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The highest climb

Once Mumbai’s hottest hotelier and restaurateur, Sanjay Narang gave up the rat race for the magic of the mountains

brunch Updated: Nov 18, 2017 21:53 IST
Simran Mehra
Simran Mehra
Hindustan Times
Sanjay Narang,Mumbai,hotelier and restaurateur
Hotelier Sanjay Narang wants to set up a town built around an Ivy League style university, similar to college towns in the US(Saumya Khandelwal)

Hotelier and entrepreneur Sanjay Narang has an idea. He wants to dispose off all his assets in Mumbai, locate a beautiful mountainside somewhere near his Landour, Uttarakhand, home, and set up a town built around an Ivy League style university, similar to college towns in the US.

Actually, it’s more than an idea. Sanjay has thought about this hard. The non-profit university, he says, would have about 5,000 students, and the town, designed to be environmentally sound, would have about 20,000 residents.

“The tourist season would coincide with the university’s vacation period, and the 5,000 rooms in the university would be sold as hotel accommodation to tourists when the university is closed,” Sanjay continues. “The huge income generated from tourism would then be ploughed back into the university to fund free education to 1,000 students each year, thereby enabling qualified and capable boys and girls who would otherwise never be able to afford it, to avail of an Ivy League education.”

Class act

Landour, the pristine and pretty cantonment town contiguous with Mussoorie, nestled in the second of the five parallel folds of the Himalaya and within gazing distance of Tibet, is Sanjay’s favourite place to be. Despite recent controversies over the demolition of his mansion, nobody can deny that Narang has transformed Landour. It became the Bombay boy’s home when he started boarding school, aged six, at the international coeducational residential Woodstock School (founded in 1854 by an English mission), all the way to grade 10 in 1979, and years later, when the twists and turns of his life led him to an epiphany, it was the place he returned to.

“Woodstock taught me to be independent, to fight my own battles, and stand on my own feet from a very young age,” he says. “The diversity of its students drawn from Afghanistan, Iran, New Zealand, Guatemala, the USA, Canada, Europe and South East Asia, gave me a sense of empathy and acceptance of others’ perspectives and points of view. And it created an environment of equality and fairness for all, because there, we weren’t bothered about anyone’s financial status, and friendships were forged based on actions and nothing else.”

He was sent to Woodstock by his mother, Saroj Narang, because she did not want him to grow up as a spoilt rich kid – something that was a given since his father, hotelier and businessman Manu Narang, believed in living life
king size.

Sanjay’s childhood was spent in a 40,000sqft mansion in Mumbai’s Pali Hill. His father, a larger than life patriarch of a vivacious Punjabi clan, made that home “a perpetual party.” There were fleets of luxury limos and a famous glass-bottomed swimming pool that set the country’s glitterati agog.

So Sanjay’s mother stepped up as his grounding force. “She is the inspiration for my venture,” he says. “She wanted me to be independent and not rely on the family’s wealth.”

The plunge

After four years of studying hotel management at Cornell university in the US, Sanjay returned to India, where he plunged wholeheartedly into the family businesses. He worked 18-hour days, but that wasn’t enough.

“I loved my work so much that I recall telling our GM that sleeping was such a waste of time, and we’d get so much more done if we’d not waste time sleeping for so long!” Sanjay laughs.

He was so focused on work, that he did not notice that the family business was about to fall apart. His uncles and cousins conspired together to manipulate the shareholdings and gain majority. “Overnight, not only were we thrown out of the businesses, but we also had to leave the home in Pali Hill,” he says. “My sister Rachna and I had to get jobs to survive. We met Ajit Kerkar, then the head of the Taj group of hotels, in 1991, to apply for jobs.”

Life changed completely. “From owning a BMW, I was travelling to work by local train.After living in a 40,000sqft mansion, we moved into a single flat which could not accommodate all of us, so I rented a 330sqft apartment in Bandra,” says Sanjay. “The boarding school experience held me in good stead. So leaving our mansion did not affect me one bit.”

