UK-Indian billionaire Bhanu Choudhrie reveals Middle East expansion plans

Bhanu Choudhrie, director at C&C Alpha Group, provides Arabian Business with an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into one of Britain's wealthiest family-owned businesses
UK-Indian billionaire Bhanu Choudhrie reveals Middle East expansion plans
Founded by Choudhrie Junior in 2002, C&C Alpha Group serves as a holding company for a group of private investors who have been in the business of venture capital funding for more than 30 years.
By Alicia Buller
Wed 06 Mar 2019 09:31 AM

Bhanu Choudhrie is a name known to many across the globe.

The softly spoken British-Indian businessman hails from the famous Choudhrie clan – one of the wealthiest families in India with a rumoured net worth of $2 billion. The Choudhrie residences can be found dotted across the most exclusive parts of London’s Belgravia.

Bhanu’s father, Sudhir, is perhaps best known for being the most prolific donor to the UK’s Liberal Democrats political party – as well as being one of India’s main arms dealers, among other business interests.

Choudhrie and his father are close – both in business and personally. The father and son faced adversity in 2014 when they were both arrested as part of a probe into an alleged bribery by engine maker Rolls-Royce – they were released without charge.

Choudhrie is now focused on what he does best – directing C&C Alpha Group, the family’s sprawling investment company, which has interests ranging from care homes to utilities.

Founded by Choudhrie Junior in 2002, C&C Alpha Group serves as a holding company for a group of private investors who have been in the business of venture capital funding for more than 30 years.

In Choudhrie’s own words, he "helps to provide investment strategy to incubate and grow the company’s businesses in order to maximise their potential".

With a global reach, the London-headquartered company focuses on six sectors: healthcare, hospitality, real estate, aviation, utilities and agriculture. It also has a consulting division offering advisory services to investors.

There is huge demand for Airbus 320, 330 and 340 pilots in the US

Choudhrie says he models his investment approach on legendary US financier Warren Buffett.

“Buffett is 88 years old and he is still going into work every day and making decisions," he tells Arabian Business

"I will be thankful to be even half the man he is at his age. As I’ve gotten older, I have become more cautious with my investments. When I started out, I took more chances. But later on, you don’t need to be so risky.”

Aviation on the up

The C&C Alpha Group has had significant interests in the UAE for decades. The company’s Sharjah-based aviation school Alpha Aviation Academy trains pilots for short haul airlines and supplies Air Arabia, the no-frills UAE airline, with most of its new recruits.

In tandem with growing global air traffic, the school has grown exponentially, says Choudhrie. The UAE school is currently training 120 recruits, while the firm also has a larger Philippines-based centre that is training 500 wannabe pilots.

Training doesn’t come cheap – the courses cost up to $162,000 (AED595,000) – and they can take up to 22 months to complete.

“We take pilots from zero to hero,” Choudhrie says. “The industry is growing and airlines are starting up across Asia and the Far East. It’s one of the businesses that we are holding on to as we see so much growth.”

The London-based director points out that the UAE, in particular, is a growing transport hub.

“Aviation contributes 15 percent to the UAE’s annual GDP. There are 500 aircrafts serving 750 million passengers per year. Those are big numbers,” he says.

Alpha Aviation Academy has its own simulators, aircraft and campuses. But Choudhrie says the growing demand in the UAE, coupled with limited airspace in the Middle East, is pushing the company to explore establishing a new training campus in Europe.

“We are looking at running part of the course overseas and acquiring a campus,” he says. 

The director also has his eye on targetting more South-east Asian markets, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the US.

“There is huge demand for Airbus 320, 330 and 340 pilots in the US,” explains Choudhrie.

Only 3 percent of pilots globally are women. We are trying to push up to 20 percent of pilots being women on our courses

He notes that the aviation market has been slow to catch up with the gender parity seen in other hiring markets.

“Only 3 percent of pilots globally are women. We are trying to push up to 20 percent of pilots being women on our courses. We want to push this and encourage the airlines to recruit more women,” he says.

Liquid assets

Another area the shrewd businessman is focusing on in Sharjah is water desalination.

His firm Alpha Utilities owns and operates a Seawater Reverse Osmosis Desalination (SWRO) plant which generates 0.5 million gallons of water per day with the exclusive rights to supply desalinated water to the Hamriyah Free Trade Zone Authority. Choudhrie plans to increase plant capacity to 2 million gallons per day as demand grows.

Alpha Utilities has also clinched a huge contract from Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA) to build its first SWRO desalination plant. The plant is being set up on a build-operate-transfer model, and will have a massive capacity of 2.2 million gallons per day.

Choudhrie says: “We saw a huge opportunity for the water desalination market. In the desert, the supply of electricity and water is fundamental. The UAE has been growing its infrastructure and all these projects require huge amounts of water.”

Choudhrie plans to take his SWRO model further afield in the Middle East and says he is already in "advanced talks" with Saudi Arabian officials.

Tourism projects

The director also sees opportunity for hospitality projects, particularly in Saudi Arabia, which he says would a good fit for his wellness hotel brand ‘Ananda’.

Choudhrie says: “I feel there is a market for holistic wellness hotels in Saudi Arabia. We feel this would be the right way to enter the market. Young Emiratis and Saudis are very into their health and really enjoy learning about it.”

Shanti Hospitality Group, the hospitality subsidiary of C & C Alpha Group, has over 2,000 keys globally across 24 hotels, including Ananda in the Himalayas, Nira Hotels & Resorts, Starwood Hotels, various Hyatt Hotels and Nidra Hotels.

In this environment, new investors should be careful and cautious. Your capital is limited but the opportunities are unlimited

“I’m convinced that there will be big growth in tourism in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. We are exploring opportunities. We will be cautious, but we are looking at it,” he says.

Cautious investment

Choudhrie says he is conscious of the "unpredictability" of the world at the moment. “We do not go into aggressive markets. We like to concentrate on the markets we know.”

However, the director says that sometimes “you need to see past tumultuous events, such as the election of Donald Trump as US president, and concentrate on your own fundamentals.”

Choudhrie believes much of his success comes from being able to evaluate a business and identify an excellent management team. He also knows when to cut his losses.

He says: “I believe every business has a lifecycle. There is always a time to sell. It’s also important that the time frame and incentive is clear and my team is aligned on this right from the outset.”

Choudhrie says: “In this environment, new investors should be careful and cautious. Your capital is limited but the opportunities are unlimited. Evaluate your options again and again. Take your time and be absolutely sure.”

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