Standard-bearer for hospitality

PRS Oberoi, 93, popularly known as Biki, never had to go through the struggle undertaken by his father, the legendary Mohan Singh Oberoi who began his career as a lowly-paid employee at Simla’s Cecil hotel. But wealth apart, nothing else in life came easy for PRS, who had to work incredibly hard to expand the Oberoi group of hotels, which is now acknowledged as a standard setter in the hotel industry.

The doyen of Indian hospitality industry who stepped down as chairman and director of EIH Associated Hotels on May 2, a day after also stepped down as executive chairman and director from the flagship firm, EIH, leading to the inevitable question on the direction his legacy will take. The EIH board on Wednesday appointed his nephew Arjun Singh Oberoi as the new executive chairman.

The major hallmark of a globalised world is homogenisation. Travel to any part of the world, the hotel chains look the same in style and structure. It’s here that Oberoi Group of hotels stands out. What PRS has built stands out as unique as it combines the best of British legacy and Indian tradition. The Oberoi hotels maintain this distinct identity even at their properties outside India.

Industry veterans who have known, worked, or interacted with PRS Oberoi over long years, say that PRS is a stickler for quality, discipline and customer care. The white linen and cutlery which one finds at all the hotels of the group is PRS’s long lasting legacy. “The hotels still don’t sport the yellow or any other fancy colours which have become very common in current times, and you can see this in the renovation of Oberoi Delhi,” a CEO of a US-based firm who has worked with PRS in his early years, says.

The grand old man of the Indian hospitality industry also created neat categories of his hotels – Oberoi, Trident, and Vilas – again something which defines his eye for detail when it comes to class and taste.

Maintaining that a company is known by its people it keeps, PRS established ‘The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development’ in New Delhi in 1966. This institution is considered amongst the best in Asia today, and is the gateway for many aspiring students keen to understand the hospitality industry’s operations.

While being a stickler for quality, PRS also proved himself to be a shrewd businessman who made his moves well in advance. In 2010 he surprised industry watchers when Reliance Industries picked up a little over 14% stake in EIH. This was seen as protecting the group from any hostile takeover from ITC, which apart from having its own hotel chain, also had a 14.9% stake in EIH. This step by PRS was seen as a masterstroke to keep ITC in abeyance as far as raising its stake in EIH was concerned. It was held that since RIL has greater financial muscle, ITC would not risk getting into a takeover bid for EIH.
Another aspect which was very well handled by PRS was with regard to the succession planning at the group. Way back in 2010, his son Vikramjit Singh Oberoi and nephew, Arjun Singh Oberoi used to be joint managing directors. It was customary in several annual general meetings of the company for questions on who takes over from him. Though a direct, categorical answer never came, when the time came, Vikramjit took over as CEO and MD, while Arjun was designated as managing director. Now with the EIH board appointing Arjun as executive chairman, PRS has solidified his position as a visionary with impeccable credentials of handling succession planning in a business family. In family-led businesses usually succession turns out to be messy and a reason for split which leads to fragmentation in businesses as has been the case with the several old business families. That PRS has been able to handle it smoothly certainly speaks volumes on his ability to navigate such complex issues with relative ease.

As the patriarch hangs his boots, the real challenge for the next generation of leadership would be to ensure that the class and distinctness instilled and curated by PRS is not lost.