Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi
Founder Chairman, The Oberoi Group
Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi was born on 15th August, 1898 in erstwhile undivided Punjab, which is now in Pakistan. He was only six months old when his father died. Success and fortune did not, therefore, come easily to him. Initiative, resourcefulness and hard work, combined with the capability to face and overcome the most overwhelming odds can best characterise this phenomenal entrepreneur.
Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi completed his primary education in Rawalpindi and moved to Lahore for his Bachelor’s degree. Shortly thereafter, to flee the ravages of a virulent plague, he went to seek his fortune in Shimla, the summer capital of British India. Arriving penniless, he found a job at a monthly salary of INR 50, as the front desk clerk at the Cecil Hotel. Today, The Oberoi Group owns the hotel The Oberoi Cecil where the young Mr. Oberoi found his métier.
The diligence, enthusiasm and intelligence displayed by Mr. Oberoi impressed Mr. Grove, the manager of the hotel. A quick learner, Mr. Oberoi did not restrict his efforts to fulfilling the job description of a desk clerk but sought and shouldered additional responsibilities. A few years later, when Mr. Clarke acquired a small hotel he asked Mr. Oberoi to assist him. It was here, at Clarkes Hotel, that Mr. Oberoi gained first hand experience in all aspects of operating a hotel.
In 1934, Mr. Oberoi acquired his first property, The Clarkes Hotel, from his mentor by mortgaging his wife’s jewellery and all his assets. Four years later, he signed a lease to take over operations of the five hundred rooms Grand Hotel in Calcutta that was on sale following a cholera epidemic. With his customary confidence and sheer determination to succeed, he was able to convert this hotel into a highly profitable business venture.
Over several years, Mr. Oberoi had purchased shares in Associated Hotels of India (AHI), which owned Cecil and Corstophans hotels in Shimla, Maidens and Imperial hotels in Delhi and a hotel each in Lahore, Murree, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. In 1943, Mr. Oberoi acquired controlling interest in AHI. He thus became the first Indian to run the country’s largest and finest hotel chain. In the tumultuous years just prior to Indian independence, Mr. Oberoi met and intimately interacted with the would-be leaders of Free India, all of whom were, at one time or other, guests at his hotels.
Having consolidated his early ventures, Mr. Oberoi became the first Indian hotelier to enter into an agreement with an internationally renowned hotel chain, to open the first modern, five-star hotel in the country. The Oberoi Inter Continental, in New Delhi opened in 1965. The I-Con, as it became popularly known, offered facilities that no other hotel in the country matched and was India’s first luxury hotel.
This achievement was enhanced with the opening of the 35-storey Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay, in 1973. Mr. Oberoi was the first Indian to work in association with international chains to woo international travellers to India. This led to a heavy influx of international travellers and foreign occupancy soared to an average of 85%. This enabled the Oberoi Hotels to significantly contribute to India’s foreign exchange earnings.
Another pioneering landmark was the establishment in 1966 of the prestigious Oberoi School of Hotel Management, recognised by the International Hotel Association in Paris. Considered India’s premier institute, the school is now known as The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development and continues to provide high quality professional training in hospitality management.
Other notable firsts were the decision to employ women in his hotels and to establish a chain of ancillary industries producing and supplying items like consumables and stationery to ensure the highest quality. The Oberoi Group was also the first to start flight catering operations in India, in 1959. The Oberoi Flight Services, located in New Delhi, Mumbai, Cochin and Chennai, provide in-flight meals of international quality to reputed airlines.
Mr. Oberoi realised that the hotel and hospitality business is greatly dependent on travel agents, a vital element in the distribution chain. Therefore, he decided to establish his own travel agency. Mercury Travels, part of The Oberoi Group, ranks amongst the leading travel agencies in India.
With vision and imagination, Mr. Oberoi converted old and dilapidated palaces, historical monuments and buildings into magnificent hotels such as The Oberoi Grand in Calcutta, the historic Mena House Oberoi in Cairo and The Windsor in Australia. It was, in fact, in the face of severe opposition that the State Government of Victoria awarded Mr. Oberoi the lease of The Windsor, a heritage building in Melbourne. He personally supervised the restoration of the hotel to its original grandeur and later acquired it. The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla, built in the early 20th century, reopened in April 1997 after extensive and meticulous renovation.
Awards and Honours
In 1943, Mr. Oberoi was conferred the title of Rai Bahadur by the British Government in recognition of his services to the Crown. Thereafter, Mr. Oberoi won acclaim and received several national and international awards including admission to the Hall of Fame by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and Man of The World award by the International Hotel Association (IHA), New York. He was presented the Order of The Republic, First Class by the President of Egypt. He got an Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from the International Management Centre, Buckingham, UK. Newsweek named him one of the Elite Winners of 1978. The PHDCCI Millennium award in 2000 was presented in recognition of his entrepreneurial and business success. In 2001, the Government of India accorded him the Padma Bhushan.
Globalisation of The Oberoi Group
To place The Oberoi Group on the world map, Mr. Oberoi exported management expertise to Australia, Egypt and Singapore, where The Oberoi Group took charge of the management of existing luxury hotels. The success of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts overseas, in the face of global competition, greatly enhanced the image of The Group.
Today, Oberoi Hotels & Resorts in Indonesia, Egypt, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia and India add value and distinction to their host countries.
Foundations of the Future
Under Mr. Oberoi’s dynamic leadership, The Oberoi Group introduced its second brand of hotels, ‘Trident’. Trident hotels are five-star hotels that have established a reputation for excellence and are acknowledged for offering quality and value. These hotels combine state of the art facilities with dependable service in a caring environment, making them the ideal choice for business and leisure travellers. Presently there are nine Trident hotels in India located in Mumbai at Bandra Kurla and Nariman Point, Gurgaon (Delhi National Capital Region), Chennai, Bhubaneshwar, Cochin, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. The Oberoi Group also operates a Trident hotel in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.
In the luxury category, The Group opened The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur; The Oberoi Cecil, Shimla; The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur; The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore; The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra; Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas; The Oberoi, Lombok, Indonesia; The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh, Egypt; The Oberoi, Mauritius and The Oberoi Zahra, Luxury Nile Cruiser, Egypt.
The Group employs more than 12,000 people worldwide and operates 28 hotels and three cruisers in five countries.
Mr. Oberoi’s achievements and successes did not, however, take from his simplicity and old-fashioned charm. He retained, until his death in May 2002 at the age of 103, a unique humility. He was fond of saying, “I have been able to accept the challenge and make good. There is comfort in knowing that whatever little I have achieved has also helped to raise the prestige of my country.”