by Ram Jawhrani
There are some people who live in dreams. And then, there are those who live their dreams. From humble beginnings of a chaat shop, to the peak of hospitality and catering industry in Gujarat – indeed it is a dream chase for Narendra Somani, owner of Bhagwati Banquets & Hotels – the leading and most trusted Hospitality and Catering Company in Gujarat.
Somani started his career at the age of 23 with a chat eatery and one lakh rupees, two decades on, the company is now about to touch a valuation of Rs. 350 crore, a clear 3500 fold growth. Narendra proved that he could take up non-conventional ideas and make them work, when he opened the first banquet hotel of Gujarat. Most people advised him against it but he did it and did it successfully. The company listed on the bourses and now owns three three-star hotels as well it is on the verge to start two five-star hotels.
TGB led by Narendra is a business model that is divided into to three parts : Outdoor catering, managing hospitality properties and self owned banquet hotels. By following a success mantra 'Going against the trend and setting new norms to succeed', Narendra has taken TGB to immense prosperity. Across the world most of the hospitality companies usually draw major part of their revenues from hotel rooms. TGB has reversed this norm completely as Senior Somani believes firmly that competitors might try to beat in rooms only whereas with enhanced understanding of the customer appetite and good hold on catering will keep them ahead in the race. TGB has set eyes on cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur to tap the untapped market for restaurants, banquet halls and outdoor catering. It also plans to establish six five star hotels in the country, the first of which will come up in Surat and will house one of the largest Convention Centers.
Narendra, on the social side of the personality, is an emotional person who is concerned about upliftment of rural and needy people.
Excerpts from Interview with Narendra Somani conducted by Ram Jawhrani
On his early years :
I was born in Ahmedabad, India on 15th February 1966, as my forefathers settled in Ahmedabad after leaving Sindh. My father ran a very small business. He started with a small Tea Stall and gradually established 2 more and also started catering at marriage functions supplying tea and coffee.
When I was about 17 or 18 years old I joined my father's business. As my father had given me good education in an English medium school, I was quite ambitious to do something on my own. I didn't want to spend my whole life at a Tea Stall, but since we had no knowledge of any other business, I thought of entering the catering business, as my father was also interested in the same. I had also been to Delhi and seen that people there relished 'Chaats', while here in Ahmedabad mostly 'Khaman' and 'Ghathiya' were available as snacks. I thought of starting the business of 'Chaats.' I didn't have the initial capital so we sold off one of the Tea Stalls for ` 1,00,000/- and I asked for assistance from my friends and relatives and was able to collect about 3.5 to 4 lakhs of rupees. I purchased a shop and started the Chaat business in October 1989 by the name of 'Bhagwati Chaat.' From the very first day we got a good response because what we were offering had been introduced for the first time in Gujarat.
On the significance of the name 'Bhagwati' :
Bhagwati is the name of my sister. Our Tea Stall was also known as Bhagwati and we started the Chaat business also in the same name. So when we established our hotel in 2002, we named it The Grand Bhagwati Hotel.
On his success story in business :
In 1992 I started the catering business and started supplying 'chaats' at marriage functions. At that time there used to be the same old 3 or 4 items served at marriage functions and I thought of doing something different. One of my friends was getting married in 1992 and I suggested that I would like to introduce these new items at his marriage function. He agreed. Thereafter I got a very good response and we started supplying chaats at every marriage function.
Then in 1994 I planned for a total catering business. In 1995 I started a centralized kitchen. This concept of centralized kitchen was introduced for the first time in India. Other than hotels and flight kitchens, the usual caterers did not have a place to cook the food. They would invariably go to the place where the food had to be served and would cook over there. There would be lots of problems of space as well as cleanliness and hygiene. Moreover if the functions were at different places at the same time we had to send different people and hence the quality was not consistent. Seeing this, I thought of having our own place where the food could be cooked in a hygienic way under one main chef with the others assisting him. With this intent we started the centralized kitchen at a bigger place, which we got at attractive rate, 25 kilometers away from Ahmedabad. Many felt that I was foolish to introduce this concept and discouraged me from making this move. But I was adamant and thought that if this plan doesn't work out then I shall convert that place into a godown. Slowly but surely we saw the benefits and we as well as our workers started enjoying working in this clean and hygienic environment. Our quality was also maintained.
His entry into Hotel Business :
After tasting success in the catering business, we slowly started taking contracts of managing the clubs in Ahmedabad like Karnavati Club, Rajpath Club, Gujarat Cricket Association etc. I also observed that during marriage functions people had to look for caterers, mandap decorators, lights etc. It was a tedious and time consuming effort. I thought of having a single point stop where a person could come and book everything at one go. He would just have to do the booking and everything required for the function would be taken care of by us. I first thought of establishing a banquet hall. Then I wondered about the period when there would be no marriages. With this in mind we started the hotel where there would be restaurant as well as rooms. But our main focus would be on banquets. Even today 75% of our revenue comes from banquets while 25% comes from room reservations whereas the other hotels have an entirely reverse structure. I had planned this in 2000 but could start this only in 2002, as during those two years we faced a lot of problems. There were natural calamities like the earthquake and floods and then the Godhra riots also took place during that period. After that a few of the co-operative banks like the Madhavpura Bank went bankrupt. So at that time the banks became very strict while granting loans. We faced a financial crunch at that time. The banks were not ready to understand our project and refused to sanction loans. Having a marriage function on the third or the fourth floor was unheard of. Here in Ahmedabad the marriages are usually held in open gardens or grounds. So this concept of ours of having a banquet hall as well a hotel did not assure the financers.
