Award: Lifetime Achievement
PRS ‘BIKI’ OBEROI
Executive Chairman of EIH Limited (flagship company of The Oberoi Group)
Interests outside of work: Horse rearing until a few years ago
Why he won this award: After inhe-riting the company from his father, Oberoi turned the business into a premium brand in world hospitality. In the process, he created the luxury travel segment in Indian hospitality
Our car enters the driveway at Oberoi Farms in the outskirts of Delhi and, as if on cue, the skies open up. It is a welcome change from an extended and gruelling summer.
It is also appropriate that this refreshing turn in the elements takes place at the home of India’s quintessential hotelier Prithvi Raj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi who, for over 50 years, has made his guests’ comfort a priority.
Spread over 70 acres, Oberoi’s office-cum-home is as well-maintained as his hotels. Inside, the executive chairman of EIH Limited (the flagship company of The Oberoi Group) is even more immaculate.
The 85-year-old walks in for the interview, his Cuban cigar firmly in place. He is as sharply turned out as he would be while welcoming guests at any of his 30 hotels across the world. The neat crop of grey hair adds to his natural elegance; the tie is perfectly knotted, the cuff links are just right and the shoes are shining, but not blindingly so. Biki Oberoi is an ideal advertisement for his business.
As is his story. Over the next hour-and-a-half, Forbes India spoke to the man about his remarkable life and career that has created a homegrown hospitality brand renowned globally for its service and quality.
Consider that in 1984, he had inherited ambition—and a nine-hotel chain from his father and The Oberoi Group founder, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi. Today, not only has the group grown in size but, more significantly, “the Oberoi” was a name associated with a trading community. [Biki] Oberoi turned that name into a luxury brand,” says SS Mukherji, vice-chairman and CEO, The Oberoi Group.
The 2014 Forbes India Leadership Awards’ Lifetime Achievement awardee has a larger-than-life personality that manifests in conversations over the following days, as we talk to his family, associates and former colleagues. His eight decades can, in some part, be recounted through their eyes—they, after all, best reflect and understand his legacy. And, it turns out, everyone has a Biki Oberoi story to tell.
Take son Vikram Oberoi, 50, who thinks back to his schooldays for his ‘Biki’ story. “I was 10 and had travelled to Wales with him to get admitted to a boarding school,” he recalls. “At the school, a boy warned me against joining the place. ‘This is a terrible school, go back,’ the boy [had] said.”
When he shared this fear with his father, the older Oberoi said, “I will be in London for two days. If you don’t like the school, call me and I will pick you up.” Vikram was relieved. “He could have said, get on with it, or slug it out. But he made sure he was there for my support,” says Vikram, who is the joint managing director of The Oberoi Group. (Incidentally, he ended up loving the school.)
Vikram was merely continuing a family tradition. Biki Oberoi was 10 when his father took him for admission in St Paul’s School in Darjeeling in Bengal, in 1939. It was around the time Mohan Singh was trying to establish himself as an hotelier, having bought his first property, Shimla’s Clarkes Hotel, in 1934.
Fortunes changed significantly for the man who had moved to the hill station in Himachal Pradesh in 1922, with empty pockets from his native village of Bhaun (now a part of the Punjab province in Pakistan).
He had found a job as a clerk in Shimla’s Cecil Hotel (now The Oberoi Cecil), where he learnt his first lessons in hospitality and realised he was a natural when it came to running a hotel.
The owner soon spotted his talent and made Mohan Singh a partner in a hotel he had just bought. And, in 1934, when the British owner decided to sell the property, Mohan Singh used his savings and borrowed money from relatives to buy it out.
Four years later, in 1938, he acquired Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand) in what was then Calcutta. Later, in 1943, he made what, in all probability, was the first “unsolicited” takeover in the Indian hospitality industry, buying Associated Hotels of India (AHI) that owned Shimla’s Cecil Hotel where he had worked as a clerk. Within two decades, life had come a full circle for Mohan Singh.
