In November 2016, images of US President-elect Donald
Trump’s meeting with three Indian businessmen at New York’s Trump Tower surfaced on social media. Property czars Atul and Sagar Chordia and Kalpesh Mehta had managed an audience with the incoming POTUS before any other world leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being the exception. The meeting created a stir, with leading media outlets across the world contemplating how they had executed this coup.
For the dynamic and well-connected Atul and Sagar Chordia, the much-hyped meeting just happened to be another day at the office. Eminent names in the Indian circuit, the duo run the real-estate development firm Panchshil Realty. Its big-ticket project is the first Trump-branded property in India in Pune, besides other landmarks in the same city such as JW Marriott Hotel, Double Tree Hilton, Oakwood, Marriott Suites, Radisson Blu Hotel, Courtyard by Marriott, a World Trade Center and the upcoming Ritz-Carlton. They have collaborated with marquee names such as French designer Philippe Starck to construct a luxury condo—yoopune—and Britain’s influential style guru Kelly Hoppen for the luxury yoovillas. A super-luxury hotel in the Maldives is their first overseas venture.
Diversified business interests earned them a spot in Fortune Magazine’s list of India’s 100 richest people. Yet, Atul and Sagar Chordia remain elusive; often opting to stay away from the media glare. We catch up with the duo at the Panchshil headquarters in Pune, where the real-estate moguls open up about their journey so far, their private lives and their much talked-about association with the Trump Organization.
At the start
The Chordias’ ancestors originally hail from Jojawar, near Pali in Rajasthan. Pune, however, has been home to the family for four generations. Their father Ishwardas Chordia, a graduate in commerce, has decades of experience in business verticals such as sugar, hospitality, automobile, finance and real estate. He hails from a family of sugar traders from Nana Peth in Pune.
The Chordia family’s entry into the real-estate market took place in the 1990s. Atul Chordia had just graduated in commerce from the University of Pune. He worked as a real-estate consultant for a while before moving on to the construction business. The founder-chairman of Panchshil Realty says, “In 2002, there was an IT boom in India. I foresaw the immense potential that Pune exhibited. With the backing of investors who had developed immense faith in me, I put in a bid for the upcoming International Convention Centre (ICC) project. The rest is history.” Panchshil Realty was set up in 2002.
His brother joined him a year later. Sagar Chordia is a graduate in commerce and has a degree in hotel management from the Pune Catering College. His career commenced when he was in college with the nightclub Pyramids, which was one of Pune’s most happening nightspots. One thing led to another and by 1989 he went on to become one of India’s biggest importers of Chinese tiles. The brand won several awards from Bloomberg China for promoting global trade between two of the world’s biggest economies. But the pull of real estate was hard to ignore. Today, he is an important cog in the Panchshil success story.
He says, “Real estate has always been the family business, but so has hotels and restaurants. This fact is little known. We have always been attached to the hospitality sector, and this was a major factor for me to pursue hotel management. I used my formal education in hospitality as a bridge to ensure that Panchshil today provides high-quality customer service to clients, and that our properties include benefits and services that were traditionally associated within the purview of the hospitality industry.”
Building a brand
The ethos behind the conceptualisation of Panchshil was to create a USP for every project developed under the banner and ensure it was globally benchmarked in every aspect. This journey began in 2003-04 with the planning and development of the ICC, which is a commercial mixed-use development spread across 2.2 million sq ft. The project would go on to change the manner in which trade and business was conducted in Pune. Around the same time, construction of Tech Park One for IBM commenced.
Panchshil Realty became the first real-estate brand in India to acquire Foreign Direct Investment from global financial services giant Merrill Lynch between 2004 and 2009. This time was also spent in furthering the brand’s name with first-of-its-kind projects—launching Pune’s first branded serviced residences in collaboration with Oakwood; establishing India’s first EON Free Zone; and launching yoopune by Philippe Starck, India’s first internationally branded residences.