On the Sindhi Community in Ahmedabad :
In Gujarat there are totally about 5 lakh Sindhis and 2 lakh Sindhis in Ahmedabad. Majority of them are quite well settled and happy over here.
There are many Sindhi organizations over here carrying out some sort of cultural activities. I have started an organization 'Sindhi World Youth' 3 years back. From the beginning the aim of this organization has been to educate the Sindhi children who can't afford to pay fees in schools or educational institutions. Today we have taken the responsibility of 700 children, whom we provide not only school fees but also books, uniforms etc. In the first year we started with 250 children which increased to 500 the following year and every year we increase assistance to about 200 – 250 children.
Besides this I am associated with other Sindhi organizations over here. I am the President of All India Sindhi Chamber of Commerce which consists of 1600 Sindhi businessmen from all over India. Maximum members are from Ahmedabad. We meet every month for regular meetings to solve any problem faced by Sindhi businessmen as well as the Sindhi community. A regular news bulletin is also published.
The other is a very old Sindhu Foundation which was established about 15 years ago. After the demise of one Mr. Belani this foundation became quite inactive. But from last 2 years it has been activated and we conduct Sindhi cultural programmes like Cheti Chand, Guru Nanak Jayanti etc.
Then there is Sindhi Seva Samaj which is quite a well known institution in Ahmedabad. Under the aegis of this institution we built a Sindhu Bhavan which I feel is one of its kind in India. Many activities are carried out at Sindhu Bhavan like organizing medical camps, awarding scholarships to students, giving them educational assistance etc. The place is also given on rent for conducting programmes at very nominal rates of ` 5,000/- only. We have also taken over Maitri hospital where our aim is to offer medical treatment to Sindhis at very nominal rates. We are also planning to build an elders home and are looking out for a suitable place.
The Sindhi community here has given me immense love. Since my childhood days I was into social activities. I always feel that we should do something for the society and the community which has given us so much. I am always ready to help the community in whatever way I can. Whatever problems are faced by the community we must all come together and solve.
On Sindhi youth and their participation in cultural programmes :
Initially the youngsters were not proud to call themselves Sidnhi, but now quite an awakening has come and the youngsters don't shy of calling themselves Sindhis. Wherever the 'Garbas' are held the first prize usually goes to Sindhis. They are quite active and are slowly progressing.
We organize the programmes in such a way that there is something for everyone it. Some programmes are for the seniors while others like the dance parties are organized for the youngsters. We try to do it in such a way that the whole family gets entertained. It is better if the children come with the family so the parents are assured that their children are not going astray. During Holi we organize the rain dance where thousands of families come and participate along with their children. We also organize a get-together during Diwali. In short the whole year round we try to organize some programme or the other to encourage the youngsters to participate.
On the role of his wife :
Since the very first day my wife has been very co-operative. Every time I tell her “just these 2 years more and all will be fine.” She never grumbles but has always been co-operative. Now it has been 20 years since our marriage. She is my good luck charm. I feel it is because of her good luck that I have been so successful.
On examples of such luck and good fortune :
I would like to narrate one incident here. After I started my Chaat shop in 1989, one Marwari came to my shop in 1990. He started shouting at me, “howcome in such a small place you have started this chaat shop. Half the people are standing outside, there is no proper place to stand. Why don't you purchase the adjacent shop as it is lying vacant.” And he was shouting very loudly. I told him that we have just started this business and we don't have enough finance now to purchase another shop. He asked me what would be the cost of the shop? I told him that it must be around ` 5 lakhs. The next morning at about 10:30 in the morning one man came to my shop and told me the person who ate chaat yesterday night at your shop has sent these ` 5 lakhs for you to purchase the other shop. I was completely surprised and refused to take the money saying that I didn't know that person at all. The man was not ready to buy any argument of mine. He said that his boss had told him to deliver this cash and without delivering he won't leave. He also added, “My boss has said that he doesn't wants any paper work and whenever you earn enough you can return the money. If possible pay 1% simple interest.” That man was at my shop for 5 hours and was adamant that he would not leave till I accepted the cash. At last I had to accept the cash and with that I bought another shop and expanded my business. This person is quite a well known person here and is the chairman of Rajasthan hospital and is also associated with various other organizations. Till date I have very warm and cordial relations with him. He treats me like his son.
Then I would like to mention about how I got the 3rd shop. Just besides our chaat shop was a provision store which a businessman from Bombay had established for his brother in law. But that brother in law had incurred huge losses and so he wanted to sell the shop along with all the goods inside it. There were many who were ready to purchase from him. But he refused to sell it to them and instead he gave me the offer to buy it from him. I said that it wasn't possible for me at that stage as I had recently purchased this second shop and had to return a loan of ` 5 lakhs. But he insisted that he wouldn't sell the shop to anyone else except me. He said, “Every month you can send me ` 20,000/-.” I told him that this was a provision store and I had no knowledge or experience to run a provision store. He replied, “You can close down the business of provision store and start another business here but you must take this shop.” This way I was able to acquire my third shop.