Ammar Mirza's heritage is Pakistani but he loves his home city of Newcastle. Ruth Lognonne meets the man who founded Asian Business Connexions to help the Asian and North East business communities work more closely together.
BORN and raised in his native North East, home has always been where the heart is for Ammar Mirza, the founder member of Asian Business Connexions.
Despite a variety of high-powered roles with companies throughout the UK, the business consultant from Newcastle always struggled to stay away from his beloved Geordieland.
Launching his career in 1992 as an evaluation officer for the British Council, in London, Mirza came home within a year to manage a call centre in Newcastle before becoming ultimately responsible for IT service delivery at Telewest Communications.
Inspired by his family’s prowess in the property sector, the 39-year-old became managing director of Clark Residential, in Newcastle, and in 2008 was made responsible for managing council houses on behalf of Newcastle City Council as non-executive director of Your Homes.
During this time, the entrepreneur set up his own consultancy, AmmarM, which manages projects for a variety of businesses from sole-traders to multinationals.
However, it wasn’t until 2008 when Mirza, whose parents hail from Pakistan, made a real impact in the region’s Asian business community.
“I’m proud to say I was born in Newcastle,” he says. “My parents eloped together during the 1960s and they both instantly integrated into British society by becoming teachers in local schools. At the time, much of the Asian community was made up of manual workers. It was quite unique to have two people as educated as my mam and dad.
“My dad, who taught at Whickham and then lectured at Newcastle University, was secretary of the mosque in Newcastle and helped build it. My parents were both pillars of the Asian community and were passionate about equality and inclusivity.”
From a young age Mirza says he inherited his entrepreneurial skills from his mother, Salim, who used her talents as a seamstress to run sewing classes in her spare time for the Asian community in Newcastle. “Mam worked really hard and it was definitely her who instilled the spirit of working long hours in me,” he says. “Dad was offered a job in Saudi Arabia as principal of an American school and mam stayed here to look after the three boys, including me.
“It was really hard for her but that was the decision she made. While bringing us up she worked really hard and to this day remains one of the most inspirational people in my life.
“She was also one of the most frugal people I have ever come across considering she came from an affluent background. She would get on a bus and travel miles rather than go to the nearest shop if a loaf of bread was cheaper elsewhere!”
When Mirza left the safe confines of Heaton Manor School at the tender age of 18, he was unsure about where life would take him next.
His elder brother was working in London at the time, so with bags packed and the world as his oyster, the teenager embarked upon his trip to the Big Smoke, securing a job with the British Council as an evaluation officer.
His workaholic attitude led to Mirza juggling two jobs while living in London ... when his work was done at the British Council he would hop on the tube to begin his shift at a cinema in Golders Green.
Within a year, he had sickened himself of London life, and was keen to come home and spend time with his family. His close relationship with his mother resulted in the pair working on a property portfolio in Newcastle and the surrounding area, which Salim successfully built up over the years.
But when his then-girlfriend gave birth to the couple’s first child in the early 1990s, Mirza realised a “proper” job was on the cards.
He says: “I started out as a temp at a call centre, which later became Telewest Communications. I worked my way up to manager by 1993 and during my time there I established the company into a 24-7 offering which was the first call centre in the UK to do that. I really enjoyed working hard and eventually I became responsible for IT service delivery at Telewest.
“One of the great things was I started spending a lot of time in all of the company’s other offices throughout the UK and getting the opportunity to travel.
“I spent six months in Edinburgh, a year in Liverpool as well as periods in Dudley and our offices in Woking.
“After 10 years with the company I was asked to move to Woking but I became tired of living out of a suitcase. I wanted a better quality of life and to spend more time with my daughter. Also, the appeal of getting up at 4am in the morning was quickly wearing off.
“Instead, I was offered a job as managing director with the chance of investing a small share in a property company called Clark Residential. In just two years I took the company from being valued at about £5m to just under £30m, which made it the largest independently owned property company in the North East.”
His glowing reputation in the property sector led to Mirza working more closely with the local authority which went on to set the current high standards for student accommodation in Newcastle.
And in 2008 he was made non-executive director and elected independent board member of Your Homes, Newcastle, which improves social housing in order to meet the Government’s Decent Homes standard.
It was also around this time that Mirza was reminded of his Asian roots and the tireless work that his parents carried out in order to promote equality throughout the Asian community and beyond.
With his friend Jaf Ali, who runs the award- winning Spice Cube restaurant in Newcastle, Mirza set about making the case for an organisation with a cultural understanding of the Asian business community.
At the outset, the pair encountered a number of obstacles and challenges, with many questioning the need for a group of British Asians that wanted to help, not just one another, but also the whole community. How could this band of Asian men and women help?
Mirza said: “We spent 12 months commissioning research, developing our plans and holding what seemed at the time millions of meetings.
“After various pledges being made and not realised we decided to go it alone without the traditional support normally extended to social enterprises. Funded purely by its board members, Asian Business Connexions launched on July 4, 2009, which is also quite poignantly Independence Day.
“Since then the economic landscape has changed, business is very challenging and even more so for voluntary organisations like us. Yet we have persevered.
“What we have achieved in the past three years with limited financial resource is profound. Our proudest moments are when we work with other organisations and individuals, bringing together various communities with a common enterprising purpose.
“Entrepreneurial excellence would be a good definition of what we stand for. Our motivation is simply to help promote an equal and inclusive enterprising society. Working with all age ranges, our exciting plans that may be ambitious, help propel the organisation and genuinely make a significant difference to the Asian and wider communities.”
Three years down the line there is no doubt of the value Asian Business Connexions provides to its North East members, from taxi drivers through to franchisees of McDonalds’ restaurants. Mirza has personally ploughed in excess of £200,000 into a social enterprise he feels passionate about.
A few examples of projects he has consulted on include the Gainford Group’s takeover of the Vermont Hotel and the development of the Cosmetic Dental Clinic, both situated in Newcastle.
He has also helped brand and develop an Asian food outlet which is due to open in the city centre, which has been named Geordie Shah.
As well as enabling others to grow and develop, Mirza has a few keen ideas up his sleeve to help benefit the city’s Asian community.
“I’m looking at setting up an Indian food academy in the West End of Newcastle,” he said.
“This will provide vocational qualifications for people wanting to learn Indian cooking and hospitality.
“There’s nothing like it in the UK, not even in London or Birmingham, so it will hopefully draw students from all over.
“In my opinion, why should it just be Asian people working in Asian restaurants? Historically, restaurants have imported chefs from India to work because they have the necessary skills passed down from generations of their family.
“I know that’s the way it’s always been but I think it’s time we changed all that and educated our community here in the North East.”
Taking his role in serving the community even further, Mirza is also patron and an avid fundraiser for the Northern Centre for Cancer Care at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. He has raised thousands of pounds for the hospital’s Charlie Bear for Cancer Care charitable fund over the past few years. He also takes great pleasure in presenting a regular show providing business advice and guidance on North East Asian radio station, Spice FM.
With his infectious enthusiasm and passion for building businesses in Newcastle and the surrounding area, Mirza has fast manifested himself into one of our region’s indispensable assets. But are we likely to lose this vibrant entrepreneur to one of the UK’s more profitable cities or even abroad? Not likely he says.
“My mam sent me to school in Pakistan when I was 12 years old and I hated it,” he said. “I came home because I was too westernised, and more specifically, I was too Geordie.”