Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1931, and has always known how to indulge its elite clientele.

Ernest Hemingway, the American writer who is a hero of mine, was a great patron in the early days in Italy and found inspiration for one of his novels in Harry’s. “The book came to me in a haze in Harry’s Bar,” he later wrote. He did a lot of his work in a haze.

No such problem for Shankar and I as we ordered Virgin Mary and table water, and took up our ringside seat. The restaurant is on two levels, with a terrace overlooking a pit of tables in the centre. From our table, people-watching was easy, and fascinating, with the feel of a Beverly Hills crowd to the place.

Shankar must have read my mind, because he began to tell me about his son Adi, who is a film producer responsible for a string of quite gory action movies starring big Hollywood names such as Liam Neeson and Brad Pitt. “A movie executive said he is the Quentin Tarantino of the digital age,” Shankar says.

He visits his son often in Los Angeles. “LA is not a city, but a collection of cities connected by roads. Dubai is similar, but more high-rise. And for four or five months in the year, Dubai has Californian weather, ” he says, providing a nice segue to his life in the UAE.

He was born in Chennai when it was still called Madras, attended a Jesuit college there (although he is Hindu), and did an MBA in Bangalore before joining Bank of America, based mainly in Hong Kong and London.

We’ve had a glance at the menus, which are classic Italian with a hint of fusion. He ordered chicken spezzatini, which is Cipriani’s version of curry, and I went for veal piccatina, which the waiter recommended.

The call from Standard Chartered came in 2001, just as the Asia-oriented but London-based bank was on the cusp of a boom era. Asian markets were taking off as China propelled the East towards unprecedented economic growth.

Dubai was the new centre of Standard Chartered’s world, and the bank was at the hub of that, with flagship offices in the newly built DIFC. But the financial crisis was just around the corner, and, along with the rest of the banking world, the credit crunch exposed fault lines in its operations.

The bank got through without the big capital injections needed by other western financial institutions, but the strain began to tell. There were worries in Asia and the US, and by 2014 shareholders, including the giant Singapore sovereign wealth group Temasek, were asking serious questions about the direction the bank was taking. A new chief executive, Bill Winters, was put in to sort it out. Shankar left soon after.

He does not want to talk much about this episode. “It’s all in the past. When I drive, I look mostly to the front, through the windscreen, only occasionally to the rear-view mirror,” he says.

But at last he had the opportunity to get involved in private equity, which had been a growing ambition, and he soon joined Gateway Partners, a Dubai-based group focused on largely the same markets Shankar had under his responsibility at Standard Chartered.

“I joined Gateway because there is a big need for private capital in this region, and I think I and my partners have the knowledge of the markets we’ll need to find investments and help them grow. Between us, we must know the top 30 businessmen in the region, so we can network very effectively,” he says.

The networking capacity of Gateway is considerable. On its advisory board it counts Mohammed Al Shaibani, director general of the Dubai Ruler’s Court and executive director of Investment Corporation of Dubai, the emirate’s biggest investment group.

The Nigerian cement tycoon Aliko Dangote (“the richest black person in the world” according to Forbes magazine) and Iyad Malas, the highly-regarded former chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim, are also among a group of celebrity business people involved with Gateway.

Shankar explains the investment strategy: “We’re looking at companies that fulfil essential needs, so for example we’re in the Indian confectionery company that makes all the buns for KFC, and one of the biggest Indonesian retailers, a kind of 7/11-plus. We believe in investing in the basics of urbanisation – education, health care. But I would not look at, for example, fintech or e-commerce firms that have no profit record,” he says.

I mention Snap, the social media company that recently took Wall Street by storm in a US$33billion IPO but has since fallen off sharply, and he just laughs. “We saw the same thing at the turn of the century in the dot-com bust. Many of these companies have no pathway to profits, they cannot go on forever. It’s cool to say you’re in fintech, for example, but I don’t care. Or robotics, or artificial intelligence. If you don’t you sound like an old fogey. But I don’t care,” he says emphatically.

So instead of chasing the latest cool trend, at Gateway he chases demographic trends. He sets me a test: “What connects the years 1804, 1927 and 1975?” he asks. I can’t think offhand so he tells me (he’s obviously used this one before): “In the first year, world population hit one billion; in the second, it hit two billion; in 1975, it hit four billion. So the scale and pace of change is so much faster,” he says.

“That’s why I love the region. The markets are spectacular and demographics are important. Two-thirds of the population is under 35, 1.5 billion people live in cities, the region’s trade is growing twice as fast as the rest of the world,” he adds.

Mention of trade, inevitably, leads us to Donald Trump, the volatile, protectionist American president who is casting a shadow over world trade. No lunch in Dubai these days is complete without some mention of Mr Trump, usually accompanied by a sucking of teeth and shaking of head.

Shankar has had close business ties with the US ever since the Bank of America days. He once considered applying for US citizenship, and was an adviser to Jeb Bush in the early days of his short-lived campaign for the Republican candidacy. I expect an anti-Trump diatribe, but it does not come.

“It has been painted as good versus evil, Darth Vader versus Obi-Wan Kenobi. But Trump hit a theme with some voters in the US. There has obviously been an increase in inequality in America, with people in the middle getting squeezed in particular. Rustbelt America is the result,” he says.

“He [Trump] has a duty to look after those people. He was elected president of the USA, not the world. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for some of the good stuff he’s doing, like stopping the revolving door in Washington between the DC establishment and the lobby industry,” he adds.

And then it comes: “The big question for mankind is how to provide jobs for all those extra people. In that respect, Trump is not an outlier. We have to question some fundamental assumptions about growth and the power of technology to create jobs.”

Our plates are being cleared away and we decide to sit by the bar to have some coffee. Now that “the big question” is out of the way, we can relax and chat about less weighty things.

He is a great collector of art, along with his wife Sunita. They began collecting in India, then carried on as his job took them around the world. He has a sizeable collection of Asian, African and now Arabic art, kept “in Dubai, in Singapore and in storage”.

The Singapore connection is significant for him. He became a citizen in 2006, and the city-state is one of the hubs of the Gateway business. “I thought about the US but Singapore has some great advantages. The infrastructure is great and it’s easy to get to India, where my parents still live.”

As I’m paying the bill, he asks me what I thought about the concept of “fake news”, and I told him it was a very depressing phenomenon for a lifelong journalist.

“I believe we’re living in the Ritalin generation,” he says, referring to the medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “People have got a massive attention deficit these days.”

It’s not entirely clear whether he’s referring to younger people in general, American voters, or the president himself.

business@thenational.ae

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