Oberoi: A Century Of Hospitality Back   Home  
On August 15 2000, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi turned 101. Living in his Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoisprawling farmhouse in Bijwasan on the outskirts of Delhi, the grand old man of hospitality industry still takes a keen interest in his 32 hotels spread across the globe---Melbourne, Bali, Colombo, Kathmandu, Mauritius, Dammam, Baghdad, Cairo, Budapest and more. Starting his career as a clerk at the Cecil Hotel in Simla, it has been a long journey from his birthplace Chakwal (in the Punjab province of Pakistan) to a global empire of hotels and other industries.

"The idea was never merely to make money. The compulsion was to think big, always to offer the best..."

Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi - the grand veteran of the hospitality trade founded India's first and best multinational even before most of us knew what MNCs were all about.

The fiction-like story began to unfold in Chakwal, a town in Punjab [now in Pakistan] exactly a hundred years ago. The nineteenth century was coming to a close. Mohan Singh Oberoi had barely opened his eyes to the world when his 20-year-old father, Sardar Attar Singh decided to venture to the 'far off' land of Peshawar to earn a fortune for his small family.

Having spent all his youth in Chakwal, Attar Singh found the going very tough in Peshawar. He died of cholera, leaving behind his 18-year-old widow, Bhagwanti and his three-month old son Mohan Singh, who went to live with Bhagwanti's parents in Bhaun, close to Chakwal.

Bhagwanti's father was a rich and a well respected money-lender of Bhaun who welcomed his daughter back. He told her to assist him in his business and promised to give the best education to the little child and make him a man of the world.

At age four Mohan Singh Oberoi was put in the best school Bhaun could boast of. And that's where he stayed till his eighth class. The village school principal told Bhagwanti.that if Mohan Singh wanted to pursue education beyond the eighth class, he would have to go to Lahore or Rawalpindi.

Rawalpindi was like a magical land for the 15-ear-old Mohan Singh. He had never seen such big roads, such fancy markets, such stately buggies and so many foreigners. He had never seen such bright lights and such tall buildings. The one that fascinated him the most was Hotel Flashmans.

In fact he had never seen a hotel before and every time he passed it by he would stand and stare at it in awe. Mohan Singh did not know then that one day he would be the owner of this luxury hotel!

After completing his matriculation from Rawalpindi, Mohan Singh went to Lahore and enrolled not only for his intermediate but also for a course in typing and shorthand. But one day, without consulting anyone, Oberoi took a decision which was final and imminent. He decided to quit studying and start earning money.

The only placement he knew of was in his paternal uncle's thriving leatherwear business in Lahore. He went into the welcoming arms of uncle Sundar Singh. His mother was furious but the young Oberoi had made up his mind.

Good times were not to last for long. Oberoi's career ironically fell victim to the Independence movement. The tremors of the infamous 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre shook the country and the shoe factory closed down.

Dejected and crestfallen, Mohan Singh returned to Bhaun. The mother---like many mothers---misread his despondence as a sign that her son had come of age. Without consulting anyone she went up to her neighbour's house and asked for the hand of their 15-year-old daughter, Ishran Devi, for her son.

Before Mohan Singh could settle down to a married life, fate intervened with one of the many twists it was to reveal to this young man who had by now shaven off his beard and let a barber's scissors run through his hair to the shock of his staunchly Sikh family.

Mohan Singh had just been a year into marriage when plague broke out in Bhaun. By now he was the father of a daughter and his mother Bhagwanti, fearing for the baby, took them to the hill-station of Murree (now in Pakistan), where her cousins lived.

The climate of Murree did not suit Mohan Singh in more ways than one. Used to the good salary and position he had enjoyed in his uncle's thriving business, he could not come to terms with the menial jobs he was offered there.

In desperation Mohan Singh wrote to a friend, a clerk in the Public Works Department [PWD] in Simla asking him if he could come and try his luck in a government job there.

In 1922, leaving behind his wife and daughter, the 22-year-old Mohan Singh arrived in the glittering summer capital of the Raj. He wrote an exam for the post of a lower division clerk in the PWD department. The examiner failed him. Without realising it the department had lost one of the most enterprising men of modern India.

Shattered by the result, Mohan Singh went for a stroll on the Mall. And once again he saw another building that transfixed him. It was the imposing nine-storeyed Hotel Cecil considered by the burra sahibs as the best this side of world.

Mohan Singh had missed seeing the inside of Flashmans in Rawalpindi. He was not going to let go of the opportunity this time. But more than just seeing the hotel, he wanted a job there as well. The determined young man pushed the glass door open and walked inside the lobby. He went straight to an imposing Englishman and said, " Sir, I am on the look out for a career in the hotel industry. I'll do any kind of a job here."

Ernest Clarke looked at the smartly turned out young man and said, "We have a vacancy for a clerk to look after the hotel's coal supply. The pay is Rs. 50 a month. Interested?" Mohan Singh Oberoi that day took his first step towards his ultimate dream - the hotel industry.

He rented a one-room tenement near the hotel and began his work in right earnest. Expected to be at his job at 4 a.m. Mohan Singh was usually there two hours before the appointed time to see that everything was in place and the coals burning so that every guest in the hotel would get hot water by the time he or she got up.

