Carrying forward a family-owned legacy in hospitality is like running your own family. One is required to instill the values and perceptions set by the earlier generations and break fresh ground with your own organisational skills, astute observations and personal relationships. All this is what sets Deval Tibrewalla apart in the business of hospitality in India. The success story of this fifth generation entrepreneur, CEO and Director, Hotel Polo Towers Group, is that of perseverance and determination.
Polo Towers Hotel Group started its iconic journey in 1991 with its founder and managing director Kishan Tibrewalla. The group conceptualised and developed nine hotels across northeast and West Bengal, and is currently expanding under the passionate leadership of Deval Tibrewalla, and owns and operates North East India’s largest hospitality chain. He recently broke fresh ground in Agartala with the launch of Hotel Polo Towers’ first five-star hotel and has already gained admirable growth and popularity in the state. A hotel that has been added to the portfolio of his properties is Kolkata’s iconic Floatel, which has now been rechristened to Polo Floatel.
Tracing the roots
Having completed his schooling in Assam and higher studies in Kolkata, Deval graduated as a valedictorian of his class from the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, known to be the best hospitality management school in the world. Being passionate about the hospitality industry, he sensed a great opportunity of growth in this segment and nurtured the brand to greater heights by delivering elevated experiences and dining concepts.
Deval believes that it was imperative to continue the legacy of a brand built by the family, and hence aspired to take it from the largest hotel in Shillong to the largest hospitality brand of the region. “I am very fortunate to have had a platform that goes back to the 1800s in North East India. I am also the fifth generation of my family who was born in Shillong. Hospitality wise, Hotel Polo Towers Shillong was the largest hotel when it opened and is also currently the largest hotel in Shillong. As such, I have been blessed to have a deep connection with both hospitality and the North East. It’s been a fun experience for my father and me, building on the first hotel and going forward and adding more hotels in various locations,” he affirms.
Possessing a combination of education from a prestigious institution and his determination to create a professionally run organisation, Deval mastered the values of communication and transparency within his dynamic team to achieve a refined work culture. His inspirational abilities, combined with his poised and imperturbable nature, make him an approachable leader. He proved his own mettle from the start and has never looked back since then.
Mr Tibrewalla with wife Srishti
The legacy continues
The proud son successfully took forward his father’s values and vision in the business. “A famous businessman once said, the culture of this family is that we are open to changing the culture of this family. This thought has been practiced by my father in its entirety. I have never been told that this cannot be done or ‘Apne yaahan, aisa nahi hota hai’. He would always say, ‘Try karke dekho’. This iterative way of progress, I hope I have been able to pass on to our team and the General Managers of each of our hotels,” he relates. The fifth generation entrepreneur also learnt important business lessons from his previous generations. “One of the key lessons was that you may be able to work 14-16 hours a day but no matter how industrious you may or may not be, you have to pay interest for 24 hours a day,” he maintains.
The brands under Deval’s ambit have received the Tripadavisor Travellers Choice Awards for hotels and cafes. The determined hotelier also has many feathers in his overcrowded cap. He takes keen interest in startup ecosystems and explores funding and mentoring young companies with the intent of sharing his learnings. In his free time, he loves to read and write. He is also passionate about cars and driving and has twice successfully completed the Raid de Himalaya, one of the world’s highest altitude car rallies that drove through treacherous terrain in the Himalayas. His love for automobiles inspired him to design the popular and unique ML05 CAFÉ in Shillong. He launched the exuberant Dylan’s Café in Shillong as homage to Bob Dylan, Shillong’s favourite musician. He has also launched Woodstock Café and Farmhouse, a millennial focused B&B as homage to the Woodstock festival of 1969.
The Tibrewalla family
We e-connected with Deval Tibrewalla about his experiences of taking forward a legacy built several generations back, his accomplishments and profound connection with Shillong. Presenting some excerpts from the interaction.
Q Hospitality and business run in the Marwari blood. Comment.
A Ha-ha, it is absolutely true. I would add great food to that – Food, Hospitality and Business. It is completely true and we are a unique combination of the three aspects. Being so close to Calcutta, the feelings are further amplified. We have been great travellers as a community; going for business to far off places and to temples back in desh for various things. I love the fact that what our family does for a living runs in our blood.
How did belonging to the Marwari community help you drive your business?
Oh, in every way just like in every other Marwari family I suppose. The whole ecosystem of the community pushes towards Chejo chalto rahni chahiye, the excitement about business.
Someone who took over from his father and scaled newer heights in business, yours is a story of perseverance and determination.
Socrates said that if you love what you do, you don’t need to do a day of work. I feel that this saying is what keeps me going. From when I was much younger, I have always wanted to work in our hotel business out of my love and passion for business. While it is difficult doing business and building things in areas which are remote, the rewards make up for the challenges.
What are your views on the hospitality business in India and the northeast region?
I feel that the North East is the most significant leisure tourism play in the country owing to its beautiful landscape. The great weather where summers are long and pleasant and winters are shorter and not as intense in most locations, offers a large travel season.
I feel that national and international brands do not give a guest the flavour of a region as unique as the North East. A homegrown brand is the best positioned to actually provide the viscerality of the experience that the North East is.
What fresh perspectives have you added to the business that helped you gain success?
I feel having worked at the grass roots level from interning at Cafe Coffee Day to working as a bell boy in different hotels to doing Hotel Management from EHL, Switzerland, the oldest and one of the most revered hospitality institutions in the world, has led me to be a juxtaposition of two completely different worlds. This has helped me in developing a keen and different perspective about the hospitality industry at an early age. It was my decision to open Polo Orchid Resort in Cherrapunjee by identifying the gap nearly 10 years ago when there was not a single place for accommodation to develop the destination (currently Cherrapunjee has close to 50 accommodation places). We have also diversified into other locations with hotels in four more states apart from Meghalaya.
