Business Today

EYES ON THE DESTINATION

For Jyotsna Suri, looking at the big picture is important.
twitter-logo Chitra Narayanan        Print Edition: September 27, 2015
Jyotsna Suri
Growing steadily: Jyotsna Suri feels the future lies in mid-segment hotels. (Photo: Vivan Mehra)

Most people would find holding down one full-time job hard enough. But Jyotsna Suri, Chairperson and Managing Director of Bharat Hotels, which runs The Lalit Suri Hospitality group, is straddling two challenging assignments, as she shuttles between industry group FICCI, where she took over as president in December 2014, and her 34-year-old hotel chain, which is in the midst of expansion overseas. Luckily, the headquarters of both are located close by.

It's an especially tough balancing act as the hospitality industry is just emerging from a cyclical downturn and most established players are facing disruption from tech players like Airbnb. Meanwhile, FICCI is in the thick of debate and action over the land bill and taxation reforms that could have huge repercussions for businesses.

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It's a good thing that this accidental business leader - she had to take over the reins of the company when her husband, the flamboyant hotelier Lalit Suri died suddenly during a business trip - lists her hobby as work, and has been conditioned to plan ahead for the day. "The habit of waking up early helps me maximize productive hours to get the most out of each day," she says. Highly disciplined, Suri also sometimes takes calculated risks - not a surprising trait really as she comes of entrepreneurial stock. Her dad moved from Rawalpindi to Delhi during Partition and built a profitable Mercedes Benz truck business in far flung Kutch, and was nonconformist enough to send Suri to a co-ed boarding school (Lawrence School, Sanawar).

At a time when global hospitality majors are mounting a full throttled invasion, the Lalit group has under Suri's leadership carved a distinct brand identity of its own and has emerged as one of India's largest privately owned hotel chains with 11 operational 5-star luxury hotels, two mid-segment hotels and six more under development in India and overseas.

Among the jewels in the group's chest include the recently opened Great Eastern in Kolkata - a hotel of immense heritage given that it's Asia's first luxury property. Next up is another heritage development in London, where Suri is turning a former grammar school St Olave's acquired at a cost of 15 million pound into a 75-room boutique hotel.

"Being an investor with very little leverage she has been able to withstand the downturn quite well and the family is now focusing on international developments," says Manav Thadani, Chairman, HVS, a hospitality consultancy firm. Despite the downturn, the hotel group clocked gross sales of Rs 427 crore in 2013/14, up from Rs 374 crore in 2012/13. From a loss in 2012/13, it managed to clock a small profit of Rs 4.24 crore in 2013/14.

Thadani, who is also the World Travel and Tourism Council Chairman, calls Suri one of the "leading lady lights" of the hotel industry in India. "She took over the Lalit business under very difficult circumstances and today has continued with the vision of her late husband and, in many ways, has improved upon them. She is ever ready to provide help when it comes to industry matters and is a strong voice for all of us," he says.

Suri believes the mid segment is where the future lies and, keeping pace with the way industry is moving, has been quick to launch the Lalit Traveller brand - a mid-market offering. But she is playing it carefully, minimising risks. In Ahmedabad, for instance, Lalit will have both its upscale and midscale brands in one building. She rules out an IPO at the moment, and says in a sluggish market, the group is going for consolidation more than anything else.

She listens to the GenNext ideas of her children, who are part of the management, and son Keshav Suris idea of a Food Truck serving Mexican delights has already captured the imagination of foodies in the National Capital Region.

At FICCI, Suri - who is the first president to be chosen from the hospitality and tourism industry - has been carrying the weight of the sector on her shoulders.

Suri says she always looks at the big picture. Rather than just focusing on building hotels, she says her strategy is to try and develop destinations bringing to light uncharted terrains like Bekal in Kerala, or Chitrakoot near Khajuraho. "As we continued to develop hotels, I felt a responsibility to the people in the immediate vicinity of our properties and realised that what mattered was not just building hotels but also the destinations," she says.

It's her macro perspective that comes in handy in her role as President of FICCI too, where she has been advocating the patient approach in dealing with the new government. "Whenever you have to climb a mountain, you move slowly compared to the drop down. You should be steady but ultimately be able to win the race," she says.

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