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Priya Paul: The Apprentice Who Made It Big

How Apeejay Surrendra Group’s Priya Paul fought the odds and kept her father’s dream alive

There was nothing pleasant about the time Priya Paul joined Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, the family’s hospitality business run by her father, Surrendra Paul, chairman of the Apeejay Surrendra Group, in 1988. The twenty-one-year-old had recently graduated from Wellesley College in Boston, where she had majored in economics. Priya was geared up to begin her apprenticeship in the financial services arm of the family business group, which also had interests in tea, shipping and real estate, and owned the iconic Flurys restaurant in Kolkata, too.

But Surrendra instead asked her to join the Delhi property of Park Hotels as its marketing manager. It was not the best of times for the hospitality industry. In Delhi, the sector was still reeling from the supply glut after the Asian Games of 1982. Many hotels, including the Centaur, had come up timed for the games. The Park hotel in Delhi was relatively new and had opened in 1987. It was the third property of the company after its flagship one in Kolkata, which opened in 1967, and the second one in Vizag, which opened a year later.

The Delhi Park was ideally located. It stood on Parliament Street, next to the shopping hub of Connaught Place and opposite the historic Jantar Mantar. But the occupancy levels were still low. Even the newness of the property, which had 220 rooms, didn’t help. ‘Just about seven–eight rooms were occupied the day I joined,’ says Priya. ‘It was a very challenging time. The first lesson was to go out there and get the business.’

The tariff was brought down to Rs 600—almost half of what it originally was. Still, there were few takers. ‘No matter what you did and how much effort you put in, you still didn’t have money to pay the bills,’ says Priya. She would join the sales team on client meetings and learn how to make pitches. She worked with the public relations team, understanding the effective use of PR for marketing. And she learnt to hold events on a shoestring budget. ‘These things helped me a lot later,’ says Priya.

It was exactly as her father told her it would be: ‘The fact that you’ve joined the industry when it’s down will be your biggest learning. Recessions don’t last forever, and neither do booms.’ But the hard days were not going to get over anytime soon. Even as the business was difficult and Priya was beginning to get the hang of things, tragedy struck the family. Her youngest brother, Anand, died in a car crash in 1989. He was seventeen. The family hadn’t even started to comprehend the loss, when tragedy struck again. Surrendra had led the group’s investment in tea. On 9 April 1990, he was touring one of the tea estates of his Assam Frontier Tea Ltd (which was later renamed Apeejay Tea) in Tinsukia, about 500 km from Assam’s capital, Guwahati. He was on the way back, travelling with his general manager, when suspected militants belonging to the United Liberation Front for Assam, or ULFA, fired at them. Both were injured badly; Surrendra later succumbed to his injuries. He was fifty-four.

‘Both were huge shocks,’ says Priya. The two events transformed Priya, personally and professionally. She was the eldest of the three children; her sister Priti was just about to graduate, and her brother Karan, the youngest, still had two years of college left. The family rallied around, led by Priya’s uncle, Jit Paul. He had always been someone whom everyone in the larger Paul family looked up to.

The Paul family hailed from Jalandhar, where Surrendra’s father had a foundry, making steel buckets and farming equipment. The four brothers—Stya, Jit, Swraj and Surrendra—joined their father in the business after completing their studies. The family later moved to Kolkata in 1951. Here the brothers built the Apeejay Group, which branched out into several businesses. In 1966, Swraj moved to the UK and built the hugely successful Caparo Group. Later, in 1996, he would be appointed a life peer by the Conservative Party.

In 1987, the brothers agreed to divide the family assets. Jit, who didn’t have children, and Surrendra decided to join hands and together drive the Apeejay Surrendra Group. Stya by then had moved to Delhi, where he oversaw the Apeejay Stya Group, best known for its schools.

Surrendra’s untimely demise in 1990 was a terrible shock for the whole family. For his wife and her two daughters and son,

Jit became the family anchor. Much to the surprise of everyone in the family and the larger business community, Jit made his sister-in-law and Surrendra’s wife, Shirin Paul, the chairperson of the business group. It was a signal that the family members were supporting each other in their hour of grief.

With permission from Penguin Random House India

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