A lot of bottle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2008, 12:00am

Girish Jhunjhnuwala's pride and joy is his new wine cellar. With elegant grey slate walls, it houses more than 1,000 bottles of fine wine, champagne and port that he has been collecting for 20 years. His impressive collection ranges from vintage Dom Perignon and Grand Cru Classes from all of France's premier regions, to an eclectic assortment of New World icons including an entire shelf of revered Grange Hermitage from the Barossa in South Australia.

The cellar is part of his 'den', a private hideaway reserved for relaxing and entertaining friends on the ground floor of his expansive residence in Pok Fu Lam.

Complete with LED mood lighting that changes from red and orange to green, blue or yellow, a bar, wide-screen TV and hi-fi system, it is accessible only by a coded electronic entry locking system - a wise precaution given the value of the wine inside.

'This is my own space,' he says, with an understandable air of contentment. 'Even my wife doesn't know the code to the door.' Neither do their three teenage children.

Six years after founding the staggeringly successful, cutting-edge boutique serviced apartment brand home2home (www.home2home.hk), the 44-year-old entrepreneur doubtless feels that he has earned his own unashamedly self-indulgent space.

After all, the business prospers on his knack of transforming space. Essentially, he acquires buildings and remodels them to earn more money than they did before within the same square footage.

Sounds easy, but it is fair to say that 'Mr Girish', as he is commonly known, can sleep a lot easier at night than when he founded what he likes to call the 'lifestyles management company'.

For one thing, he knew nothing at all about the business.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, he joined his family's watch company in 1984 after graduating from the University of Southern California with a BSc in business administration. But in 2002 he closed the company, 50 years after his Indian parents founded it.

'The sun was setting on the watch industry,' he says. 'My father established one of the oldest watch businesses in Hong Kong, but I couldn't see a future in it. So I turned off the tap.' It was 'one of the hardest decisions I ever made'.

He invested the proceeds in a HK$50million building in quiet tree-lined Arbuthnot Road, just a stroll from Central, with a view to developing a boutique hotel.

Property prices were still relatively low following the 1997 economic meltdown and 'no-one was buying'.

'I was always interested in the hospitality business, and the available building was on the same street where I grew up, so I thought it was the right thing to do,' he explains.

This original concept explains the unaccountable name of his company, Hind Hotels, which never got around to opening a hotel. Before the idea got off the ground, a 'gut feeling' convinced him there was a niche for serviced apartments instead.

Laying the foundation for home2home, his flagship apartment complex Ovolo was inspired by state-of-the-art boutique hotels in London and New York, designed for 'high-flying expatriates'.

The fully self-contained 1,200 sqft luxury apartments, each occupying an entire floor, feature such cutting-edge technology as 42-inch plasma TVs, a state-of-the-art surround-sound home theatre in the living and sleeping zones, smart lighting control panels, i-Pod docks, Wi-fi internet and 'possibly the most comfortable beds in Hong Kong'.

A host of concierge services include order-in food and wine, free grocery delivery, with organic fruit and vegetables increasingly in demand, discounts at neighbouring restaurants and complimentary gym membership at nearby California Fitness.

Initially, the Hong Kong market was slow to respond to his novel concept. With apartments priced from HK$48,000 to HK$57,000 a month, initial occupancy was worryingly low.

'I wondered if Hong Kong was ready for such a concept as the business took time to take off,' he says. 'I had moved from manufacturing into a business I didn't know, and at first I thought I may have made the biggest mistake of my life.'

But ironically, with the outbreak of Sars in 2003, executives new to Hong Kong, or visiting for a few months, became wary of such public places as hotels, and preferred the more private sanctuary of serviced apartments. Ovolo was soon experiencing 90 per cent-plus occupancy and home2home has not looked back.

He opened Erba on Queen's Road Central in 2005, targeting younger expatriate professionals moving to Hong Kong on more moderate budgets, with apartments from HK$30,000 to HK$45,000 a month. The following year he opened Abeo, 52 apartments in Shek Pai Wan Road, Aberdeen, designed for guests from all walks of life, priced from HK$14,000 to HK$25,000 a month. They were the first serviced apartments in Hong Kong offering weekly or even daily stays, from HK$1,100 to HK$1,800 a night. The portfolio has also extended to 35 standalone apartments known as Solo Habitats.

Throughout, the concept revolves around investing in intelligent design and maximising space and natural light, with storage a key consideration. Home2home apartments are not the cheapest in town, but they are among the largest. Most critically, they all continue to run at about 95 per cent occupancy. They are also environmentally considerate, wherever possible using eco-friendly and sustainable materials such as bamboo flooring, and costly but low consumption LED and fluorescent lighting.

Design of every property is by renowned architectural firm KplusK, headed by brothers Johnny and Paul Kember. 'I'm a great believer in long-term relationships,' he says. 'I basically agree to every new idea they come up with to minimise the effects on the environment.'

His confidence in them has since earned Best Design accolades for Ovolo and Erba in the Hong Kong Designers Association awards.

Mr Jhunjhnuwala now believes the switch from watch manufacturing to lifestyles management is 'the smartest move I ever made'.

As an enterprise priding itself on innovative ideas and 'reacting quickly to market trends', home2home is now entering a second phase of expansion, extending the concept of serviced apartments to serviced offices. 'I realised we had become very good at transforming space,' he says. 'It has worked with apartments, so why not offices? A lot of new competitors have also entered the serviced apartment business, so I feel it is time to look at something else.'

Branded with the name Izi, 'because the idea is to make working easy', the new breed of serviced workspace taps into the need for 24/7 support, all-inclusive charges, flexible spacing arrangements and flexible lease arrangements.

Izi Central opened last month at 151Hollywood Road. With a loft-style design, the 42 units feature state-of-the-art information technology with flexibility to accommodate one-man businesses and companies with up to 14 staff. Each workspace has its own toilet, shower and pantry.

Izi Aberdeen follows later this year, amid firm economic investment in the up-and-coming district, he predicts, will boom when it is linked to the MTR.

'It's a new concept and I hope it generates a lot of interest,' he says.

Looking further ahead, Mr Jhunjhnuwala is now examining opportunities in the mainland. He is also looking to export the successful formula elsewhere, with Singapore, Dubai and Ho Chi Minh City on the radar.

For such expansion, home2home will clearly require the back-up of partners.

'In China, especially, we will be looking for a partner,' he says. 'We have some good concepts in mind that could work, especially for mixed-use space.

'But I don't want to build a giant brand. All of our concepts are individually unique with their own character, which is why we name them differently, just as our children have different names.

'Big chains and brands are so passe. My doors are never closed to interest but, being privately owned, I can be my own boss and do what I want. I call my own shots and love what I'm doing. I don't have to report to anyone. I'm not answerable to fund managers.'

As with his new den and wine cellar, his home2home business is also his own space, and he wants to keep it that way.