On the face of it, Jag Panesar’s family experience is not that different to that of other immigrant families who left behind their homes in South Asia to make a better life for themselves here in the UK. While the stories may have similarities, each individual journey is very different for those that make up the South Asian diaspora in the country.
One thing that is clear is that Mr Panesar’s grandfather’s experience has left an indelible impression on the founder of Saltaire-based digital agency Xpand.
Parkash Singh Panesar came to Britain in the 1960s. Initially the family had left behind its homeland in Punjab, India, and tried its luck in Tanzania.
“My grandad moved around a bit,” Mr Panesar said. “They moved to Tanzania and that’s actually where my dad and one of his brothers was born.
“My grandad had a joinery business but things went a little bit wrong for them. There was also a lot of political unrest at the time.”
After returning to India, he tried again. This time the family would move to the UK and his grandfather took up a job as a joiner here.
Mr Panesar said: “He got a job in joinery and having experienced the poverty that he went through, he wanted his sons to set up their own businesses.”
His own father and one of his uncles would end up becoming apprentice mechanics before setting up their own garage. Another uncle of his became an electrical contractor.
When Mr Panesar left university in 2003, the option was there to join the family business. However, he chose to go down his own path.
He said: “I left university in 2003 and as is the case with most students I struggled to get work. I ended up just getting a data entry job at Santander in Bradford city centre next to the Interchange.
“At that point I was still looking for jobs in the marketing field. Without experience it was just proving impossible. I ended up getting a job at a garage equipment manufacturer based in Bradford. It was entry level. I was brought in just to do sales. That was around 2005.”
That particular business went bust in 2007 as it ran into cash flow problems. But having operated in a niche sector and introduced concepts such as Google Adwords, Mr Panesar was in demand. He asked instead to work on a freelance basis for them.
That’s how Xpand came to be but it was a rocky start for the business and Mr Panesar had to face adverse circumstances in those early years.
He said: “I proposed in December 2006. In February 2007 we found a house and I put a deposit on it. In April 2007 I was made redundant. I got the keys in May 2007 so I had no job and a mortgage and I was due to get married in July 2007.
“Then obviously the credit crunch came very shortly after that. That’s how it started. A lot of adverse circumstances but I knew that that was what I wanted to do.”
Today Saltaire-based Xpand has six staff and found itself during the lockdown suddenly experiencing a lot of demand for digital marketing and as a result facing capacity issues.
Instead of hiring more staff, he reached out to his network and set up an external supplier network.
It took Mr Panesar a few years to crack it though. He didn’t take on his first employee, an apprentice, until 2012.
That was because he was distracted by another business venture. He came to realise in 2011 that it was futile trying to burn the candle at both ends and switched his focus to Xpand.
The decision to strike out on his own was inspired by his grandfather’s journey in life. His grandfather passed away in 2010 but Mr Panesar believes he would be proud of what his grandson had achieved with Xpand.
Mr Panesar said: “He had a very strong set of principles like if you’re going to do something, do it properly or don’t do it at all. He was a real perfectionist in the way that he would do stuff.
“This man came with absolutely nothing like all the immigrants at that time. When he died in 2010, he died a very happy man. He was able to retire at the age of 50.
“Rather than joining the family business I always wanted to achieve what he had done; doing something yourself. It creates a different type of character.”
An aspiration for a better life is the reason why entrepreneurialism is so prevalent within South Asian communities, according to the founder of Xpand.
Mr Panesar added: “The reason why there was such mass immigration at the time was to get a better life. Village life in India wasn’t anything luxurious by any means. They truly understood what it was like not having anything.
“My dad tells the story every now and then about being so unbelievably hungry as children and the next door neighbours would be eating something really simple that they had made.
“They were just dying for this food that me and my brothers and sisters used to hate when we were kids but they couldn’t even afford to have that.
“It’s that aspiration to have what they never had. I feel that’s probably the common factor. I don’t hear many stories of people who came to the UK in that time from a very wealthy background. They came to the UK to make a better life for themselves.”
In improving their own lives, they can also create opportunities for others. That is something that Mr Panesar hopes becomes a legacy of Xpand.
He said: “The wider vision for the business goes back to, I suppose, my grandad. When he passed away and I really thought about it I realised that he had an impact on the world.
“He came here with nothing. He and his sons were involved in businesses. Off the back of those businesses they have employed hundreds and hundreds of people.
“They’ve had an impact on the economy. To me the bigger picture is to have some kind of impact on the people around me. For example, my first employee was an apprentice. He stayed with me for five years.
“He then went on to set up his own business and has been doing that for the last three years now. He’s doing really well. The way that I look at things is I’ve got my own local economy. If I can do positive things to support growth around it, to me that’s a nice box ticked.”
Job title: Director of digital agency Xpand
Date of birth: January 1980
Education: BA Business Management and CIM Professional Diploma
First job: Washing vans at my dad’s garage
Favourite holiday destination: The Maldives
Favourite film: Carlito’s Way
Favourite song: Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
Last book read: Oversubscribed – Daniel Priestley
Car driven: Mercedes
Most proud of: My team and their response to the recent adverse circumstances
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