Surinder Arora is a name well known across the hospitality industry but arguably few know much about the man. Beyond the industry, few will know much about his business empire and yet his story is one that could well have come straight out of a film script. He has built a successful billion pound business almost from scratch which is impressive enough but what makes Surinder stand apart is that, in a cynical age, he believes and stands for something beyond.
Surinder Arora’s story has almost became folklore in recent years – how he arrived in London when he was just thirteen years old, unable to speak a word of English. He was met at the airport by a couple he thought were his aunt and uncle. However, the truth was that they were his parents. The couple that he believed had been his mother and father had actually been his aunt and uncle. His parents had lost everything in the creation of the modern Pakistan and in the turmoil, they had fled for Britain. His parents were now settled in London and wanted to bring him to Britain to give him a better life.
Upon arrival in the UK, Surinder and his parents lived in a three bedroom house with another family in Southall. His mother had three jobs; she worked at Tetley during the day, cleaned offices in the evening and cooked at a college during the weekends
For many this would have been a trauma that would have been hard to accept but as one follows Surinder’s story, it is clear that he seems to be able to accept the good and bad of life in their measure. One of the most remarkable facets of Surinder’s story is the mental strength that lies at his core. Again for many, they would have become self-reliant but family sits centrally at Surinder’s heart.
“Life is a journey of waves, ups and downs. Most believe that success is when one is at the top of the curve but success is when you are the bottom and striving to go back up. One has to accept the good and bad of life as we all experience it and it is how we handle what is thrown at us, “ reflected Surinder. “I recall the tough days of 2009 and 2010 and we learnt so much from that time. As my Mother used to say “Don’t worry about the mistakes you make. Just learn from them and make new ones”
Maybe Surinder’s ability to manage the good and bad was a trait that he inherited from his parents as their family had been respected and well positioned in his homeland but they had had to leave it all behind during the repatriation between India and Pakistan and start again. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been to leave everything and start again in a new country. It must be hard enough to leave one’s homeland and a good life but imagine starting again and having to work three jobs just to rebuild as Surinder’s mother had the courage to do. To do so requires a mental resolve that few possess.
In some ways it is a throwback to the past as there many great stories of human endeavour and adapting as the world evolved from the 1940’s through to the 1980s but it is becoming rarer to hear of today. It is one of the reasons that makes Surinder’s story so important to tell – he has overcome any obstacle and barrier and shown that one can achieve success if one works hard enough and is prepared to learn.
There are many great entrepreneurs that can show such traits but what also makes Surinder’s story stand apart is that he is a man of many passions beyond work too. He has a love for Cricket and is an Honorary Life President of Surrey CCC. He has a passion for golf and was a part owner of Surrey’s Wentworth Club. He also loves football and was for many years a referee.
“I wasn’t a natural at any of the sports but I loved them,” noted Surinder. “It is one of the reasons that I became a referee and this was a great learning for me. So many referees give up because of the abuse they are given. I was almost one of them until an experienced referee showed me that technically I was doing a good job but that success lay in how one managed the players. One had to show them respect and care and then they would often behave far better. It was about trust between referee and player. This would then allow for a far better, free flowing game”.
“It is the same in business. I have learnt to listen to my team. I can think of a number of occasions when we have disagreed on an employee or a decision and they have been right and I have changed my thoughts after reflecting. Often our passions outside work can be invaluable in how they teach us to be better in work”
Every fact tells you that there must be an inner strength and belief as no one is estimated to be worth over £800m from scratch without it, but there is so much more to the story
“I never look for a fight but I will not shirk it if I need to. I believe in trust between people and organizations but if it broken, then we need to act accordingly. Over the years, I have seen some behave in a way that we believe is not correct and we have to act as otherwise we let ourselves down. We have a responsibility to our customer and our people. We all make mistakes but it is how we respond to mistakes that matters.”
So how did Surinder come to start Arora Hotels from his humble beginning in London?
After leaving school, Surinder joined British Airways and spent 11 years working as a customer service officer. During this time he took private flying lessons, which he paid for by working as a waiter in a hotel he was later to own. In 1982 Arora became a financial advisor for the Abbey Life insurance company, becoming the youngest branch manager and achieving a rating as the company’s second-best financial advisor in 1988. In 1993 Arora left Abbey Life to develop a bed and breakfast to serve airline staff at Heathrow Airport. The hotel that replaced the B&B won a contract from British Airways in 1999 and gave him the foundation stone for Arora Hotels.
In 2004 Arora won the franchise for the Accor Sofitel brand and bought the 500-bedroom Le Meridien London Gatwick hotel to rebrand as the Sofitel London Gatwick. Sofitel London Heathrow, a £180m 600-bedroom sister hotel was announced the same year. Today Arora owns hotels that provide a total of over 5500 bedrooms including franchises from InterContinetal and Novotel.
The Group has moved beyond. The Arora Tower in Greenwich is a 24 storey building with 140 apartments, while a similar residential development in Crawley aims to deliver 308 across three buildings. In a new milestone development, and leveraging their already strong presence at the airport, the Arora Group is developing a fourth World Business Centre at London Heathrow, which will be offering 85,000sq ft. of environmentally friendly office space when completed.
In a world where business has become far less personal and more transactional, Surinder has built a reputation for valuing long-term business relationships. He stresses that he has consistently used the same lawyers and the same lenders throughout his career.
When Surinder hosts guests at an event, he is the generous host. He will take the time to talk to everyone, making sure they feel accepted, at home and relaxed. He has long worked out that trust and strong relationships allow business to be better. There is no doubt that he really cares about people and sees his employees and his close business confidante’s as being part of his family.
The vast majority of self-made entrepreneurs are often the polar opposite to Surinder. This is not a critique of anyone; more an observation that those that are self-made are often passionately family orientated as the family has been their building block but are often extremely self-orientated. This is where Surinder’s story is different as is generous to others, and believes in others.
So what is the hidden story? Arguably it is the character traits that he has displayed over the years. He has accepted life’s challenges without anger and overcome the barriers set up. He has not been caught up in his success but has continued to build his family. He has shown a level of strength and inner discipline that very few could manage but maybe most of all, he has built a legacy for others.
Surinder may not wish for many to know him but his is a story that is a role model for others to follow – most especially in the modern era where even the most simple of setbacks becomes a drama. Leadership is based off managing in adversity and this he has shown but what makes the man stand apart is how he rises above the petty and believes in something more – whether family, legacy or the importance of people.