Power of two women

In the face of a family crisis, Priya and Priti Paul held on to their inheritance and the company reins.

Chitra Subramanyam Chitra Subramanyam
नवंबर 07, 2007

Their days aren't 24 hours long, like most other people. Second-generation industrialists of the Rs 1,500-crore Apeejay Surrendra Group, Priya and Priti Paul make their days stretch to 36 hours, juggling meetings, negotiations, phone calls and travel plans.

Priya and Priti Paul Priya and Priti Paul
So, it isn't surprising when 41-year-old Priya Paul, in a crisp green silk sari, bustles into the meeting room showing no signs of jet lag. Nor are there any signs that she's returned from a trip to London the night before, after 30 back-to-back press interviews to promote the Park hotels.

The chairperson of the Rs 220-crore Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, Priya is businesslike, ready to answer a long list of questions yet itching to get back to those files waiting for her.

Clasping a large coffee travel mug in one hand, she sinks into a chair saying, "I need my coffee" even as her three-year-old son Suryaveer runs around holding his systematically-emptied, colouring pencil case. Her sister Priti, 39, and director of the Apeejay Surrendra Group, follows close behind. She is in India on her annual business trip from Marrakesh, Morocco, where she lives with her two sons and husband Jaouad Kadiri, owner of JK Hotels in Morocco.

 Priti Paul uncut

First art work S.H. Raza's Christ bought from her first salary.

How she met her husband Jaouad Kadiri On the last day of a friend's birthday party in Morocco. He took off into the desert with me and five weeks later proposed to me.

Now on her bookshelf Hari Kunzru, Banana Yoshimoto as well as design and architecture books.

Priya manages the six Park hotels in the country, and was, in 2006, recognised by Forbes online as one of India's 100 most powerful businesswomen. Priti is the brain behind the 16 new-look Oxford Bookstores and eight Cha Bars-she also manages the retail and real estate divisions of the company.

Settling into their chairs in the room where the wall is lined with artwork by artist Sunil Gawde, the sisters exude confidence born of nearly 17 years of hard work, negotiating a company their father left behind. In 1990, ULFA militants in Assam gunned down their father Surrendra Paul. Nine months earlier their 17-year-old younger brother Anand had died in a car crash. "It wasn't just one but two things that were happening," says Priya. "It was a frightening time. I think because it was so bad, we could only go beyond that."

At 23, with barely two years of experience working at the 220-room Park hotel in Delhi, Priya found herself taking charge of the reins for the then three-hotel chain. "I'd worked almost two years under my father and that stood me in good stead," she says. "More than that, she could manage this and excelled at it," Priti adds.

Priti was still in college studying architecture and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, as was their brother Karan, now 37, who was studying political science at Brown University. "She was about to graduate. My father would have been proud because it was the same college he went to," Priya says. But it was their mother Shirin who held the family together.

Priti says, "She was very strong at a difficult moment. My uncle Jit Paul was calm in that kind of crisis. So between the two of them, they steered us through those days." While Priya took over the hotels in Kolkata, Vishakapatnam and Delhi, Priti moved to Kolkata. She focused on the shipping division and a few months later, was in London, learning the ropes while pursuing her masters in architecture. It was a challenging time for the sisters. "Shipping was male-dominated and a dynamic hard-core business," Priti says.

After nine months, she was asked to take over the reins. "I went from being the most junior to being the boss. Strangely enough, the juniors found it difficult to accept me as a boss rather than the senior people in the organisation," she says.

Priya's challenges were different. The hotels in Kolkata and Vishakapatnam were the oldest with inherent trade union problems. She found she was dealing with a complex organisation, and had to learn to scale up her thought process and way of functioning. Now, the Park hotels sport an identity different from the one they had in 1990, a time when they were relegated to the fringes of the hospitality industry. The six-hotel chain is now synonymous with luxury. Priti later moved from shipping to the retail and real estate divisions.

