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Chairman of the Oberoi Group, PRS Oberoi TalkAsia interview transcript

Airdate: November 13th, 2004


Lorraine (under VO): This week on TalkAsia: A legendary hotelier who's family name is synonymous with sumptuous luxury and refined service. This, is TalkAsia.

Lorraine (on cam): Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Our guest this week is Chairman of the Oberoi Group, P.R.S. Oberoi.

(Under VO) Inheriting a hotel business is all well and good. But how to not only maintain-but ensure its growth, competitive edge, and unique spirit is a whole different ball game. And at 74, Mister Oberoi has done just that. It all began when Mister Oberoi's father mortgaged all his assets, including his wife's jewelry, and proudly opened his first hotel The Clarkes in Shimla, India in 1934. His corporate mantra: "I don't want to be the biggest, but the best". P.R.S Oberoi has taken that motto to heart. For the past two decades, he's spearheaded expansion in strategic, exotic locations across Asia and Africa, while diversifying the group's portfolio. Its signature properties are winning multiple industry awards, and gaining critical acclaim. Today, the group owns and operates over 30 hotels across Asia, Africa and the Middle East under the "Oberoi" and "Trident" brands.

Lorraine (on cam): I recently spent some time with Mr. Oberoi at his Amarvilas property in Agra, India. I began by asking if he some times feels the presence of his late father in their hotels?

(PRSO) Well my father started the business in 1930, and he had a tough start, he came from a very ordinary family to do a job in a hotel. The Hall porters, as they were called in those days, wouldn't let him in -- this was in Shimla -- so eventually he found out what time the general manager came out and he went to the general manager and said "I'll do whatever you want me to do" so this was his first job in the hotel. Eventually the same general manager my father employed him (LH: Really?! PRSO: Yes) a couple of years later.

(LH) Now your father, obviously, developed a wealth of experience through his work during his time, but what about you -- where did you pick up your first taste of the hotel business?

(PRSO) Well, we never had a house until I was about 30 until I got married -- we all lived in hotels. So it was our life. So, when I went abroad to study, I knew a lot about the hotel business than the others.

(LH) What was it like growing up, let's say, in a hotel?

(PRSO) Well, very comfortable! (LH: Yes, very pampered!) And very nice, in a way. But, hotel life for children is not very nice. You have to be disciplined, you can't make a noise, and you have to behave yourself.

(LH) Mr. Oberoi under your leadership, the Oberoi has established multiple properties in various locations -- exotic locations. What was behind that strategy?

(PRSO) The strategy was -- let's take India for example -- we had hotels and others had nice hotels in principle cities, but if you went to say Jaipur, Udaipur, here in Agra where we are now, you didn't have good hotels. I used to travel a lot, and used to see, I said if a person comes here, what would he say? So I -- we -- decided to build hotels in these -- in Agra, Jaipur, Ranthambore which is the tiger reserve-here in Agra -- then abroad to Mauritius and Egypt. So that was the idea to build deluxe hotels where people could really be comfortable and have international standards.

(LH) So you chose, let's say, the locations because they were unique?

(PRSO) They weren't unique, they were frequently -- frequented -- often by visitors and they were very exotic locations.

(LH) How would you describe yourself as a hotelier? Would you say you were typical hotelier?

(PRSO) When people ask me I say I am an innkeeper

(LH): An innkeeper? Why do you say that?

(PRSO) Well, that's what hotel keeping is about.

(LH) Are you a workaholic as many people suggest you are?

(PRSO) Well, I work a lot but I love my work. So it's not work really. I have a passion for what I do. And if you're passionate then it's not work anymore.

(LH) So you're married to your job effectively?

(PRSO) Yes, more or less

(LH) Always have been?

(PRSO) Always have been and loved it!

(LH) Now you officially took over the chairmanship in 2002, just a few years ago. Did you ever feel that you were living in your father's shadow for a very long time?

(PRSO) No, because he really stopped working about 20 years ago and he was still the chairman, he didn't attend the board meetings -- maybe once or twice, he was 102 when he passed away. People said, "actually, you're the chairman, so why didn't you take that title" I couldn't just go to him and say "I want to be chairman" take the title (LH: Dad, give me the chairmanship) and he was a very gracious person so...

(LH) What was the most important lesson he taught you?

(PRSO) I think he taught me that the first thing about is don't think always about wealth. Wealth will come, do the right things. And I have tried to follow that, don't think of personal wealth, if you do the right things then everything will turn out alright.

