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GRAND PLAN

Lalit Suri is unlikely to forget his 59th birthday in a hurry. Just in time for his special day on November 19, the flamboyant hotelier and Rajya Sabha MP got a gift from the Bengal government which declared him the highest bidder for the 210-room Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta. For Rs 52 crore and a promise to invest another Rs 120 crore in the hotel, the chairman-cum-managing director of the Rs 200-crore Bharat Hotels acquired a 90 per cent stake in the 165-year-old, state-owned property.

Suri ' just back from London, where he was attending the World Tourism Mart with wife and joint managing director Jyotsna ' is unmistakably happy. With his entry into Calcutta, his hotel chain, The Grand, will have a presence in four metros, including Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. “We are also setting up properties in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Chennai,” says a buoyant Suri. “And in Jaipur and Noida.”

Great Eastern is the fourth property Suri is acquiring through the government disinvestment process in hotels. He earlier bid for and won three India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) properties, including the Ashok in Bangalore and a hotel each in Udaipur and Khajuraho. Bharat Hotels owns and operates six premium hotels, apart from the Intercontinental Grand in New Delhi, commissioned in 1988.

“For a rank outsider who’s been in the business for less than 20 years, he deserves credit for quickly covering the metros,” a hospitality industry expert observes. Adds Subhash Goyal, chairman, Stic group of companies and president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators: “Lalit Suri has picked up a string of good properties. The strength of the group is that it’s financially very sound.”

Nevertheless, despite his best efforts ' and a series of lavish parties ' Suri is still seen as an outsider in hospitality and travel trade circles and perceived to be more of a politician than a hotelier. Clearly, his active political life has won him more friends in political circles than in the industry. His list of friends include Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, BJP MP Arun Jaitley, former Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and Rajya Sabha member Rajiv Shukla.

To be sure, Suri’s political connections go way back to the late 1970s when Sanjay Gandhi was his buddy. In fact, hotel industry observers say that it was thanks to his political affiliations that he got prime land for his first hotel in Delhi at a throwaway price. But Suri later fell out with the Congress and won a Rajya Sabha seat in 2002 with the help of the Samajwadi party and the BJP.

Suri’s political affiliations have often won him bad press. And needless to say, as with most government disinvestment initiatives, his ITDC hotel acquisitions have also been mired in controversy.

But the Great Eastern hotel acquisition has not drawn much flak. Prasun Mukherjee, who bid on behalf of Unitech Universal of Indonesia, maintains: “The bidding was absolutely transparent and fair. The highest bidder won and I have no complaints. My bidding amount was Rs 46 crore and I promised another Rs 110 crore for renovation.”

In any case, with barely three suitors queuing up with offers, there wasn’t much room for hullabaloo. But, then, the hotel ' built by Englishman David Wilson in 1840 ' has seen bad times. When it was on the brink of closure, the then Congress (I) government of West Bengal took over its management in 1975. The Left Front government nationalised it under the Great Eastern Hotel (Acquisition of Undertaking) Act, 1980. In 1996, the government tried to hand it over to hotel chain Accor Asia Pacific, but faced stiff opposition from Great Eastern’s Citu-affiliated union.

Suri is ready to pump in money to restore the property. “We could be investing over or under Rs 120 crore in changing the plant and machinery, interiors and restaurants. We will hire the best for the job,” he says.

While Suri will sink money in Great Eastern, he expects his operating hotels to deliver better returns. A turnover of Rs 300 crore is projected for Bharat Hotels next year. Besides hotels, Suri has a presence in the automobile ancillaries and real estate businesses. He also owns the tabloid, Delhi Mid Day, a venture that is very low on his business priority list. An employee, in fact, insists that he saw Suri only once in the newspaper office during his seven-year stint there.

But Suri is a man wearing multiple hats. The former Sri Ram College graduate has also trained his eyes on the booming art business. “I ran a very successful art gallery with my friend Ashok Kapoor some years ago. We did big business there,” recalls Suri.

The old gallery is no more, but Suri has other plans. He has changes in mind for Art Junction, a restaurant-cum-art gallery at the Intercontinental Grand. Currently, it mostly promotes upcoming artists. “All that is set to change,” he says without divulging his plans.

Like his politics' Rumour has it that he is back in the Congress’s good books. “I am friendly with everyone. As you can see, I am now friends with the communist party also,” laughs Suri. So will the hotel help build bridges with the communists' “No, no. You don’t do business to please anyone. Great Eastern is purely a business venture.” Birthday gift, or not.

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