One of her first projects was the Apeejay Anand Children's Library in Kolkata that won the Duke of Edinburgh Prize for Social Service. The Oxford Bookstore soon followed as did the Cha Bar, located within the Oxford Bookstores.

Designer Vivek Sahni, who has known the sisters for nearly 20 years, says much of their success is because they constantly work with a new, young team of designers and architects. Ideas are always welcome, Sahni says, and they always make it a point to constantly evolve.

But their life isn't just about the company. Priya shuttles between Delhi and Chennai, her husband, leather businessman Sethu Vaidyanathan's hometown, while Priti goes from Marrakesh, to London to Delhi, traversing continents with jet setter ease. And yet the sisters manage to spend some time together.

At home with Priya Paul

Unwinding Meditation, though I'm not as disciplined about it as I'd like to be. I prefer walking, without any thoughts, and enjoying nature.

On her bookshelf spy princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu. Also, Ian McEwan and recipe books. I prefer real stories.

Collector's edition Personally, I collect prints, from advertising, Raja Ravi Varma posters and calendars.

"There was a recent holiday with our brother Karan on his yacht. Then we have family holidays, art shows and exercise classes," says Priti. "And also walks in Lodhi Gardens," she adds, almost as an afterthought.

"When did you with go to Lodhi Gardens with me?" laughs Priya. "How do you spend time with me?" "That's what I said. Walks in Lodhi Gardens," Priti says. "You did?" a sceptical Priya counters. "Of course I did. I also did water aerobics with you in Bali," Priti retorts. The sisters laugh. Yes, they do manage to spend time together. "Even though the coincidence points are few, we see each other every second month," Priti says.

It's no surprise that the sisters are so close to each other. That's also true with their brother Karan, they say. "We are all similar," Priti says. "And within that similarity there are some differences."

She recounts a workshop the three attended five years ago at IMD Business School, Switzerland. It was a tailor-made workshop on creating their family strategy-at the end of it, the professor, Priti says, told her they were all alike. Priya says this was because of their mother, who took over as chairperson of the company after their father died, and inculcated these values.

Before that, Shirin Paul managed the classic restaurant Flury's and sometimes the Park in Kolkata. "In terms of work too," Priya says, "whether Priti takes a decision or I take a decision, it will be the right one." No wonder then that Priya is also Priti's biggest buyer when it comes to the sculpted steel installations she specialises in. Priti began creating steel art the summer after their father died. "I was sitting in his office in Kolkata and saw this steel pipe he'd converted to a pencil holder and thought if he can do this, then so can I," she says. Then, about four years ago, she sold a stainless steel dressing table she'd created for $10,000, a sculpture called Belladonna.

Art is an integral part of the sisters' lives. At their Aurangzeb Lane family home in Delhi, the walls are covered with paintings by artists like S.H. Raza, Sunil Das and Rameshwar Broota. Chettinad pillars are scattered in different corners of the living room. A Ravinder Reddy sculpture takes pride of place, the sculpture of a woman's face, in bold shades of gold. And then there are the prints Priya likes to collect, from Raja Ravi Varma posters, to calendars, and advertisements.

This love for art also permeates the Park hotels' ambience. So in Delhi, the lobby has installations by artists like Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta, while in Chennai, the bathrooms have baskets woven by women in Hampi, and Vishakapatnam has a crafts court for local artists to showcase their work. It's these little touches that are important for the sisters. "It brings a human touch to the hotels," Priya says. "It's not so sterile, not so commercial."

For Priti, till last June, it was her house in Morocco that took up most of her time-built in a traditional style with Hindu and Islamic influences. "Sort of a Maharaja meets harem style," Priti says with a laugh. Friend and writer Nikhil Khanna who visited Priti at her house said, "I was gobsmacked when I saw the house. I have never seen glamour at such a high level in my life."

It has been a long road for the siblings. But they don't show signs of stopping. With the company hitting a century in 2010, the sisters have ensured that they haven't merely added to its coffers but also stamped it with their distinct identities.


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