The firm prospered. Associations grew. Slowly, over time, more projects were announced, touching close to 40 iconic developments in the past 15 years, including Panchshil Towers, its first signature, premium residential high-rise project. These larger-than-life initiatives were followed by the acquisition of Mumbai’s iconic Express Towers in Nariman Point with US-based private equity company Blackstone in 2014. Panchshil also signed an MOU with the Government of Maharashtra in 2015 to develop four IT projects jointly with Blackstone across Mumbai and Pune, a move that would eventually create 50,000 jobs in the two cities. Their business model of ‘Build-Lease-Sell-Manage’ ensured stability, thereby fetching the group the highest ‘AAA’ credit rating, which is another first in the real-estate industry.
Behind the scenes
Atul Chordia is a man of few words, but many firsts. He prefers to let his work do the talking, but has a high level of commitment to accomplish his goals, often going against the grain in the process. To this end, he has invested his time, energy and money in bringing technological expertise in construction, changing techniques from conventional to ‘future-ready’. The founder-chairman of the Panchshil Group is often credited for redefining the term luxury and for collaborating with the best in the world, be it for the construction of properties, use of global technology or introduction of international brands to Indian real estate. This has become the key differentiator for the company, something that helps it stand out from the competition. Today, what started with a team of five has grown into a 1000-plus organisation.
The city of Pune has played an integral role in the Panchshil vision. Atul Chordia always believed in the philosophy of ‘promoting the city’ rather than just a project or business. True to this belief, he invested in developing Pune’s urban and civic infrastructure, thereby taking the city to a global league. He says, “We invested time and money to develop Pune’s infrastructure, thereby also tremendously aiding Panchshil’s property valuations to soar to newer heights.” Today, Panchshil is an integral part of a Punekar’s life, be it at work (with their iconic office spaces) or at play (with their various hospitality ventures).
On the other hand, the flamboyant Sagar Chordia has been instrumental in strategically driving the group’s innovations and inventions. As the director of the firm, he is single-handedly responsible for Panchshil Group’s alliances with celebrated designers and architects from across the globe. It was his foresight that introduced the likes of Philippe Starck of yoo Design Studio and Bill Bensley of Bensley Design Studios to India. He was also influential in getting celebrity interior designers Twinkle Khanna and Sussanne Khan on board for many prestigious projects.
He says, “Indians today are well-travelled and aspire for global standards in terms of living and working spaces. There is a huge gap in luxury residential services; the demand exceeds the supply by a large margin. Good quality construction has always been the primary need of the discerning customer, but today the premium is laid on the luxury and amenities provided.”
The Trump connection
The crown jewel of the group’s uber-luxe residential projects is the Trump Towers Pune. India had been on the radar for a while for Donald Trump, long before he was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The Trump Organization has five active luxury residential and office projects in the country in association with local partners in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. The gross development value of the projects is estimated to be $1.5 billion.
Donald Trump Jr, who runs the Trump Organization with his brother Eric Trump since his father assumed office, reportedly played a pivotal role in ensuring that the deal with Panchshil Realty went through. An announcement of the collaboration was made in 2012, and by 2016 the Trump Towers had a new zip code—the tony neighbourhood of Kalyani Nagar in Pune. This was the first Trump project in India, comprising 46 super-luxury apartments, each occupying an entire floor and spread over 6,100 sq ft. Trump Sr was so impressed with the overall quality of construction and the workmanship that he commented, “Panchshil construction quality is of the highest order I have come across. This level of workmanship would be hard to find even in Manhattan!”
The partnership is a matter of pride for the Chordias. Enter their office, and small mementos from the collaboration can be spotted—a photo on the bookshelf in Sagar Chordia’s office reflects the warm camaraderie between the brothers and the US President, handwritten notes from Ivanka Trump (Trump’s daughter) and Donald Trump Jr are filed for posterity, and printouts of email exchanges invoke smiles. Donald Trump is described as a “devoted father”, “meticulous”, and a “warm human being” in conversations. It is a relationship the Chordias value, even as they refrain from commenting on the US President’s policies since he assumed office.