For his son, though, life was just beginning. “I finished school by 1946,” says Oberoi. “Two years later, I went to London to study chartered accountancy as my father and I agreed that knowledge in finance would help me in business. But I was bored within a year.” Instead, he decided to travel to France and Switzerland and work in hotels there. It was a useful experience but, then, as Oberoi points out, he already had a sound foundation. “Till 1973, we had spent all our lives in hotels. I had grown up in hotels. I understood hotels well.”
In 1955, he returned to join the family business. But before he was initiated into work, Mohan Singh called him to his room, made him sit to his right, and said, “Biki, remember what I am going to say. There are many people who are smarter than you, many people who are better-looking than you and many, many more people who are richer than you. So, be humble.”
Keeping that wisdom close to his heart, he travelled to Calcutta to take charge of Grand Hotel as his first assignment. He was also made responsible for the four hotels in Pakistan that had come as part of the AHI acquisition. The 1965 war, however, led to the Pakistan government’s takeover of those hotels. But this loss—though felt at the time—was soon assuaged by the subsequent growth. Oberoi got busy with his father and also his elder brother Tilak ‘Tikki’ Raj Singh Oberoi as they expanded the group across the country and overseas.
Arjun Oberoi, like his cousin Vikram, is joint managing director of The Oberoi Group as well as its chief planning officer. Though Arjun had always been fond of his uncle, it was only after his father Tikki Oberoi passed away in 1984 that he got to know him better. “He always says that building new properties is not just about turnover… they should last a lifetime. The property should be 10 years ahead of its time,” says Arjun.
And no property exemplifies this philosophy quite like The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur that opened in 1998, and put Indian hospitality on the world luxury travel map. “Almost Rs 100 crore was spent in its construction and Mr Oberoi put in over a crore for [building] each room. People said it was money down the drain,” says Arjun.
Instead, the hotel (where a night’s stay in 1998 cost a then-unthinkable Rs 8,000) has won over 75 awards and is considered world-class both in terms of service and location. Arjun, who studied and worked in hotels overseas before joining the business in 1992, follows the same principle as he now works closely with his uncle in planning the group’s new properties.
For Oberoi himself, Rajvilas was the fulfilment of a promise made to his father in 1984. It was the same year in which Mohan Singh suffered a stroke. After recovering, he convened a board meeting at Oberoi Farms. With Oberoi again sitting on his right, he declared, “I will remain chairman. But Biki will run the company.”
Around that time, a leading industry publication, Institutional Investor, had ranked Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental as the best hotel in the world. Seeing that, Mohan Singh shared a wish with his son: “Our hotels should be ranked the best in the world.” It was a wish Biki Oberoi has not taken lightly.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Biki Oberoi was known to take his own towels and bring along cooks to Indian cities where he did not own a hotel. His attention to detail—and expectation of comfort—was legendary, and Oberoi’s extensive travel had taught him what a world-class hotel looked like. He was aware that not even their own current properties could make the grade as they were old.
A few years later, in 1988, he opened a new hotel in Chennai. That property was built by Lakshminarayan Ganesh, a local businessman who is now a director in EIH. It was a five-star hotel but not a luxury property and Oberoi used the opportunity to launch a new brand—Trident.
He realised that the only way to fulfill his father’s wish was to build a new property that would make the industry sit up and take notice. That opportunity came in the mid-1990s, where Oberoi bought 28 acres in the outskirts of Jaipur and built The Oberoi Rajvilas. Within a year of its opening in 1998, the new hotel was ranked among the best in the world.
Oberoi followed up Rajvilas with similar iconic properties in Agra, Udaipur and Ranthambore (Amarvilas, Udaivilas and Vanyavilas respectively). “I would brief the architect on what I wanted from the hotel. In the case of Agra, I couldn’t have a hotel in the Mughal style in front of the Taj Mahal. At the same time, I also didn’t want a glass box. Instead, I suggested Moorish architecture. It gels well with the local environment and complements the Taj,” says Oberoi. While his hotels may look like ageless palaces, the facilities have always been modern and the service top-notch.
As these properties gained credibility, so did Oberoi’s reputation. “He was as adept at talking to a carpet-maker on the nuances of the craft as he was at discussing a sophisticated design with an architect,” says Rattan Keswani, joint managing director, Lemon Tree Hotels, and former president of Trident Hotels.
