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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

I've taken the onus to promote tourism.....

An entrepreneur, a politician, an ardent traveler, an avid art collector, a philanthropist and a sportsman too! If one wonders how a man could be all of that, since the pursuit of a combination of more than any two of those is likely to lead to a contradiction. But, such was Mr. Lalit Suri's personality that, being a manifestation of all these facets amalgamated into one, he was admired for his enterprise, dynamism, resolve, intrigue even – some adversaries drummed it as heavyweight tactics - by most of his contemporaries. Such was his influence on the Indian hospitality industry that, although he may not have always brush people the right way, he was still looked upon as one of the most progressive thinkers of his time. He had inherited all the traits that successful heirs of prosperous families are generally known to; he had one more aspect that set him apart – his individuality. Therefore, despite his pedigree, he was the quintessential self-made man. His courage of conviction to tread paths very few had taken is also attributed as one of the reasons for him bringing about a sea change in the way the industry itself looked at business. It is not surprising then that he was believed to be India's single largest owner with complete majority - of the Bharat Hotels – which prides itself of many firsts in the industry. Some even calling him the uncrowned hotel king of India!

Early Days

Mr. Suri was born (Rawalpindi, 1947) into a prosperous business family. Not long after he was born, owing to the partition of India, the family had to shift base to Mussoorie (India) where they had often vacationed. He had his schooling from St. George School (Mussoorie) and St. Columbia's (Delhi), and topped it up with an Honours Degree in Commerce from Shriram College of Commerce, Delhi University. He represented both his school and college at the state-level in swimming and athletics, and the sportsman in him would remain as passionate till his last breath.

His interest in automobiles drew him to undertake training in automobile engineering from Vauxhall Motors, England, and soon after (1971), joined the family business (Delhi Automobile Ltd.) that involved manufacture of automobile parts. The clarion call for Mr. Suri came after a decade when the company had diversified into hospitality, and he aligned his interests with the same. He became the joint managing director of this new line of business in 1982, and with that his long and successful future in the hospitality business beckoned.

The Spark

He had, perhaps, never aspired to become an out-and-out hotelier. But, as things turned out, just after he became the chairman of the hotel business in 1987, the family members decided to exit the business. Whether or not it would have made sense for him also to follow suit is debatable, but he responded to this turn of events like only he could, and moreover, neither he nor any of his well-wishers have reason to regret that he didn't. He bought the entire share of the family in the business and decided to continue, and commissioned the first of flagship hotels – The Grand International in Delhi – in 1988. This was to come up at a prime location of the megapolis at Connaught Place, which drew attention from many quarters of the industry. While the successful establishment of the Grand International is attributed to Mr. Suri's proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family (although denied by Mr. Suri), given his unflinching determination in everything he did as indeed his resourcefulness, it is beyond doubt that he would gave succeeded in getting this done regardless of the so-called proximity to people in high-places. The no-nonsense attitude of Mr.Suri ensured the completion of this hotel comprising 444 rooms in record time. It is considered to be one of the most successful hotel ventures in the national capital.

Another situation that called for attention of the shrewd Mr. Suri was the Government of India's decision to divest from properties belonging to the Indian Tourism Development Corporation. He saw this as an opportunity to not only makes good of the situation but also to prove himself and everybody else in the world who mattered, that his vision and conviction about the hotel industry were right. He promptly bid for 10 of the properties that were up for grabs – but could only land three – the Hotel Ashok in Bangalore and Khajuraho, and the Laxmi Vilas in Udaipur. While he was a little disappointed at the haul – so to say- but not one to be bogged down so easily, he went about acquiring new properties and kept on adding to the chain, and achieved success with each one of his new projects. The successful chain of hotels is testimony to what an outstanding hotelier and entrepreneur Mr. Suri was.

The Ascent

He wasn't very satisfied by getting only three properties in the initial phase of divestment by the Government of India, so he kept working at it with every opportunity presented, resulting in the successful bidding of Kolkata's Great Eastern Hotel. Then came one of his most surprising and even shocking that some decisions he took as Chairman of the company. Being the visionary he was decided to open the group's Srinagar venture amidst apprehensions from all other competitors owing to the non-conducive atmosphere prevailing in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. But he decided to go ahead with it even after persistent advice against the same. Today the 'InterContinental The Grand', is recognised as his initiative to develop tourism in Jammu & Kashmir state with the sole purpose of assisting the government in its socio-economic development, offering employment and promoting tourism. The company Bharat Hotels Ltd. which operates under 'The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group' banner, presently offers seven top-line hotels in the country, four 'InterContinental The Grand' hotels in New Delhi, Srinagar, Goa and Mumbai and three 'The Grand' hotels in Bangalore, Udaipur and Khajuraho.

He invested greatly in all his properties (existing as well new ones). Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) were put in on its properties in Mumbai and Goa. In addition, the company spent Rs 42 crore (Rs 420 million) on a 30-year lease on the former Bangalore Ashok, and a further Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) on renovations and Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) on VRS for its employees. Similar spends have either been concluded or are being undertaken in Khajuraho and Udaipur.

There was also another side to his personality as the owner of Bharat Hotels. He was believed to be a very interfering owner, but something which he branded as being hands-on with the running of his business. He was known to have adopted a practice of seeing reports on the hotels everyday, discuss issues with his people to see that annual targets and budgets were met with. In fact, he had himself admitted through the course of an interview as to how he got totally involved in a venture at the initial stage, negotiated and finalised everything, got the right people and the right materials, and then left it to his team to manage it thereafter. One reason he attributed to such involvement was because he was very cost-conscious. No wonder then that all capital expenditure is centralised so they can buy in bulk and get the best prices.

