Mr. Oberoi of India: a five-star hotelier of the third world
Importing hundreds of pounds of French cheeses was not enough for the indefatigable Mohan Singh Oberoi. When his five-star hotel, the Oberoi Intercontinental in New Delhi, was chosen to house two kings, a crown prince, and several presidents during the summit meeting of nonaligned nations in March, the hotel magnate insisted on importing US-manufactured Jacuzzi baths.Skip to next paragraph
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In some respects, he had come full cycle, with a 61-year, often turbulent career. He is no longer the homeless young man who had fled a plague epidemic in his native Pakistan, to stand outside the Cecil Hotel in Simla, summer capital of the British Raj, to watch ''the beautifully dressed women, the black-tied men , glide through the ballrooms and verandas.''
Today M. S. Oberoi, as he prefers to be called, will receive the International Hotel Association's ''man of the world'' award, at the group's annual convention in New York. It is the first time in the organization's history that the prize will be given to someone from the developing world.
Mr. Oberoi is, in fact, the developing world's premier hotelier. He has broken down the barriers of suspicion among third-world nations on the exchange of technology, and he commands India's first ''multinational,'' managing 30 top-flight hotels in 10 countries, with a turnover of $120 million a year.
''A little man who came out of nowhere'' is the way he is often described. But say to his executives, one should never underestimate the tenacity of M. S. Oberoi.
On his 90-acre farm outside Delhi, he spoke nostalgically of his first acquisition - Clarkes Hotel in Simla. He bought it in 1934 by mortgaging all his assets, including his wife's small collection of dowry jewels. He then jumped ahead to his recent $11 million restoration of Melbourne's Windsor Hotel. He abhors renovation, adulteration, or change.
''The world has lost so much,'' he said, as he sipped coffee, ''over the last 60 years. What has happened to the grace and the charm we once took for granted?''
Again, he went back to the days of the British Raj, when butlers stood at attention outside every room to unpack, serve as valets, or remove riding boots. He is reintroducing the practice in his New Delhi hotel, which he continues to run, despite his 83 years, with a school of professionally trained managers.
He has competed successfully with the Hiltons and Sheratons, the Meridiens and Intercontinentals of the world, from Bali, Indonesia, to the Mena House in Cairo, at the foot of the Giza pyramids. He has converted the former maharaja's palace in Srinagar, Kashmir, and built modern hotels where necessary, including India's tallest building, the 35-story Oberoi Towers in Bombay.
He appears so soft-spoken - a courtly gentleman, almost shy - one wonders how he could have made it to the top of the multinational corporate ladder.
According to both aides and competitors, the short, squat, former refugee seems to have a sixth sense on when to buy. He bought the Grand Hotel in Calcutta - still the city's finest - when people were fleeing the city during an epidemic 50 years ago, and later turned a profit on the place, billeting British military officers during World War II. He bought his Simla properties during the early days of the ''quit India'' movement, when, for the glittering sahibs and memsahibs, the writing was just beginning to appear on the wall.