It also started becoming a gold standard in the industry. Kapil Chopra (now president of The Oberoi Group), who passed out of Delhi’s The Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development in 1994, had worked in the group for five years before leaving for a stint with the “competition”. Just before his exit, a loyal Oberoi guest and one of Delhi’s most affluent residents had told him, “Kapil, you are making a mistake. You know the napkin in Oberoi hotel is whiter than my white shirt and, in Delhi, few can afford a shirt as white as mine.”
Not surprisingly, he returned to take charge of the opening of Trident Hotel in Gurgaon in 2004. Just before that, he had met Oberoi to understand his role. “Mr Oberoi was briefing me when he got a call from the general manager of The Oberoi, Mauritius. The property had caught fire and villa after villa was coming down,” recounts Chopra.
Oberoi told the Mauritius GM “to make sure that guests and employees were safe and to update him every half an hour”.
He then hung up, turned to Chopra and said, “Kapil, there are three things that you should remember as a general manager. Your first priority should be guests, second should be employees, and once the first two are taken care of, you will be sure of a profitable operation.” This advice, calmly delivered, was shared immediately after receiving news of an emergency. Chopra remembers wondering at the time: “How does he keep his cool?”
Oberoi’s employees have seen their chairman’s ability to handle delicate situations in several instances. And there was no circumstance as demanding as that of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. Oberoi was attending an awards function at the Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai’s Bandra when an associate called him to inform about the attacks. Thereafter, the octogenarian camped himself in the city and oversaw the rescue operations. Later, he became deeply involved with the renovation of the twin properties—The Oberoi, and Trident Hotel—on Marine Drive overlooking the Arabian Sea. “He was deeply hurt by the attacks. It was personal for him as the Mumbai property was the first one he had built,” says Keswani.
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
After the 2008 terror attacks, Oberoi would visit the hotel every month till it reopened in a new avatar 14 months later. The Trident, however, had started operations within a month. The Oberoi took time because “he [Biki] wanted to make sure that, in its new form, the hotel would surpass itself. He sent me to the mines in Greece to personally source the marble,” recalls nephew Arjun.
The Oberoi, Mumbai, reopened in 2010 and, after a slow first year, it picked up momentum. “It is now growing by 15 percent year-on-year in revenues,” says Chopra.
Throughout his career, Oberoi has avoided the temptation of expanding aggressively and diversifying into budget segments unlike competitors Indian Hotels Company, the owners of Taj properties, and the Leela Group. “We have debated it. For me, it’s important to be best,” says the hotelier. And that is the mandate given to his son and nephew.
This focus on quality has kept the group in good shape even as its peers struggle with huge debts arising out of aggressive expansion. “Our debt is just about Rs 300 crore and, if we want, the company can clear it by March 2015,” says CEO Mukherji. EIH doubled its profits in 2013-14 to Rs 95 crore and had a topline of Rs 1,250 crore.
“I would like the business to double in the next five years,” says Oberoi. (However, despite his philosophy, there is speculation of the group’s diversification into the three- or four-star category and even an acquisition in a bid to expand.)
Oberoi has also made quality the criteria for his succession plan. After initially signalling that son Vikram would take over the mantle of the Oberoi Group, he now says that the “best man will take it”, and a final decision will be taken by the board.
Unlike his father who grew his business through acquisition, Oberoi has so far acquired only one property (Trident, Chennai). Instead, in 2012, Oberoi was facing the heat after competitor ITC bought a stake in EIH. Around the same time, Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani invested in EIH. (Disclaimer: Forbes India is published by Network 18 which is owned by Reliance Industries).
“He [Ambani] is a good friend and an accomplished entrepreneur. It is good to have someone like him on the board,” says Oberoi. Nita Ambani and Manoj Modi represent Reliance as non-executive directors on EIH’s board.
As the company grows in size and profits, Biki Oberoi continues to ensure that he is on top of things. When Forbes India met him, he had just returned from Morocco where he is opening a new hotel. He continues to visit his properties and those of his peers to keep abreast of industry trends. “This is what I know,” he says. And, for him, it is really as simple as that.
(This story appears in the 17 October, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)