Further, he made sure that extravagance at the cost of profitability and sustainability is avoided at all times. In fact, if there's anything Mr. Suri prided himself on, it was as a stringent and hard-hearted expert on managing budgets. Thus, despite such capital infusion into the business, the company remained reasonably healthy. It had a turnover of Rs.200 crore (in 2004-05) with a gross operating profit of 43 percent. Those are phenomenal figures for a company which had by no means an easy run, in the face facing of ever-increasing challenges.

His contribution to the Indian hotel industry is commendable; therefore, it might be well worth to throw some light on what was it that he did. He used the same political clout that people accused him of using to serve his ends, which he so vehemently denied, to bring about tax reforms in the industry. He was responsible for pushing a number of policy recommendations in the Indian hospitality sector; the hotel expenditure tax was removed lending the sector a part-industry status. That besides, he was also at the forefront of the fight with the states to reduce the luxury tax on hotels, and there should be not doubt as to his commitment and innovative practices that took the travel industry forward. And, to further the cause of the industry, he worked with all in his power as a Global Executive Committee member of the renowned World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and Honorary Chairman of the WTTC – India Initiative; the Chairman of the FICCI Tourism Committee (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and Founder Member of Hotel Association of India, a premier Hotel body of the country and also it's President.

He was nominated for the upper house of the Indian Parliament, Rajya Sabha, as an independent in 1992, at which point he had to desist upon his wife's insistence to consolidate his business and then perhaps look to play a role in politics. He was re-nominated in 2002, which was extended (in 2004) for another term up to 2010. Although, many cribbed about his brashness, high-handedness, misery, and some even opportunism, none can discredit him for what he did for the industry. As a matter of fact, all in general, adversaries as well as contemporaries, credit him with determinedly and steadfastly holding together the strings of the industry amidst a period of uncertainty when the country was under the threat of terrorist attacks coupled with unstable conditions in the neighbouring regions, which adversely affected the tourism industry, and consequently, the hotel sector too. Another glowing example of his efforts for the betterment of the industry was when he worked closely with the industry as head of the World Travel and Tourism Council's India Initiative. It had aimed to work as a lobby that would brought to the attention of MPs, or those with any influence, about the travails of the travel industry on which a shadow of fear and apprehension had been cast upon. Many industry insiders acknowledged the fact that his ability to influence Parliament has been different from the others. So that during the Rajya Sabha debate on the budget for 2005-06, he was reported to have remained critical of the union finance minister for overlooking the tourism sector, and failing to give it full infrastructure status.

As we have seen, he was a multi-faceted personality and he could not be contented with being just a hotelier. So, naturally, he did venture out and explore all the other areas that interested him – but even that, for him, was business as usual. He had interests in several other marquee enterprise avenues such as aviation, exports, automobile ancillaries, real estate, telecom and information technology and newspaper publishing (He owned the 'Midday' newspaper in Delhi).

By the time this amazing man breathed his last (in 2006), he had taken Bharat Hotels to its rightful place in the hotel industry. It had seven properties, one each in Srinagar, Goa, Khajuraho, Udaipur, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. He had planned to invest about Rs.1,000 crore in four other properties in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Noida and Jaipur. Sites for hotels were identified and negotiated in Amritsar, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, while search was on for the right locations in Chennai and Hyderabad.

As part of his overseas operations, Mr. Suri had planned a 20,000 sq.ft. luxury property in Palm Island, Dubai and had plans of investing $100 million. He had also been planning a hotel in London, but had put it on hold due to skyrocketing property prices. His wife, Mr. Jyotsna Suri, has assumed the mantle of taking the business forward and is working towards fructifying every one of Mr. Suri's plans. The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, as it is now known as, is planning to open a high-end boutique hotel in London by the end of 2014. It has paid £15 million (around Rs 129 crore) to acquire a heritage building, which will be converted into a hotel. This is the third hotel property acquisition by an Indian company in London over the past two years (Sahara's Grosvenor House and Bird Group's purchase of Royal Park Hotel being the two others), the Suri chain is about to realise its 'long cherished dream' of having 'The Lalit, London'.

Philanthropy

Not a great deal is known about Mr. Suri's philanthropic interests although he was known to be genuinely inclined towards social causes. It is believed that he supported many charities, mostly to help provide free medical camps and mobile medical facilities in rural India.

Awards

*First Lady of United States, Hillary Clinton conferred Mr. Suri with the prestigious award for outstanding accomplishments in business and leadership at the International Millennium Convention in New York, On July 11, 2000.
*Received the Rashtriya Samman Patra for being amongst one of the highest tax payers in the country, for the assessment years 1995-96 to 1999-2000.
*Conferred with the prestigious Global Network Award 2002 at the World Travel Mart, London, for excellence in all fields related to tourism in London.
*Recognised for his contribution towards development of tourism in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, 2004.
*Conferred the prestigious Special Award for InterContinental The Grand Palace (Srinagar) by the government of India, 2005.
*Lifetime Achievement Award - GMR Express Travel World Awards 2010-2011.
*He was conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award in recognition of his socio-economic achievements in India.
*The Hind Rattan Award for his services to the Indian public.

Quotes

*"I'm a hands-on hotelier who runs a professional chain of hotels."
*"I've taken the onus to promote tourism vis-a-vis the government and its policies. Sometimes I've succeeded, at other times I've been disappointed."
*"I will now become the only hotelier in the country having hotels from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Ahmedabad to Kolkata."
*"Tourism is the future, and we must never forget that."
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