Scion gets a head start on the Golden Mile
Aron Harilela, PhD, has the perfect pedigree for overseeing a hotel empire
AT THE OPENING ceremony of the Holiday Inn Golden Mile in 1975, four-year-old Aron Harilela stood in for his father Hari, the present-day patriarch of Hong Kong's most prominent Indian family. Aron's grandmother had just passed away, and his father was in mourning.
The opening was young Aron's first executive assignment for Harilela Hotels, the hotels and property arm of the privately held Harilela Group. In the decades since its Golden Mile flagship opened at 50 Nathan Road, Harilela Hotels has grown to encompass 10 operations in Bangkok, London, Macau (where it has a 10 per cent interest in the Westin Resort), Montreal, Penang, Singapore and Sydney.
Now 34 and the only son of Hong Kong's most famous Indian businessman, who also has five daughters, Mr Harilela oversees operations at six of his father's hotels, as well as the group's acquisition activities.
'My father's intention was always to get into hotels and real estate back then,' he remembers. '[The family] started off in tailoring but we always wanted to get into hotels. My father's philosophy has always been prime cities, prime locations.'
The Harilelas' hotels business was slow to get started, however. It took years for Mr Harilela's father to buy out reluctant partners in the Golden Mile project, who had been spooked by the 1967 riots. Then there was the challenge of finding an experienced operating partner.
'My Dad was travelling around America [in the early 1970s] meeting with a lot of hotel chains,' Mr Harilela says. 'He went over to Memphis, Tennessee and met Kemmons Wilson [Holiday Inn's founder]. My father had never met Kemmons before. So when Kemmons came over, picked up my father's bags and walked him to a waiting car, my father didn't realise who he was.'
It soon dawned on the elder Harilela that his bellhop was in fact one of America's most famous - and richest - entrepreneurs, and a lifelong friendship and partnership was born.
A successful Memphis homebuilder, Wilson had driven his family to Washington, DC for a vacation in the summer of 1951. As they travelled he was struck by the lack of clean, reasonably priced accommodation along America's nascent national highway system. Sensing an opportunity, Wilson launched what soon became an iconic American motel chain and, in time, a global hotel business as well.
Wilson, who died only two years ago, had an ability to pick promising locations for each new motel. In David Halberstam's book The Fifties, Ramada founder Marion Isbell is quoted as explaining his own highly successful strategy thus: 'It's really simple. All I do is go into a city and find out where Kemmons Wilson has a good Holiday Inn and I put a Ramada Inn right next door - it's a good system and it really works.'
In the early 1970s, however, Wilson's eye for the main chance did not extend to the neon strip along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
'So my father met this chap Kemmons and liked him so much - they got on so well together - that he said, you know, 'Come and see my hotel [the Golden Mile]', which was being built at the time,' says Mr Harilela, his posh accent apparently influenced by a decade at public boarding schools and university in England.
'Kemmons said: 'No, I can't put the Holiday Inn name on it because we do motels, we do three stars.' You know, stay one night and leave the next. But my Dad said: 'Don't worry, this will be your flagship in Asia.'' And so it was, with Harilela-owned, Holiday Inn-operated hotels later following in Bangkok, Penang and Singapore.
The Golden Mile was something of a second home to Mr Harilela, who along with most members of his vast extended family still lives in the Harilelas' sprawling compound in Kowloon Tong.
'I was born into [the hotels business] in a way,' he recalls during the interview, which is being conducted in the general manager's office at the Golden Mile. 'When I was born my Dad was building this hotel. He was living, breathing, understanding the hotel ... and I think as a result I was sort of born living, breathing this hotel as well.'
A black-and-white photo from the South China Morning Post's archives testifies to Mr Harilela's almost umbilical link to his father's most famous hotel. It shows him with his parents at his ninth birthday party in 1980, held in the Golden Mile's Topaz Room.
Four years later, Mr Harilela set off for boarding school in the UK and the University of Hull. Like many self-made men who rose from modest circumstances, Mr Harilela's father was keen that his children should have the educational opportunities that he never did.
