Against all odds: The man who built a hotel empire from nothing but a dream and an iron will…

It’s impossible to fathom where certain entrepreneurs find their life-defining drive to reach their goals. No doubt it comes from some intricate combination of nature and nurture, but it’s more than likely that the recipe will always remain a mystery. Much of it, however, surely just comes down to mindset. Where millions see immovable obstacles and unfeasibly high odds, one person – the entrepreneur –only sees a prize. They then refuse to stop chasing that prize, relentlessly climbing over the barriers one by one. The question is: where does that mindset come from?

In the pantheon of British entrepreneurs to have navigated enormous, spirit-crushing roadblocks to turn their dreams into reality, one pushing for kingpin status is 58-year-old Surinder Arora – founder, owner and chairman of Arora Hotels.

Much has been written in the business press about Surinder’s childhood. He was born in the Punjab in 1958 to parents who had been displaced from the India/Pakistan border town of Fazilka and were about to emigrate to the United Kingdom. He was left with an aunt and uncle whom he believed to be his parents until he re-joined his birth parents in the UK at the age of thirteen, unable to speak a word of English. Once settled in the UK his pre-entrepreneurial career included being a customer service agent for British Airways, a moonlighting wine waiter and a sales manager for Abbey Life. But we’re going to focus on the latter part of his journey, the one that directly led him to own hotels that now provide a total of more than 5,500 bedrooms, including the £330m 605-bedroom Sofitel at Heathrow Terminal Five, the InterContinental at the O2 Arena and the soon-to-open 750 bedroom dual brand Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Express hotel at Heathrow Terminal Four. More specifically, we’ll look at how Surinder flew through powerful headwinds and violent turbulence to achieve long-term success in a fiercely competitive sector – large hotels – where the barriers to entry, let alone growth, are not just massive but covered in spikes and guarded by giant dogs.

To even imagine that you can compete in the world of large hotels takes a certain sort of person, especially if you’re a solo player who was,up until recently, a wine waiter. Self-doubt is not an option, yet Surinder is as far from the egocentric, slick, wise-guy businessman as you can get. Softly spoken, friendly and pragmatic, he’s not flashy, brash or overconfident, but after listening to his story it’s clear that his is a determination of the steeliest kind. And he’s needed every ounce of it to get where he is today.

The first barrier was in many ways the biggest: that of entry. The jump from being an individual operator who owns some well-placed land and a few properties to developing and owning your own large hotel is akin to leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. It takes, to say the least, a giant leap of faith.

Surinder says: “I’d built up a small property portfolio during my time as an employee at Abbey Life and in the mid-1990s I saw an opportunity to provide accommodation for British Airways crew. That’s when I first started dreaming about hotels.

“I had a site next to Heathrow, planning permission for a hotel, and a customer – BA – to build it for. But I remember my bank’s director saying: ‘Are you sure you really want to do this? Because if I were you I’d sell the site and retire or something, because this sort of construction can go horribly, horribly wrong.’I remember saying: ‘It’s a challenge I want. I know that if I get it wrong I’ll end up in a council house, but I’m going to go for it’.”

Against all the odds Surinder delivered his 320-room hotel three days early and under budget in July 1999.

It goes without saying that millions were at stake, along with Surinder’s long-term future. He’d gambled everything, so how did he react to the pressure? Interestingly, he fell back on his football referee training – earlier in his career he’d completed a refereeing course (as well as his pilot’s licence) and he had patrolled football pitches up to professional reserve team standard.

Every day I’d be on site –seven days a week,” he says. “The project manager told me it was the first time he’d seen a client talk to all the tradespeople. I used to talk to everyone. If you treat people with respect, they give you so much more back. I’ve never had much formal education or training but the one thing that helped me during the development of my first hotel and beyond was my football refereeing. Yes, you have red and yellow cards in your pocket, but if you think you can control 22 men on a football pitch with those cards, you’re kidding yourself. If you want their respect, you have to respect them first.

“So I followed the same ethos during the hotel build. I tried to gain the respect of all the people on site and that helped me to deliver the hotel on time and under budget. But after that we had to carry on delivering. The building was complete but if we didn’t deliver the right service and standards – if the BA crews were not well rested in our hotel – we’d be finished.

“I brought in a general manager from Forte Hotels with over 20 years’ experience – Guy Morris. He’s my MD now. We did such a great job that within six months BA said they needed more rooms at Heathrow and could we help? So we started building another hotel, which is now the 119-bedroom Holiday Inn at Terminal Five. That opened in July 2001. Then we opened a third in Crawley – built simultaneously with the second – in November 2001 to cater for BA and American Airlines.”