Admiring the spirit of the young man and patting himself on the back for his choice, Clarke decided to put the man's abilities to better use. He re-read his bio-data and realised that the coal clerk was proficient in typing and shorthand. The next morning Clarke upgraded Oberoi to the post of a guest clerk and hiked his salary by Rs. 10 to Rs. 60 a month.

A few weeks later fate showed its hand again in favour of the man obsessed with his job. On a windswept winter morning in 1925 there was an unusual flurry in the hotel. Clarke called Mohan Singh and told him to ensure that everything was spick and span. The reason : India's formidable barrister, Motilal Nehru was coming to stay at the Cecil.

The distinguished guest checked in and was soon on his way to the court. That evening when he returned he headed straight to the guest clerk and asked him if there was anyone in Simla who could type a hundred pages by 5 a.m. the next morning. The clerk surprised the senior Nehru with his answer: " I'll do it Sir."

At exactly 4.45 a.m. Mohan Singh politely knocked at Motilal Nehru's door and handed him a wad of typed sheets. The barrister took over an hour to read them. After that he got up, embraced Oberoi and slipped Rs. 100 in his hand. There was not one mistake in the manuscript!

The young man virtually galloped to his shanty tenement and pulling his wife out headed straight to the market and bought new blankets to replace the tattered ones. The children---by now two---Rajrani and Tilak Raj (Tikki) also got new clothes.

Manager Clarke was a fiercely ambitious man. He had made a small fortune in England before taking up the prestigious appointment at the Hotel Cecil. When he came to know that Hotel Carlton on the Mall was on sale, he summoned all his financial resources and bought it.

The first two things he did after the purchase were to re-name it as Hotel Clarke and coax Mohan to leave Hotel Cecil and come to Clarke as the manager. Guests poured in and the season's houseful board went up even before the summer had begun. Within a year Oberoi had become a working partner in the hotel.

Four years into running the hotel, fortune came calling at Oberoi's doorstep all over again. Clarke's wife fell very ill and prevailed upon her husband to return to England for good. He offered the hotel to Oberoi for Rs. 20,000. At today's prices, a modest sum, but a king's ransom in the thirties. There was no way Oberoi could have raised that sum. But hope flickered like a candle in his mind. If only he could...If only he could. He spent sleepless nights conjuring up schemes of somehow getting his hands on Rs. 20,000.

Wife Ishran Devi seeing the turmoil in his life went quietly to a jeweller with all her valuables. The gold weighed 30 tolas (a little over an ounce) which at Rs. 15 a tola those days fetched her just Rs. 450. Far short of the Rs. 20,000 in demand. That night Ishran Devi had a brainwave. Why not ask Oberoi's village uncle Khanchand Kapur for a loan. After all, he had retired from the Indian Provincial Services and had gone on to become Dewan and Prime Minister to several royalties because of his excellent administrative abilities.

When they reached Nahan the elderly uncle, always fond of Oberoi, now became even more proud of him. Here was a young man risen from the roots who was vying with the 'gora' sahibs. Khanchand Oberoi willingly loaned him Rs. 20,000---a small sum considering his enormous wealth.

On August 14, 1934, Mohan Singh Oberoi became the 'sole, absolute and exclusive owner of Hotel Clarke, The Mall, Simla. The miracle happened a day before his thirty fifth birthday. As his daughter Rajrani gave him a kiss for his achievement, Oberoi whispered in her ear, " I have just begun. By the time you grow up, wherever you go there will be an Oberoi hotel!"

Seven years later Oberoi was to acquire the Associated Hotels of India (AHI) which owned the Cecil and Corstophans in Simla, the Maidens and the Imperial in Delhi and a hotel each in Lahore, Murree, Peshawar. He then went on to buy Flashmans---the first hotel he had ever seen in his life in Rawalpindi.

By the time the British left India, Oberoi had become the first Indian to run a hotel chain in the country. In 1965, he opened the first five-star international hotel in India at Delhi, besides launching flight catering operations and a travel agency. He also converted dilapidated palaces, historical monuments and buildings into premium hotels.

In 1962 and 1972 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha. He was also elected to the Lok Sabha in 1968.

To place his group on the world map, he exported management expertise to Australia, Egypt and Singapore, besides taking over properties overseas. His entrepreneurship has ensured nine of his properties a place in the "Leading Hotels of the World".

In 1969, he started his first international venture, The Soaltee Oberoi in Nepal. In 1973 he set up the Oberoi Towers in Bombay. The chain has 28 hotels now, 14 in India and 14 abroad.

A native of the obscure Punjabi hamlet of Bhaun, Oberoi went on to become India's most "exclusive hotelier" as he was called by none other than the late J.R.D Tata.

When he was honoured with the Newsweek Award in 1977 for making significant contributions to the world of business, the editor asked what motivated him to become one of the biggest hoteliers in the world, Oberoi replied, ``The idea was never merely to make money. The compulsion was to think big, always to offer the best and let it happen. Name, fame and profits would automatically come in.''
Sent by Mr.RaviKiran Jampala