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.

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.

In a country with a tradition of ''family-business houses'' and paternalistic control, Oberoi has trained a highly professional managerial corps. Initially, he sent all of his executives for training in Europe or the United States. In 1965, however, he set up his own management school, a two-year program which accepts 84 trainees, from more than 10,000 applications received each year from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

His philosophy on third-world multinationals?

''I've had no problems,'' he says with a smile. ''I'm from the third world, so I understand the limitations, the lack of materials, the bureaucratic headaches. Therefore, I'm less rattled than a Western multinational might be. I can work better within the system. Do we therefore have an advantage over the West? Let us say, we have no disadvantages.'' The smile becomes a grin.

What is the secret of his phenomenal success? ''Hard work'' is the only thing that the ''little man'' says.

Even at his age, he has no intention of cutting back his working day, and is aghast at the suggestion that he might one day retire. His only concession, which he in no way relates to age, is that he's left the city. He now lives permanently at his farm in a modest house that defies description of period or style.

From one angle, its arched doorways and latticed windows appear to be Spanish. From another, a sprawling bungalow, again evoking images of the Raj. Its gardens are indeed imperial, but the house itself is true to the Oberoi tradition, exactly what was there before. It's a series of pantries, grain silos , and outhouses, which originally commanded the site. He liked the property, so he had the buildings united with a series of walkways and verandas, a bit of plaster, and a lot of charm.

''It's like me - old, a bit downtrodden. But we go on and on.'' On the farm, he has his own herds of deer and cattle, along with chickens, vegetables, and wheat. Other than the herds, and a collection of 50,000 birds, everything eventually finds its way into his hotel kitchens.

''You see,'' he says, ''my hotels are my life.''

Oberoi's involvement with hotels began as a $5-a-month job as a front office clerk at Simla's Cecil Hotel. Indeed, much of New Delhi's social circle still remembers Oberoi as the ''eager young man'' who manned the cashbox at Cecil's dances on Saturday nights.

He slowly began buying shares in the Associated Hotels of Britain, which then had eight hotels spread across northern India. He went to his first board meeting carrying his shares in a rusted tin trunk. He was not permitted to enter the board room. He was, after all, an Indian, and the British were in command. He sat outside the closed door while the board members counted his shares.

Then, an embarrassed chairman appeared and told him that he owned the company.

''That just didn't happen in the 1930s,'' says a corporate aide. ''Indians were not encouraged to acquire foreign companies.''

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