Mr Harilela's grandfather, a native of Sindh near the modern day line of partition separating India from Pakistan, was a gemstone trader who moved his family first to Guangzhou in the 1920s, and then to Hong Kong in 1929. In an interview with the South China Morning Post two years ago, Mr Harilela's father described how in the 1930s he, his father and brothers used to hawk outside the British military barracks in Shamshuipo. After the war years the family made enough money in trading and tailoring - including military uniforms for the British and US armies - from which to build a fortune in hotels and real estate.
'There was a depression, a war - people were losing money and making money left, right and centre,' Mr Harilela says. But even the generous paternal instincts of Mr Harilela's father were tested by his only son's decision to pursue a PhD in political philosophy.
'He said to me, 'Well excellent, how long [does a PhD take]?'' Mr Harilela recalls. 'I said: 'Well anywhere between two and nine years.' And he said: 'WHAT!' He thought I was going to be a perpetual student.'
A family crisis was averted when Mr Harilela completed his PhD in 1996 after just 21/2 years. Within a week of completing his oral exam, Mr Harilela was dispatched to Yangon to scout out hotel opportunities in the Myanmar capital. The sirens of academia safely behind him, he was now officially a hotel executive.
His PhD research had focused on Vivek Ananda, a late 19th century figure in the long impotent Indian independence movement whose more muscular political philosophy - Mr Harilela argued in his paper - laid the foundations for Gandhi and Nehru's successful revolt against British colonial rule. For Mr Harilela, who speaks fluent Cantonese, 'dreadful' Sindhi, 'nearly non-existent' Hindi and regards himself as a 'Hong Kong person whose origins or ethnicity is Indian', the research was an opportunity to explore his own heritage and culture.
Mr Harilela's own family, of course, did very well under British rule in Hong Kong and enjoyed cosy relations with the colonial power - they dined with many a governor. Asked about this apparent irony given his academic interests, Mr Harilela argues that English governance did more for the public in Hong Kong than it did in India.
'In Hong Kong we had a very different case where we were prospering,' he says. 'We knew that the administration here was good and that we had a level playing field with the Britishers.' He also points out that his interviewer's question is somewhat moot - he completed his PhD in 1996, just as the sun was setting on the English empire's last meaningful colonial outpost. And indeed the Harilelas had by then lined up with the new masters from Beijing. Both Mr Harilela's father and one uncle are members of the Election Committee and nominated Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for chief executive.
Pressed on Hong Kong's politics, Mr Harilela - surely a future Election Committee member in his own right - is diplomatic. 'The Basic Law stipulates that we will go for universal suffrage eventually,' he says. 'I don't think it's a question of staying with the system we have now - I don't think anyone's saying that. But it's a question of what we're heading towards and, in that process, what elements need to be changed gradually.'
Though a bachelor and long-time fixture in this newspaper's society pages, Mr Harilela admits that marriage and children will 'creep up on me soon enough'. In the meantime, there is the rather serious matter of his family's hotels and property ventures to attend to, especially as a second generation of Harilelas assumes a more prominent role in the family businesses. Whether in an Indian, Chinese or Western context, managing such transitions is always tricky.
Mr Harilela describes one of his more nerve-wracking moments - the 2000 opening of the Harilelas' W Sydney hotel, now an exclusive 100-room boutique hotel and Sydney hotspot. Mr Harilela had overseen a gamble on a property that at the time could most generously be described as having lots of potential: it was situated on a derelict wharf in an area where low-cost housing and crime abounded.
'My father hadn't been to the hotel until we opened,' Mr Harilela recalls. 'When I brought him in my heart was in my hands ... I wasn't expecting him to like anything that was so modern and funky.
'He walked in and he was quiet for about a minute and a half and I was thinking to myself 'Dear God'. The first thing he said to me ... was: 'I like it'.'
For a man who had been opening hotels for his father since he was four, it was the highest praise.
Harilela Hotels director Aron Harilela, 34, oversees operations at six of the company's 10 hotels worldwide and is also responsible for acquisitions. The only son of Hari Harilela, the patriarch of Hong Kong's most prominent Indian business family, Mr Harilela was born in Hong Kong and speaks fluent Cantonese.
He earned a Bachelor's degree in Law and Politics and a PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Hull.
He is also non-executive chairman for Burson Marsteller in Hong Kong, and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce's real estate & infrastructure and retail & distribution committees.