Orange County’s Indian-American community is nearly as diverse as its homeland, where myriad languages flourish in the crowded cities and secluded villages spread across the Asian subcontinent.
“It is amazing the number of differences,” said Anand Nallathambi, chief executive of Irvine-based CoreLogic Inc., one of the OC’s largest public companies with a market capitalization of about $2.6 billion. “Each local community in India has unique nuances. The dialects and cultural interests can be widely different.”
Call it a theme, because differences are easy to spot in OC, too, where Nallathambi is among several Indian-Americans who have gained prominence in various sectors of the local business landscape.
Raj Bhathal made a fortune with Tustin-based swimsuit maker Raj Manufacturing Inc. and now is a partner in the Sacramento Kings basketball franchise.
Manu Shah started Orange-based natural stone products purveyor MS International in his basement. Now the company has more than $600 million in annual revenue and was honored as a top family-owned business by the Business Journal in 2010.
Rajul Gala turned a single struggling Jack-in-the-Box restaurant into a restaurant franchise under the banner of Costa Mesa-based Gala Corp.
Founder B.U. Patel’s Tarsadia Investments LLC in Newport Beach has a major hotel near Disneyland and a big drugmaker in its portfolio.
And that’s just a sampling from a population here that’s tiny compared to the estimated 1.2 billion inhabitants of India. The local Indian community totals about 47,000—a relatively small number that amounts to less than 2% of the overall OC headcount and under 10% of the countywide Asian-American population.
The community has a Little India as a touchstone in the Los Angeles County community of Artesia, but its OC contingent lacks a geographical center along the lines of Little Saigon in Westminster, Buena Park’s developing Koreatown district, or the Diamond Jamboree Plaza, which caters primarily to Chinese customers in Irvine.
The spread-out nature of the Indian population in OC likely reflects the diversity within the community.
A prime example: this month’s Hindu holiday of Diwali—which is celebrated and even pronounced differently from one region to the next.
In north India, Diwali commemorates the god Rama’s homecoming and his coronation as king.
In Gujarat, to the west, the festival honors Lakshmi, the Hindu god of wealth and prosperity.
In the northeastern state of Bengal, it is associated with the goddess Kali, a complex figure associated with several aspects of life, death and empowerment.
One patch of common ground for the Indian émigrés: Colleges and universities in the U.S. have been a starting point for many of them.
Nallathambi came from India in 1981 to earn an MBA from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Many saw an entrepreneurial streak blossom once they had a chance to survey the field of opportunities here (see related story, page 1).
Shivbir Grewal, who recently left Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth P.C. to launch his own consultancy, is emblematic of many Indians who have settled in Orange County. He and his wife, Tinnie, both came from prominent, wealthy families and as youths attended boarding schools based on the English educational system.
“Indians who came for higher education stayed on because their career path was lot more interesting here,” said Grewal, who left a successful law practice in northern India in 1990 to earn a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s not always a direct route.
The pursuit of higher education also led veteran finance executives Hoshi Printer, now a director with Irvine-based networking equipment maker Lantronix Inc., to the U.S.
Printer earned dual degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering in Pune before heading to Oklahoma State University in 1963 for a master’s degree in industrial engineering. The trip took him nearly a month traveling from Mumbai to Genoa, Italy, by ship, from Genoa to London by train, from London to New York by plane, then another flight from New York to Chicago, and finally a bus to Oklahoma.
The small, well-kept college town of Stillwater was a stark contrast to the bustling streets of Mumbai.
“It was quite dramatic how few people there were,” said Printer, who would go on to serve as an Army officer during a 13-month tour in Vietnam and later take an MBA at Stanford University.
His corporate resume includes serving as the finance chief of 10 technology companies. He helped take three of them public, including Irvine-based online car seller Autobytel Inc. in 1999.
Restaurateur Gala arrived in the U.S. in the late 1960s to pursue an MBA from Syracuse University.
She was the youngest of five children and the only one to pursue education beyond high school, earning a doctoral degree in literature in India before embarking to the U.S.
“It really was driven by her desire to provide a better life for her family and achieve the American dream,” her son, Anand Gala, said during a recent visit to Gala Corp.’s headquarters in Costa Mesa.
