Surinder Arora, Founder and Chairman – Arora Group
Interview & Article by Ninder Johal
So how did a 12-year-old who landed at Heathrow without knowing how to speak English end up being a billionaire?
It’s simple – he replied – ‘Hard work’.
He arrived in 1972 – his parents had come much earlier, settled in West London and called for him from Punjab (India). Life was tough for the newly arrived immigrants striving to make something of themselves. He recalls watching his mother working three jobs and went along one evening with her and saw at first hand the work ethic which he believes was instilled into him.
It was this work ethic that he believes was a key ingredient for his later success. Success which includes an empire which spans hotels, construction and property.
He now has a portfolio of 30 properties across the UK including the International 02, the Sofitel, London Heathrow, and more than a dozen hotels across Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stanstead airports bestowing him the title – Billionaire.
A late start meant he never caught up with his formal education and recalls struggling at school. With no clear plan – he joined British Airways in a clerical role. But an ambition and drive to better himself led him to a side hustle working in the evenings at a local hotel – Renaissance – where served in the evenings as a drinks waiter. (A hotel he ended up buying years later).
This is where he learnt the art of customer service and how hospitality worked. This became the grounding that would lead later to building his hospitality business.
What makes his hospitality offering any different from the others?
‘I focused specifically on customer service – my earlier experience as a drinks waiter informed all of my later decisions. If you can get this right – the rest follows’
But work at the hotel was sporadic– his next side hustle was in selling insurance in the Hounslow area for Abbey life.
What did this teach him?
‘I learnt that if you looked after your clients – then your reputation builds, and sales go up – it was all about the service and referrals. It is better to be a farmer to build for the long term rather than a hunter who goes for the ‘short term kill’. That’s why I tell my colleagues to get it right the first time – treat everyone as your family.’
He refers to the word ‘family’ a lot – he makes it his job to know everyone’s name who work for him.
He recalls that he was always ambitious and remembers going to the first sales convention at his firm and remembers being stationed at the back of the room and those who sat at the front were the high-income earners.
‘I remember telling my new wife at the time – I want to be at that top table.’
I think the drive was both from watching my mother but also my earlier years of poverty back in India – I was determined to be financially secure’. Any additional income was poured into building a property portfolio and converting derelict houses into bed and breakfasts.
Even though aircrew were beginning to use his B&B’s regularly, they were struggling to find accommodation, He approached Ayling who was CEO of British Airways, and suggested building a hotel specifically for his crew.
British Airways were interested but all the risk of building the hotel and maintaining it, was laid at Surinder’s feet..
British Airways were on board in principle alone – there was no guarantees. Having raised the finance he built the hotel on time and within budget. ‘The feedback from the crew was great and BA were happy’ beamed Surinder.
The model was replicated at several other places and Surinder was on his way.
He continued to build his portfolio either through acquisition or building new hotels).
Key to his growth has been his relationships with suppliers of finance.
This relationship is as key as any other operational element of running a hotel empire.
I asked whether he regarded himself as an opportunist or someone who continually refines his strategy. He smiles – I do not understand the word ‘strategy’. I have never had a strategy – my Board is always asking what my long-term plan for the business is – never had one!!!! I believe in keeping a lookout for opportunities – never had a strategy in place. Never will.
I look across to his son – Sanjay – who is an MBA graduate and ex KPMG – wonder if he’s opportunistic like his father or will he be more strategic?
An example of an opportunity pursued was the T5 terminal project.
‘I became aware of the opportunity and set about trying to find out as much as I could. The industry believed that only an international brand would succeed in getting the project.’
Despite being turned down by all the brands – Surinder travelled to Paris, the home of Sofitel, having been turned down by the UK representative. His persistence paid off with the brand agreeing to let him have the brand for the first and only time.
Despite the odds – Surinder won the tender. He later discovered that he had been successful because of the relationship he had with his funders who had confirmed to Heathrow Airport that his balance sheet and funding was in place and there was sufficient ‘headroom’ even in the worst-case scenario.
Again, the new hotel was constructed both in time and on budget. Was this why he had offered to build the new runway at Heathrow at a much lower cost?
He maintains that this was for him the ultimate win as he had defeated the largest global hospitality chains. On hearing the news of the win – he recalls almost crying with happiness. A David versus Goliath battle won.
I ask about his values of running a large portfolio of businesses.
‘Employ the best that you can and then let them run the businesses. We have separate CEOs for different businesses. But most important of all – treat everyone with respect. I learnt this lesson as a referee. You can lose the battle before you even blow the first whistle. If you treat the players with respect, they will respect you back.’
He has several admirers including Allan Leighton the ex-CEO of Asda and as Chair of Royal Mail who counts Surinder as a close friend and remembers when Surinder only had one hotel.
He calls Surinder a shrewd operator and despite being a close friend – he chuckles at the painful experience of being sent off by Surinder in a football game in which Surinder was the referee.
Paul Drechsler (ex-President of the CBI) confirms that Surinder is a ‘great UK entrepreneur; one of the best, a brilliant hotelier with a huge heart – he is the King of Hotels’.
What sacrifices did he endure to achieve this level of success?
He admits not getting the balance of life/work right and hopes to enjoy his grandchildren.
He likes to give time to ‘giving back’ through his charity foundation and his wife – Sunita – who have raised millions for various charities.
It was now the time to ask about his exit strategy – ‘Would he ever sell’ – there was an immediate rebuttal followed with a question ‘Why would I?
I want my son to run it – besides what would I do if I sold the business?
He peers out of the huge window overlooking the runway at Heathrow Airport – and you get a sense that he would be lost without the opportunity to continue with his life work.
It’s time for photographs and some additional filming for the podcast. He smiles – as he has done for much of the interview. Despite his heavy work schedule – he agrees to the extra session with the photographer – pops out for a quick meeting and returns for the extra sessions. Accommodating as always – maybe he is today’s version of Dale Carnegie – he certainly knows how to influence and make friends – or maybe it’s just the hotelier in him?
As we leave – he places us in the hands of his affable son – Sanjay.
He may have worked up to 18 hours a day and maybe was not there for his family – if my early impressions of Sanjay are anything to go by.. he has done a sterling job in instilling the right qualities into his son and daughters.
You get a feeling that there is much to come from this family business whether armed with a strategy or not…