Lorraine (on cam): That's good advice. Up next on TalkAsia- passing on the baton, to the third generation-of Oberois.


Vikram Bump in Soundbite: If I look at what my father is really looking for in our business he's really looking for providing as close to perfection every single time, for our guests. And in that regard it's demanding, but it's probably no different to any other CEO of a company. I think one of the other aspects of working for my father is it's 24 hours a day seven days a week. So when we go home we talk about work, when we have dinner we talk about work. So I think that's probably a positive and a negative so you never really switch off. The nice thing is that you learn from his wealth of his experience, and I've really learnt a great deal from him, which I think had I not been his son I may not have had the opportunity to

My first job actually at the Oberoi was working in a kitchen in one of the hotels - I love cooking and I do it whenever I have time - I do enjoy cooking. But that was my first job, the first thing I actually did was peel spinach leaves for about four hours leaf by leaf, so it quite pain staking, but then it's all about learning the business again (LH: Right from the grass roots, right? VO: Right from the grass roots, absolutely, I don't think there's any other way)

Lorraine (on cam): Welcome back to TalkAsia. What better way to learn than to be in the thick of it? Vikram Oberoi is today, deputy-managing director of the East India hotels limited, a member of the Oberoi Group. And just as peeling spinach leaves illicit warm memories for Vikram, his father, our guest, P.R.S. Oberoi also fondly recalls his early days, living in the hotels.

(PRSO) Well, I remember in 1942 we were in Calcutta and we were only allowed to go into the balcony and peep in, we weren't allowed to go into the ballroom. I think New Year's Eve, and the Japanese raided Calcutta so the sirens went off, and everybody ran from the ballroom, except my father. He just stood there, he told the staff 'you all stay, this wont last long'. And he was right, there were a few bombs and everybody came back to the ballroom and the band started to play and so he was a ...then he took me the very next day to see when the bombing had taken place.

(LH) When he passed away, you obviously lost a father and a mentor, but what else did you lose? (PRSO: and a friend LH: and a friend? So, you were very very close? PRSO: very close)

(LH) The history of your father in the founding of the Oberoi group -- how much of that family history affects you today?

(PRSO) Well, it affects me quite a lot. My father did a lot and we have to continue the work he started. I tell my son and my nephew who I treat like my son, that they have to continue this -- the stars that my father started.

(LH) Do you treat your children very much the way your parents treated you?

(PRSO) I think I'm much harsher on them. (Both laugh LH: Oh dear, how so?) My father was much kinder, he was very busy I'm not that busy now, the children are in the business you have to be tough with them.

(LH) Mr. Oberoi, what kind of corporate culture have you tried to establish with the Oberoi group - is it very much like a family-run business?

(PRSO) No more, our business is too big now to be family run. Vikram and Arjun really got into the business four or five years ago as they were studying abroad. So it's not really a family-run business anymore. We have a lot of professionals in the company -- very senior ones- they are very dedicated. People have often asked me 'what is your real strength in the company?' and I say 'people -- they are our real asset'. It's not the bricks and mortar and the buildings, if you don't have good people you can't run this business, or any other business. So I spend a lot of time on people -- meeting people. I learned this from my father -- he'd go into the hotel and know the names of a lot of the people who were working there. Of course, we had fewer hotels in those days - the early days - we have more hotels today, so it's more difficult, but I try and meet as many people as I can. And whenever I go to a hotel I gather the people around and give them a talk -- they always want to ask questions, 'what is the company going in the future?' 'Where are we going?' -- and we have to keep them motivated.

(LH) And how do you do that -- keep them motivated?

(PRSO) Training: number one, talking to them: what are the aims and objectives of the group? People also ask me 'what do you want the company to be?' I always say 'we don't want to be the biggest, but we want to be the best'.

(LH) Would you consider yourself a very tough boss -- a tough person to please?

(PRSO) I don't know -- you'll have to ask the people! (Both laugh) Well, you have to be demanding -- I am demanding. (LH: Demanding is good, also I guess, fair, reasonable) Well, I always tell them if we don't try to keep perfection -- you can never be perfect -- you have to demand perfection, otherwise you end up being mediocre so, in our business, you have to look into a lot of detail. A lot of our guests may not say it but they notice small things, small things that are wrong and one has to look into every detail

(LH) And is that what you instill into your son and your nephew?

(PRSO) Yes, and I think they're doing fairly well.

(LH) What do you hope you have passed onto them -- to Vikram and to Arjun?