Rajul Gala purchased a failing Jack in the Box in Santa Monica in 1982. She doubled sales and hit profitability within a year. The following year she acquired a second location in Torrance, repeating the feat. She purchased two more locations the next year, setting the foundation for one of Orange County’s largest restaurant operators.
Now the company employs 750 workers in 11 Famous Dave’s and Fresh Griller restaurants throughout California. It divested about half its business last year, with the sale of about 18 Applebee’s locations.
Gala Corp. moved to OC from the South Bay in the early 2000s because it was “more entrepreneurial than L.A.,” according to Anand, now the company’s president and chief executive.
“It’s a very creative environment,” he said.
Some members of the community made stops in other centers of the Indian diaspora before finding their way to Orange County.
Tarsadia’s Patel had already built a successful import/export textile business in Africa before he arrived in Orange County in 1976. Patel, like many with his last name, hails from the western Indian state of Gujarat and got started here with small motels.
“Hard work, keen management, and smart acquisitions resulted in our growth,” said the 79-year-old founder who no longer runs daily operations.
He established Newport Beach-based Tarsadia Investments in the late 1980s. The company, named after the residence of his ancestors, manages more than $2 billion in capital. It’s made more than 200 acquisitions and has the Anaheim Marriott and New Jersey-based Amneal Pharmaceuticals LLC, one of the country’s largest generic drug manufacturers, in its portfolio.
OC’s Welcome Mat
Karan Khanna, who owns Mergertech Advisors in Newport Beach with his brother Nitin, chalked up his first deal at 21, selling Evergreen Poly Products, a plastics manufacturer he established with his father in the northern India city of Ambala.
“I have been an entrepreneur since I was 17,” said Karan, who joined his brother’s consultancy, Saber Corp., shortly after arriving in Chicago in 1996.
His mother had applied for a green card in 1984. It had been long forgotten by the time the approval came 12 years later.
Karan and his mother joined his brother in Chicago, and the duo soon grew Saber into one of the leading providers of software that centralized state voter databases following the Florida hanging-chads controversy that defined the 2000 presidential election.
The company, which grew to more than $100 million in annual revenue and some 1,200 employees, was sold for $420 million in 2007 to then-Electronic Data Systems, a Plano, Texas, company founded by H. Ross Perot.
Crystal Cove is now home for Karan Khanna, who has written another success story in OC, a place he views as a welcoming destination for newcomers.
“Everybody has moved here from somewhere, so they’re very welcoming of new people,” Karan said during a recent lunch overlooking the Pacific on the balcony of the Pelican Grill at The Resort at Pelican Hill. “It doesn’t have those tight circles where it’s hard to break into. I moved here knowing zero people. In four or five years, I have more friends and business associates than I’ve ever had.”
Bhathal moved his apparel company from San Pedro to Santa Ana in 1971.
His wife Marta grew up on the shores of Newport Beach, and her family played an instrumental role in providing the manufacturer a boost in its startup days.
A $5,000 loan from her mother got the company off the ground. Another $2,500 loan was the last Bhathal would need. Within three months, he paid her back $10,000.
“That was the last time I borrowed money from anyone,” said Bhathal, who came to the U.S. in 1962 to earn an MBA at the University of Arizona.
He moved the company in 1978 to Tustin, where it has remained.
The husband-and-wife duo grew Raj Manufacturing to Orange County’s largest swimwear maker, an unlikely development considering the engineer-by-trade had no experience in the industry.
“After one year, I learned everything about the swimsuit business,” said Bhathal, who had grown the company to $130 million in annual sales by the time it was sold to his children in 2007 in a deal led by Swander Pace Capital LLC in San Francisco.
Now he’s focusing efforts on his latest venture: NBA basketball and bringing the game to his native India.
Bhathal, who acquired a minority stake in the Sacramento Kings last year, is slated for a key role in an NBA initiative to broadcast more games and bring the league’s first games—preseason exhibitions—to India.
Tinnie Grewal, the wife of attorney Shivbir Grewal, also is working to strengthen ties between her native India and her adopted country.
She co-chairs the local chapter of the American India Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing social and economic change to India and building bonds with the U.S.
The organization, which raised more than $380,000 at its inaugural gala in March, is working with some 220 groups in India to improve relief efforts, education and healthcare.
“We are looking for our own way to give back, to do something,” she said. “If not us, then who?”