Within a few years, Sanjay managed to turn around the Taj’s Flight Kitchen arm, where he worked as manager. But once again, this time in 1996, there was a fall. Ajit Kerkar was ousted from the Taj after a high profile battle with Ratan Tata. “We were asked to put in our resignations,” says Sanjay. “Once again, we were without money, but we had lots of ideas, enriched by good, solid work experience with the Tatas.”

Rising high

Soon Sanjay’s famous MARS Enterprises emerged. “Our goal was to build a company based on providing our customers with innovative dining concepts and a value for money experience,” says Sanjay.“We created new brands/concepts based on gut instinct.”

“I loved my work so much that I recall telling our GM that sleeping was such a waste of time”

Funds were raised through private equity, and MARS became hugely successful, consisting of 37 restaurants, 52 cake shops, 5 hotels, 5 air catering units and the uber luxury Waterstones Club (where his close friend, Sachin Tendulkar, held his retirement party).

But a few years after he bounced back with MARS, Sanjay had an epiphany. It had started out as an ordinary day. Sleep deprived, ,juggling a dozen things at the same time, he was in the back seat of his BMW when he glanced up at his driver. “We were stuck in a traffic jam and I was on my mobile,screaming at someone,” he recalls. “I looked at my driver and thought: he is enjoying driving my dream car, and he is much happier than I am. I knew at that moment I had to get out of this rat race.”

As he pondered on the revelation, Sanjay received a call from an old friend asking him if he wanted to visit Woodstock as he wanted to take his kids to see his school. “I agreed, and I just loved being back! I now knew I wanted to live in the mountains, but I had this huge company to run,” says Sanjay. “As luck would have it, we were approached by a US company to acquire our restaurant, hotel, cake shops and airline catering businesses. I went on a trek into the upper Himalayas with the head of our private equity partners, and convinced him that we should sell out and move on to better and more meaningful things in life. We got back from the trek and sold the business!”

On the peak

Along with his sister, Sanjay moved to Landour in 2005. His first project was to completely refurbish the local hospital where, as a school boy, hehad spent many a night.

Landour was home to Sanjay during his boarding school days at Woodstock, and then years later, when the twists and turns of his life led him to an epiphany, it was the place he returned to (Saumya Khandelwal)

“Locals thought I was going to make it so upmarket that they would notbe able to afford treatment there, after which I’d convert it to a hotel,” he says. “But my conditionwas that it would not increase its charges after the upgradation, as I had invested over Rs 5 crore so that it would provide excellent treatment to the neediest in the communities of the region. The hospital is flourishing today.”

Next, he restored the St Pauls Church. It took the church committee over a year to accept hisoffer because of the fear that his intentions may not havebeengenuine.“Once again,my condition to doing this complete restoration was that the church be kept open daily to the public. Today it is the most prominent landmark in Landour,” he says with pride.

Living in a cosyrented cottage, Sanjay continued to work for the community. “To develop the potential of Landour, I set up small business enterprises within the community, which provide training and skilled employment to over 300of Landour’s 500 residents,” he says. Today, Landour has a small hotel called Rokeby Manor (17 rooms), the Little Salon & Spa Shed, a quaint café called the Landour Bakehouse, and an ale house and Swiss styled eatery called the Stray Dog amongst other things. Run to world class standards, these facilities set amidst the natural beauty of the Himalayas, afford Landour a fairy tale charm.

The Narangs have their own house in this storybook town. The mansion is replete with old wooden benches engraved with quotations from literary masterpieces, massive fireplaces, a state of the art theatre, and even a tower for star gazing. It is here that Landour’s residents enjoy sparkling sit down dinners, and close friends from Mumbai like cricketing legend Tendulkar come often to stay. It is also from here that Sanjay oversees the workings of his vast F&B empire.

Perhaps it’ll be from here that he oversees his college town too.

From HT Brunch, November 19, 2017

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