Vikram & Arjun Oberoi Shed Light on Lesser-Known Facets of Biki Oberoi in a Riveting Conversation at Robb Report Limited Edition
THE highlight of the Robb Report Limited Edition, which ensured that all roads for people in the luxury business led to The Oberoi Gurgaon yesterday, was its finale — a scintillating conversation between The Oberoi cousins — Vikram and Arjun — and the Group Editorial Director, Broadcast and New Media, India Today Group, Kalli Purie. It’s rare to see the two cousins open up so eloquently at a public forum (Purie’s well-researched questions did it!), so it was a treat for all those of us who never stop wanting to know more about The Oberoi Group, which has set the standards of excellence for the hospitality sector in the country.
No conversation about the company can take place without a reference to its Executive Chairman, Prithviraj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi, and his keen eye for detail. Few hoteliers would get worked up over the inconsistency in the colour of the yolk of fried eggs served in different hotels of their empires, but Biki Oberoi — as his son Vikramjit Singh ‘Vikram’ Oberoi, Managing Director and CEO, EIH Limited, shared with his house-full audience — not only made it an issue, but also got to the bottom of the problem and made sure all chickens producing eggs for The Oberoi Group got the same feed sourced from the pharmaceutical multinational, Bayer.
“He gets up in the morning and dreams hotels,” Vikram Oberoi said. “He does it every day.” Biki Oberoi, who started working for his father’s hospitality empire only when he was in his late 40s, is famous for his quip — “I am making up for all the years that I did not have to work”. According to The Oberoi lore, he had said this when he was once asked why he keeps the longest hours in the company, despite being 87 years old, and has an almost obsessive interest in matters that others would consider insignificant.
Biki Oberoi had made his famous remark in jest, but his son said these values go back to the time of “the Rai Bahadur” (Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder chairman). One of his vivid memories of his grandfather was seeing him sitting behind his wooden desk, a clock by his side, reading guest comments from the previous day.
“His eyesight was failing and he wore really thick glasses to be able to read, and he would struggle to read the hand-written comments, yet he never missed a single one of them,” Vikram Oberoi recalled. Biki Oberoi, he said, has kept the tradition going — and as his nephew, Arjun Oberoi, Managing Director (Development), EIH Limited, put it, “we are constantly challenged to push ourselves … and we are constantly trying to match him”. To which Vikram Oberoi added: “We cannot afford to have any guest leave an Oberoi hotel unhappy.”
Arjun Oberoi, whose job it is to keep opening new hotels (he has just opened the Sukh Vilas near Chandigarh; Al Zorah, Ajman, UAE, and Marrakesh, Morocco, are next on his map), remembers the time when his uncle asked about the marbles being used in a hotel he was opening. “Did you go to the mines to check the quality of the marble?” Biki Oberoi asked him. A puzzled Arjun Oberoi exclaimed, “But the marbles are from Greece.” To which Biki Oberoi replied: “Then, take the next flight to Greece.”
Drawing a lesson from this experience, Arjun Oberoi said, “When you focus on the small things, the big picture falls into place.” Unsurprisingly, The Oberoi hotels have as many as 2,500 group standards documented in its corporate repository, because the group believes no two guests are alike and so aren’t two situations, but these are of little or no practical value till the last employee feel for them from core of the heart. “The key is execution. A great idea needs to be perfectly executed,” Vikram Oberoi said.
How does an organisation driven by such values make sure they get transmitted to the most recent inductee? Vikram Oberoi pinned it down to good leadership. “If we don’t have genuine care and concern for our staff, if we don’t run the organisation with trust, respect and ethics, how can we expect our people to show any care or concern for our guests,” he said.
Earlier on in the conversation, Vikram Oberoi introduced the audience to an unpublicised side of his father. Fifteen years ago, he said (and he’s a riveting raconteur), Loganathan, a chef at the Raj Vilas, Jaipur, met with an accident that left him severely paralysed. Without thinking twice, Biki Oberoi decided that The Oberoi Group will not only pay for Loganathan’s treatment, but also keep paying him his salary with the regular annual increments as long as it was necessary.
Loganathan kept writing emails to Biki Oberoi to keep him posted about his health (“he couldn’t have written them himself because of his physical disability, so he must have dictated them, yet they were well-written and straight from the heart”). Two years ago, he wrote saying he wanted to start working again. Biki Oberoi agreed at once and Loganathan was given a stationary job in the central reservation system that involved interacting with travel agents. What the Oberois did not expect was the impact it would have on their business. Thanks to Loganathan’s charm and efficiency, even those travel agents who were not performing, started producing results.
“We believe in certain values,” Vikram Oberoi said. “And we believe that if we take decisions based on those values, the decisions have got to be right.” An organisation led by such a mindset can scarcely get it wrong, but for the Oberois, each day (like each project), as Arjun Oberoi said it, is “a clean sheet of paper”, because Biki Oberoi “doesn’t believe in the ordinary, he doesn’t believe in the obvious”, and if you’re one of the two cousins working in his shadow, you get used to “expecting the unexpected”.