Giving back to society
While the group has created sustained demand for multi-crore homes and commercial spaces in an emerging metropolitan hub like Pune, the firm’s philosophy is to foster a strong sense of community, belonging and ownership. This is done through the efforts of The Panchshil Foundation. One of the group’s core initiatives includes facilitation of education for all. Even within the organisation, Panchshil partially sponsors the tuition fees of all its employees’ children from class I to XII.
The group also strives to create sustainable social projects and better lives through endeavours such as EON Gyanankur School, the first English medium pre-primary school in Kharadi; supporting an all-girls school in Chinchwad; providing cancer care with Prashanti Cancer Care Mission; organising annual blood donation drives with Akshay Blood Bank; sponsoring Indian Olympian shuttler V Diju in association with Lakshya, an NGO for the promotion of sports; and aiding slum rehabilitation in Hadapsar and Ghorpadi.
Being Marwaris, the Chordias believe in nurturing relationships, be it with family, clients, partners or investors. This has contributed immensely to the company’s success story. “Moreover, I never measure my success by the company turnover or personal wealth. I measure my success by how much is yet to be achieved. I attribute this way of thinking to my being a part of the great Marwari community,” says Sagar Chordia.
When he isn’t working, the younger of the two Chordia brothers can be found riding a Hayabusa (which he takes for Sunday rides even today), biking (he holds an under 10-second drag racing record) and playing badminton. He is also passionate about drawing, art and trekking and has a degree from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
Sagar Chordia is married to Shribala Chordia, who is the daughter of Dr Abhay Firodia, Chairman of Force Motors. They have two children—Vir and Eesha, who study at Symbiosis School. He believes that personal equations are essential at the workplace. He says, “Working with my brother Atul and observing his unparalleled zeal, high ambition, planned approach and relentless determination to make every endeavour a success has motivated me a lot. And when the going gets tough, the support of my better half and two beautiful children inspires me to go on and never give up in life.”
His brother Atul Chordia, on the other hand, is a keen follower of sports, having been a national-level Motocross racer. He says, “I am actively connected with sporting events and initiatives round the year. I have a deep-rooted cultural and personal bond with Pune. This motivates me to participate in countless community initiatives, including the sponsorship of events such as the Pune Shaniwarwada Dance and Music Festival, Pune Biennale and Pune International Film Festival, among others.” Atul Chordia’s wife Varsha Chordia is also actively associated with various social groups in the city. She is an avid reader, loves music and plays golf for leisure. The couple has two children—elder daughter Resham is currently pursuing an MBA from Yale University while Saniya is studying architecture at the prestigious Parsons School of Design,
In the ’90s, luxury real estate was still in its infancy. Naturally, the group met some challenges in their initial projects, but they went on to become game-changers. Over the years, the firm also stayed abreast with technological advancements in the areas of construction, design and execution. “We came to be recognised as one of India’s leading luxury players in the process. Our belief in the brand and the values it carried became stronger. Today, we have successfully delivered projects over 17 million sq ft and are developing another 16 million. The result of trusting our instincts back then is here for everyone to see now with the best-in-industry portfolio that we have created,” says Atul Chordia. His vision for Pune 2030 includes more such game-changers.
The Chordias are of the opinion that with this year’s Union Budget, the Indian realty sector has got the attention it deserves. With the implementation of Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA), Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and Goods and Services Tax (GST), the sector is expected to see a new era of transparency and excellence. The brothers had consciously worked towards being a highly organised player in a highly disorganised sector. That thought process is now paying off in the wake of RERA, as they feel they are more ‘future-ready’ than the rest of the key players across India.
Atul Chordia elucidates, “We want to deliver projects of the highest quality—stunning properties that become landmarks in themselves. In addition to beautiful buildings that use the finest fittings and materials, we aim to provide amenities and services that embody the spirit of high-living and offer our residents a strong sense of community. We want to add value for residents, corporates and investors alike by developing globally benchmarked properties that offer the best in construction to a brand-loyal customer base drawn from across the world.”