International foodies who have an appreciation for London’s culinary scene may not all be familiar with his name, but they do know his various establishments because these are quite simply the best.
La Petite Maison, Zuma, Roka, Coya, Peyote, Oblix, Il Baretto, not to mention the Arts Club in Dover Street, a private members dining and social hub for the good and the great, make the most impressive roll call under a single owner’s belt.
The reason why the man himself is not a celebrity restaurateur is that he is very many other things but mostly, a legend in the rarefied world of mega entrepreneurs, and a philanthropist on an even greater scale if that were possible. He is also very, very private.
If you were to meet him by chance, you would be forgiven for not even guessing at any of these things – the ready and warm smile, the forthcoming nature and unassuming attitude belie an incredibly sharp intellect and a nous for business that has inspired a Harvard case study and won him the unstinting admiration of his peers.
His personal story is no less colourful than his business career and just as meteoric.
His well-to-do family was displaced from Karachi to Bombay during the partition and dispossessed in the process when Arjun was just 7. His father died 3 years later. Money was tight and when he got a place to study finance at the University of California, Berkeley, he could not rely on any funds from home. Instead, he struggled to get together the fees and worked 3 jobs. Students were only allowed to work up to 25 hours a week, but Arjun supplemented this with additional work and night shifts in order to meet his monthly expenses. The Dean arranged for him to work at the local graveyard – a job traditionally reserved for impecunious students. He was also a dishwasher at a Mexican Restaurant, getting a dollar an hour for his efforts.
His Alma Mater must have done something right because a few years ago he endowed a chair at the University. He wasn’t a particularly brilliant student, he says – the jobs got in the way – but he made it through. Before he could finish college, he got a desperate call from his mother who was about to sell the last of her gold bangles. There is nothing that focuses the mind as much as adversity and Waney rose to the challenge in his unique style.
He liked a store in San Francisco, Cost Plus Imports, that sold items that were difficult to find elsewhere – zebra drums, Japanese porcelain, Danish furniture, you name it… He liked the concept and set out to become the largest importer of this type of merchandise, naming his company Cost Less Imports. He opened his first store on Long Island with the help of a friend’s mother, a wealthy Indian woman who believed in him and took a 20% stake in the new company.
A second and third store followed, with one in New York being particularly successful, then when he had seven altogether, he sold the company to Pier One Imports. He was paid in cash and shares and was contractually restricted from starting a competing business East of the Mississippi. So, he did the next best thing and opened 17 stores west of the Mississippi in just 3 years, this time with the benefit of a lot of experience.
This company was purchased by the same buyers as before, Charles Tandy of Radio Shack and partner Luther Henderson, whose company Pier One Imports was 100 stores bigger than Waney’s at that time.
$13.5 m in the late ‘60s was a lot of money. Arjun Waney parlayed it into a Arjun and Judy Waney new investment – this time opening the same concept stores across the UK, France, Germany and Belgium. By the time he sold his company in Europe – to the exact same US partners – he had a sizeable fortune and playboy friends whose partying is the stuff of legends: Jimmy Goldsmith, Kerry Packer, John Aspinal, Peter Hall…
Somewhere along the line he was compelled to go and meet with Mother Theresa and this altered the course of his life irrevocably.
‘What are you, she asked him, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew? Do you believe in a God?’
He didn’t really, so she told him he was a lost soul and that he would redeem himself by giving to the poor. It’s not that he found God exactly – not based on her words – but he had read a beautiful verse that to him had more meaning than any religion.
‘You can break a mosque, a temple or a church but you can’t break the heart of a human being for it is in that heart that God resides.’
That is when Arjun Waney, the entrepreneur metamorphosed into Arjun Waney, the philanthropist. It’s not that he stopped doing business – this comes easily to him and everything he has touched before and since has quite literally turned to gold – it’s just that he dedicated a proportion of his fortune and a great deal of his time to humanitarian projects.
As his passion for giving grew, so did his wealth. He started his first project with Mother Theresa, in fact. She requested that he build a home on a valuable piece of protected land outside of Delhi where she and the Sisters of Mercy could look after mentally handicapped children.