(PRSO) Well, I hope I've passed on what I've learnt over the years. I always tell people and them that 80% of what we do everyday is common sense -- and sometimes it's not so common. Only 20% is expertise, and you have to think -- a lot of people don't think.

Lorraine (on cam): Just ahead on TalkAsia- Mr. Oberoi's passions-outside of work. And how he plans to keep the Oberoi group competitive.


Arjun Oberoi Bump in Soundbite: He's a remarkable person he has huge responsibilities. Yet he finds time to balance his activities with the family, and of course, with business and I think what he's allowed me to do is have tremendous freedom, yet he sets the tone in the direction at the critical moments when he feels that things could be done a little bit better or in slightly a different way. And I think that has been a tremendous inspiration for me, and a very motivating experience, so all in all very very positive. He's a tough man to follow and he sets his standards very very high so in a way it elevates your own standards, because that allows you to then think ahead a little more and with that, perhaps drive yourself a little bit further. My experience through building these hotels was once in a lifetime; I mean I think these hotels come along once in a generation.

Lorraine (on cam): Arjun Oberoi, nephew of our guest P.R.S. Oberoi. Today, Arjun handles business and project development, while Vikram oversees operations of their hotels. They both have very large shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of two successful generations. Mister Oberoi for his part has won several awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Hotel Investment Forum for his vision and leadership. I asked him what he considers, is his greatest asset.

(PRSO) I think I work hard and I think I have common sense. (Both laugh. LH: experience?) Of course experience, and age makes you wiser. If one is smart, one learns from experience, it's the fools who don't learn from experience.

(LH) Can you keep up this pace for much longer? I mean, why don't you just retire and enjoy the benefits of what you have achieved -- read, travel, watch TV - whatever you like to do?

Well I've traveled a lot -- I've been around the world -- but I'd like to travel more but slowly. In the past I've traveled very quickly -- three or four days in one place. But if I retired, I wouldn't know what to do...

(LH) Well, surely you have some passions outside of work?

(PRSO) Well, I like horses; I breed some horses - polo ponies, one of my passions. We all used to ride -- my father, my brother and me. I don't ride any more because I had an accident a few years ago. I've stopped riding, and I think I'm getting a little long in the tooth to go galloping around the countryside.

(LH) You're also involved in, let's say, the World Wide Fund for Nature (PRSO: Yes). Are you still very much involved in it?

(PRSO) Not as much as I used to be, I like wildlife. I think we have a duty to protect our environment. I make it a point that all our hotels have environmentally friendly practices.

(LH) You have a nickname -- 'Biki' -- how did that come about?

(PRSO) Well, my brother -- late brother -- his name was Tilak Raj and they nicknamed him Tiki he was older than me. So, when I was born I became Biki! (LH: Well, who calls you that?) Well, everybody calls me Biki, they never call me by my real name. My real name is Prithvi Raj Singh, so Biki has stuck.

(LH) So, your staff get to call you Biki, too?

(PRSO) My staff calls me Mr. Oberoi (both laugh!). (LH: Right, you've drawn the line there?) For many years they used to call me Mr. Biki (LH: Really?).

(LH) Your strategy to keep the Oberoi group on top of the heap to keep it where it is -- what will that be?

(PRSO) Well I think we have to be ahead of the game, in a way. Travel needs are changing everyday, as I said earlier, people are becoming more demanding today. And you must keep ahead is doing a lot of things, for example. Internet -- five years ago nobody had internet in hotels, now we have wireless internet in every hotel, as an technology. Of course, people are becoming...our customers are becoming very conscious of the environment and if you're not environmentally friendly they wont stay in your hotels. People ask now, but they never used to a few years ago. They ask questions 'where does your sewage go?', 'where does your water come from?' have you got proper scrubbers in your boiler room?'

(LH) When you look back to all you have achieved thus far, is there something, anything, you would have done differently? Or maybe not...

(PRSO) Well, I think we've done the right things. One can't say that one has never made a mistake, we've made mistakes, everybody does. But I think by and large we've succeeded in what we've set out to do.

(LH) When you step foot in you hotels, any of them, how does that make you feel?

(PRSO) It makes me feel very proud and happy, of course.

(LH) Any feeling of the legacy of you father, still present?

(PRSO) Always. He did a lot. He was a very kind, hard-working gracious man. And I don't think we would be today where we are unless...we are reaping the fruits of what he planted, so to speak

Lorraine (on cam): Mr. P.R.S. Oberoi. A hotelier who's fulfilled his father's vision -- and taken the hotel that bears his name to new heights. And that is TalkAsia this week, from India. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.

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