SUCCESS HASN’T SPOILED Surya Jhunjhnuwala, who made good after moving to Singapore more than 20 years ago to help with the family business. He hasn’t forgotten his roots either, which can be traced to the Haryana State in northern India and also to Hong Kong where he was born and raised. There was a time when textiles and watches – businesses started by his grandfather and father respectively – were the mainstays, but hospitality is the name of the game these days. Mr Jhunjhnuwala, 57, is managing director of boutique hotel brand Naumi, part of the property-based Hind Group, which includes Ovolo Hotels in Kong Kong, run by his younger brother Girish. Today, the privately-held group has assets approaching the S$1 billion mark – a sign that the switch to property has paid off handsomely.
Both hotel brands are hot on the expansion trail – Naumi has acquired existing hotels in Australia and New Zealand and is in the midst of a re-branding exercise, overseen by Surya’s son Gaurang. Three hotels are slated to open in 2019 but of more pressing concern is Gaurang’s wedding in late-January. Preparations are now at an advanced stage for the festivities at a palace hotel in Jodhpur. “Preparing for an Indian wedding is a lot of hard work,” says Mr Jhunjhnuwala. “Being a perfectionist doesn’t help – you want everything to go the way it should.” Under different circumstances, family time would include holidays in Europe and an annual pilgrimage to Rajasthan, to the city of Jhunjhunu, where a temple devoted to the female deity Rani Sati has played an important spiritual role in family life for generations.
On the culinary front, fine-dining restaurant Rang Mahal has been in the portfolio since the 1970s, when it was located in the Imperial Hotel. The family-owned property was sold in the late-1990s but the restaurant lives on, now run by his wife, Ritu. In person, Mr Jhunjhnuwala is thoughtful and erudite, exuding a quiet confidence and equally at ease when talking about business, 80’s music or his interest in wine. As befits a typical Hongkonger, he is fluent in Cantonese and watches Cantonese movies on flights whenever he can. “It’s our secret language with my siblings when we need to speak among ourselves,” he says.
You’ve been in the hospitality business for over a decade. What did you like about Naumi and why have you decided to expand in the Asia-Pacific region?
The biggest selling point was the rooftop of the former Metropole hotel. We were standing on the roof looking at the view and my architect said what a pity for the roof to be filled with M&E equipment. He said we should remove it and build a pool. He designed it so well, we value-engineered and it ended up winning awards for best rooftop bar. We have been growing our company since 2007. In 10 years, we’ve grown the business and we intend to open three more hotels in the next year. We’re basically entrepreneurs and businessmen, you tell me where I can get the best return, I will go there. I think Australia and New Zealand offer the best opportunity to develop and resell if necessary, the best liquidity is there. The region is investor-friendly, open to business and you get a decent return.
What are your plans after Australia and New Zealand?
Right now, our focus is there and after 2021 we’ll look at other parts of the world. Longer term, it’s likely to be in Europe, opportunities will come up and then I’ll be ready for Europe. We have no other shareholders. By next year our net assets should be around one billion. From there to say, two billion is faster, easier but you need some financial steroids, an injection of funds. You have to keep reinventing yourself, getting the right mindset and to grow as fast as you can – that’s the challenge.
As the eldest son you were sent to Singapore in 1997 to sort out the family business, possibly redevelop the Imperial Hotel.
In those days the hotel had 600 rooms, the room rate was S$70 and the occupancy was 40 percent. We suffered big losses but that was not unique to us.
Suntec City had just opened up, there were new hotels onstream and we couldn’t compete. Dad sent me here to do something, we drew up re-development plans but then DBS approached us and we sold to them two years later. In hindsight it was good. Girish and I were able to start our own hotels and now this is our only business.
You have two hotel groups in different countries under one umbrella. How do you and your brother work together?
We believe in one pilot of a plane, not two, so you run your business and I run mine. Whenever we sit down, he gives suggestions and vice versa, but the final decision is on who’s doing the piloting. We have cross-holdings, we share everything, ideas, thoughts, risks…nobody is stepping on your toes and you do things the way you want.
You were born in Hong Kong, attended the popular Island School and lived in Pok Fu Lam until moving here at 36. Was it hard to adjust?
I was a pure Hong Kong boy. All my friends were there and when I came to Singapore, I was quite depressed, life was very slow. The mindset in Hong Kong was very different, Hongkongers are very entrepreneurial, I learned to be street-smart in Hong Kong. Here in Singapore, people were always ready to blame something or someone, government this or government that. In Hong Kong you fend for yourself, get it done, there was no sense of entitlement. I’ve grown to love it here now, I’m very happy with doing what I do. When you give back to society, you feel fulfilled. In Hong Kong you put up a façade whereas here, people are more genuine.
Your family started in the textile business a hundred years ago, then switched to watch manufacturing in the early-1950s and now you’re in hospitality: you seem to have mastered the art of reinvention.
My family was 45 years in the watch business, the Hind Corporation was making 500,000-to-600,000 watches a month in the mid-1990s. We closed the business in 1999-2000 – it was a sunset industry, you can’t compete with the online giants and those who are still hanging on are dying. We had a good run. In the early-90s my father and his siblings divided the assets by grouping them and then rolling the dice to see who got what – I was in the room watching. The only joint asset was the Imperial. There will always be unhappiness but you have to close one eye and not be so calculative in business. In 2003 we started in real estate, and it changed our lives.
What’s your personal mantra?
I keep telling my kids, remember to be humble, to keep your ego in check. Dad was very pragmatic, he taught the sense of hard work. During the summer holidays my brother and me worked at the factory, assembling watch movements – we had to clock in and clock out as well. I always tell my team: always challenge the status quo, always question me, challenge me, that’s the only way we’ll learn. You’re not the smartest person in the room all the time, so always keep learning. You need to let go as business gets bigger and bigger. The way I think it can happen is if you hire the right people, and empower them. I used to micro-manage a lot but the thing is to make yourself redundant. Let go, but keep your finger on the pulse, you’ve got to know what’s going on.
Interview and story by Geoffrey Eu