What leadership qualities and business abilities set you apart?
One of the leadership and business qualities that I pride myself on is being self-aware and prioritising personal development along with a focus on developing others. If you strive to constantly learn and improve yourself along with people around you it has a cascading effect and sets you apart.
You have a number of brands under your ambit and acquisitions and awards are a part of your work. How do these achievements make you feel?
I feel being recognised is always a good thing, however having said that if I believed in what I was doing and making a positive impact I would continue to do the work even if there was no recognition attached to it. Hospitality changes lives. I have seen how it has improved the lives of a village or made a positive impact on the socio-economic progress of a region. It generates employment at the grassroots level and has a domino effect in improving lives and livelihood.
How did your organisational abilities combined with your understanding of business help you break fresh grounds?
I feel that some of the most important organisational abilities are time management and planning/ goal setting. Both of these have helped me break fresh ground in business and personal life. I would like to mention a couple of lines for both. Time management gives one the ability to do more since you are never overwhelmed by your workload because you know which tasks have priority. Goal setting is a big part of planning. If everyone in the organisation is attuned to a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goal, they have something to look forward to and work towards.
Being a great mentor, can you share your interest in startup ecosystems?
I have been passionate about start-up investing for a while now. Investing in startups is not just about investing money, it is so much more. You need to contribute your expertise / invest your time / and leverage your network to help the startups. Our country needs a robust startup system to take us forward and make us a self-reliant nation. I am a part of social forums such as Entrepreneurs Organisations, Kolkata and Indian Angel Network and make startup investments via them. It is incredible to see the ideas that have come up for investment makes you take a hard look at the pace of development which is happening. I am glad of however small a role I have been able to play in this field.
Tell us about your childhood and educational background.
I had a great childhood thanks to my folks and sister! Growing up in Shillong, I studied at the prestigious St. Edmunds School, where I was good at academics and passable at sport. Then I went to Bishop Cotton Boys in Bangalore and Assam Valley in Tezpur. Assam Valley was an absolutely out of the ordinary experience. We were perhaps the most active students then, riding horses, playing tennis, walking, running, swimming, sometimes all in the same day. Assam Valley was also a melting pot of the North East with every state represented and the sheer diversity from the region was a great learning in itself.
My favourite memory is one where our British Principal was quite cross with us and the whole thing grew into an unimaginably large drama! That time it was serious stuff, but looking back at it, it was a turning point in my life.
What were your family leanings like? Can you highlight your parents’ role in your upbringing?
My mum, like most other mums, is a hands-on mother! Being a gold medallist herself, she pushed us to excel, whether it was at academics or at Rabindra Sangeet. One of the key learnings from her has been to look up and not down, as in look at something or someone better than you and learn rather than gloating that you were at least better than so and so. It is a key tenet of life. My dad taught us and still teaches us to be happy and enjoy our achievements and be humble about it. This was way before Ikigai became popular. He has an instinctive understanding of the concept.
What values and traditions form an integral part of your family culture?
Humility, curiosity and hard work are the values. Out of which curiosity is the one that I like the most. Which hotel is doing what, what is happening in this country, all of it. I think the culture is one of openness. Like most families, our dining table was where a lot of open discussions happened, whether about work or life.
Who do you consider as your role model at every step?
Though I have never met them, I think Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are the guys I have learnt the most from. Interestingly, I feel that they are not as appreciated for their teachings on life as on investment. I believe that they are up there with Plato and Socrates in the ranking of the great thinkers who have walked the earth and their books should be required learning in most Philosophy classes.
Apart from his business sense what qualities have you imbibed from your father?
Like Buffett and Munger, the learnings from my father are more about being a good human being rather than only about business. I am nowhere close to having achieved my goal, however it is fun and enjoyable to try and become a better version of myself day by day.
You are passionate about automobiles. What are your other interests?
I think cars or automobiles are my first true love and the romance has continued. It started from junior school and is still going strong. I am also reading all the time! Charlie Munger said that his family basically thinks of him as a book with legs. While I aim to fit that description sometime soon, I try to read every spare moment. Though my reading habits are like my eating habits – try everything but do more of my favourites. There are books I have read so many times that I can perhaps recite entire chapters.
I cannot say that I have mastered time management, but flights, nights and weekends give you enough time to read books. Though I am old school in that way, my mornings are incomplete without physical newspapers. I am enjoying what I am doing and so it never feels like I need to take out time for these activities. They are as much a part of my life as eating or sleeping. From collecting magazines to being a part of car groups discussing everything about cars has been a great journey.
You are also a rallyist and have completed the Raid de Himalaya. Can you share other feathers in your already crowded cap?
As an amateur rallyist, I belong at the bottom of the motorsports pile, so no feathers. The longest rallies being the three times I have participated in the Raid de Himalaya, which is a monumental rally in a way. My favourite one was winning a trophy in a rally where my navigator was a visually impaired gentleman. You literally ‘see’ life differently.
Looking forward, what growth strategies and expansion plans do you have for the organisation?
While we are the largest hotel company in the North East, we aim to grow 10 times in the next five years, and with the aim of reaching 1000 rooms in the next two years. We are also signing management contracts with owners of iconic properties in the North East that we can take to a higher level by virtue of our brand.
Our growth will happen in all ways, buying hotels, building new ones, leasing hotels and taking resorts on management contracts. We are the brand of choice for anyone visiting Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. Soon we will be the brand of choice in all seven sister states.