Philanthropy thrives on funding, however, so when Les Wexner, best known for his ownership of Victoria’s Secrets, approached him in a chance meeting in 1977 on a flight to NY and suggested he start supplying clothing from India, Waney reinvented himself once again. He and his wife Judy went back to San Diego and set out to build a new business. The new company, Beebas, became one of the largest clothing suppliers in the world, with a turnover of $147m and wa eventually sold to JC Penney.
At that point, Waney formalised his giving by founding The Savitri Waney Charitable Trust, an organisation funded by the Waney family and their close friends, primarily funding cataract operations for the poor and marginalised rural populations of India.
In 1995 Waney started First Wincheser and Offshore Fund with a few close friends as investors and within a ten year period, the fund became so successful that it beat the MSCI indexes almost every year. Because of this, when Waney offered a redemption exit to his investors, there was a huge outcry, so he proceeded to do a forced redemption.
Today, the aptly renamed Argent Fund thrives on offering career opportunities to young talent in the finance sector.
In 2000 Waney started his last, or should we say, his latest venture.
He had been having trouble booking a table at Nobu and finally told the receptionist there that he would simply open his own Japanese restaurant.
Serendipity would have it that one day he sat next to the then Park Hyatt chef, Rainer Becker, while having a haircut. The barber introduced them and the result was the hugely successful Zuma, run by Becker, and the first in a new Arjun Waney empire that has long since eclipsed Nobu in the fame stakes.
I ask him what the secret is of the enduring success of his restaurants.
He names the uniqueness and consistency of the menus. New additions notwithstanding, the food quality remains the same – identical every time. Il Baretto, his Italian restaurant, for example, has the same quality of food as you can find in any traditional Italian home.
When Beyonce and JZ visited London, they not only had the pick of any restaurant, but were positively enticed by restaurateurs. Waney didn’t play the wooing game.
Instead, Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a 5% stake in the Arts Club, emailed Beyonce and suggested the restaurant at the Arts Club which the power couple visited twice in as many days. It does help to have celebrity partners, but confirmed foodies are only interested in quality. Waney’s restaurants are supplied with the best, uncompromising quality produce from Europe, Japan and Peru – because between them, they cover most of the world’s favourite cuisine.
Arjun Waney’s daughter, Devika, who is a director of the Arts Club, also serves as the managing trustee of the Savitri Waney Charitable Trust and spends time in India overseeing the Trust’s work.
I ask them about the art on the walls of Waney’s London apartment. He says his interest in art does not stretch to spending a fortune on works that could otherwise fund a number of cataract operations. His goal is to have eradicated cataract in India by 2020.
Nor is he interested in yachts, fancy cars or lavish parties. His abiding interest is in people and in leaving a legacy. In this, he echoes the sentiments of other major philanthropists – as they ponder over the twists and turns of life and the vagaries of fortune, they know that they can take nothing with them.
What else can you do with money, says Arjun, other than give the excess away? How much do you need in this life? Also in common with other major philanthropists he funds the admin of his foundation and is adamant that the funds raised by the charity are used in the most effective and efficient manner: ‘Accountability, accountability, accountability is the name of the game.’
Where will he focus his efforts post-2020, I ask? His foundation already helps with palliative care and childhood malnutrition, and he is keen on creating wealth for farmers in India. ‘The single biggest problem in this world’, says Waney, ‘is that although many people are generous enough, very few have the compassion and kindness to go with it.’
‘I can give money in two ways’, he says. ‘I can write a cheque or I can ask how I can help. Writing a cheque is not true giving in my view.’
He feels that the wealthiest philanthropists out there have a better attitude to giving money – more thoughtful, more selfless and more compassionate, preserving the dignity of those less fortunate than them.
As I leave his apartment, I am struck by the open house policy there – people have come and gone, talking about their latest humanitarian trip to Syria, or about a hospital in India – or just sitting down to listen for a while. He engages this person and that and tells me about the wonderful work they are doing. His daughter chimes in occasionally and his wife steps in to say hello. There is no pretense, not effort to impress, no affectation. Those who matter don’t need these things.
Arjun Waney matters a lot – to a whole lot of people in this world.