Amid this fast growth and ambitious development, the risks for Surinder were large. If he did not garner the full support of his new team, he would be exposed. So how – with virtually no experience of running large teams – did he keep everyone on side? Again, the word ‘respect’ appears. “If I want respect from my employees,” he says, “whether they’re tradespeople, porters, receptionists, maids or engineers, then I need to respect them and treat them as family. I always say ‘treat staff like family and guests like royalty’. But I also say to all staff: you can only be family if you give me 100%.”

So against all the odds Surinder scaled the first obstacle and entered the large airport hotels business as a new solo player. But it turned out that the first barrier was a small hurdle compared to the heavy-duty blockades ahead.

The first came on September 11, 2001, just two years after Surinder had opened his first hotel. The tragedy that unfolded that day led to a massive drop in airline numbers, which impacted heavily on a relatively new business that was still finding its feet. Today Surinder brushes it off, but at the time it must have felt more serious than his words suggest. “Continuing on from Nine Eleven was a huge risk for us, no doubt,” he says. “But we worked hard to bring other airlines and new corporate business to our hotels. It was all hands to the pump, myself included, and the team did a fantastic job. Such a great job, in fact, that within three years the airlines were asking for more bedrooms.”

Then, around seven years later, the mother of all obstacles arrived: 2008’s financial crash. Surinder takes up the story: “We’d just invested close to £200 million in the Sofitel Heathrow and it had opened in July 2008. In August 2008 we’d bought a portfolio of 32 properties from BAA, borrowing £165 million. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed – it felt like the world was crumbling. My debt instantly shot up by around £30m. Andmy new property portfolio lost £90m in value.”

In retrospect it was a significant moment of truth. Surinder recalls: “I considered my situation: I had close to 2,000 employees – members of the ‘family’ who had to pay rent, mortgages, and feed their kids. I thought: am I going to be chicken and take the easy route and walk away? Or are we going to get into the gym in the morning, work hard, get through this and come out stronger? And pray to God that’s exactly what we did.”

Surinder’s incredible journey has put him in a good place to offer inspirational advice to others who harbour dreams; entrepreneurial or otherwise.

He says: “Now when I talk to young kids in universities or schools, I always tell them that most people think they’re winners when they’re at the top of the hill. But in my book the real winners are down in the valleys, trying to push themselves up. And if you push yourself from the valley to the top of the hill once in life, you’ll always be able to do it. So every time I find myself down in the valleys, I tell myself that and I become even more determined.

“It’s like when you’re on a bike and you hit a headwind, and then you reach a steep hill. And you think, how the hell am I going to get over this? Many just give up but if you keep your mind focused, pedal harder, and put the effort in, you will make it.”

To give an example of the sort of determination required to reach the hilltop in a headwind, Surinder tells the story of how he came to develop, own and run the Sofitel at Heathrow Terminal Five. He says: “I had heard BAA were planning a new hotel at Heathrow and it was my dream to build it. So I contacted them to ask if they would consider me.‘Under which brand?’ said the MD, to which I said,‘Arora.’He didn’t hesitate: ‘Thank you Mr Arora but no thanks. We’re building a £4.5bn terminal and we need a five-star property and an international brand. Arora is not an international brand, nor is it five star, so no thanks.’

“So I got straight on the phone to all the major hotel companies and asked if they would give me a franchise.They all said they never franchised their five-star brands.

“So, what could I do? I couldn’t give up so I contacted the hotel companies with no presence at Heathrow – Hyatt and Sofitel. I called Hyatt and got nowhere, and then called Accor, who own Sofitel. Their MD, Michael Flaxman,said: ‘Surinder we’d love to work with you – we’ll give you a Novotel or Ibis franchise but we just don’t franchise Sofitel.’ I remember saying: ‘Michael, I will find someone who will give me a five-star brand’.

“I heard nothing for nearly three months and then got a call. It was Michael Flaxman, who said: ‘Surinder, we didn’t tell you but we’ve been sending mystery guests to your properties. We love the way you run your hotels. I’ve spoken to the board in Paris and on this occasion we will make an exception and give you the Sofitel franchise.”

But even then the deal was far from done. Next Surinder had to go through a tender process involving several multinational hotel groups. In the end it came down to Arora versus Marriott – David versus Goliath. Everyone thought Arora had no chance but – yet again against all odds– they won. And the Sofitel at Heathrow – developed, owned and run by Surinder’s Arora Hotels, but badged Sofitel – is the result.

Where most people see impenetrable barriers, a select few have the ability to see through them to the prize and beyond. They simply do not hear the word ‘no’ and they just won’t stop until they reach their goal. Surinder is one such person. He has overcome enormous odds to make his dreams real and his story should be an inspiration– not just to the business community but to us all.