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Lalit Suri: The quintessential Delhi entrepreneur
Business Standard | October 11, 2006
In turns aggressive and taciturn, Suri was the quintessential Delhi entrepreneur, a product of the licence raj who knew how to navigate in the minefield of "contacts". A friend of the Gandhi family, he leveraged his proximity to, first, Sanjay and, later, Rajiv, to move beyond the Subros automotive business into the glamorous world of hotels.
His first foray into hospitality was the award of land generously doled out in 1980 to prepare for the great rush of visitors expected in the capital during the 1982 Asian Games. Like several other hotels at the time, his Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza was not ready for Asiad, but it did eventually add 444 more rooms to the city. It also laid the foundation for what is now the eight-hotel Grand chain, with three more expected to come aboard in 2007, and another four in 2008.
His initial international management agreements with, first, Holiday Inn, then Hilton, weren't successful, possibly because he wouldn't let go of day-to-day operations. Eventually, when the group began to grow - in Mumbai and Goa - and with acquisitions in Srinagar, ITDC's divested hotels in Bangalore, Udaipur and Khajuraho, and more recently the Great Eastern in Kolkata, a working arrangement with InterContinental Hotels settled into a comfortable working relationship.
For a first generation hotelier who honed his management skills on the job, Suri grew faster than his competitors, whether ITC Welcomgroup or the Taj and Oberoi groups. He also established a luxury hotel chain in the face of all odds, driven, says a colleague, "by his passion and his vision".
But in the last few years, it had become evident that Suri was simply biding his time for his son Keshav to grow up and train sufficiently with chains overseas and take over the group. Suri, in turn, wanted to convert his flirtation with politics into a full-fledged affair.
Nominated a Rajya Sabha member (he had declined the offer earlier in his career on the advice of his wife), his dalliance with the political leadership in the Congress (though he continued to have political friends outside the Congress) charged him much more than checking the daily occupancies and average room rates in his hotels. It was evident that having tested the waters, he was waiting to check-in into a full time political career.
Besides his son, Suri has three daughters, all of whom are professionals, though only the youngest, a management expert, is involved with her father's hotels. For now, the group is likely to be spearheaded by Jyotsana Suri who, according to a spokesperson, "is actively involved in the business". Which would make her the third woman head of a hotel company, her predecessors being Mrs Charanjeet Singh of Le Meridien Delhi and Priya Paul of the Park group.