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Health & Beauty | Kelis Wong 19 Feb 2016

In less than 15 minutes, Girish Jhunjhnuwala made three decisions that will change the first impression of the next guest to walk into his hotel. Clean the facade. Change the lift music. Change the color of the reception carpet.

The Hong Kong-born Indian entrepreneur had no experience in the hospitality industry when he started his first 42-room hotel in Central 14 years ago. But it turned out a natural fit, thanks to a combination of straight talking and killer business instincts.

He now has five boutique hotels and one serviced apartment in Hong Kong under the Ovolo Hotels Group - a total of 460 rooms.

The firm also has three hotels and one serviced apartment in Sydney and Melbourne. Two properties in Darling Harbour and Woolloomooloo opened four months ago, doubling the number of rooms in Australia.

"We do not manage properties. We own and operate every single property," said the 52-year-old. "Our brand has been very well accepted in Australia. Right now, we have about 400 rooms. We feel we can easily build this into 2,000 in a very short time."

Family roots may be traced back to Burma almost a century ago. Relocating to Hong Kong from India in 1951, his father used to operate a textile company in Wong Chuk Hang. The family business later branched out to producing watches for big labels.

Jhunjhnuwala was helping his father run the watch company in the 1990s. But watchmaking was a sunset industry, prompting him to sell all the family factories in 2002. "I was glad we got out at the right time."

In the same year, a for-sale sign was put up at 3 Arbuthnot Road in Central, a move that later opened a new path for Jhunjhnuwala.

He and his wife Sarika initially thought about opening a restaurant, especially after coming across a ground- level retail space that was up for sale. "So I called the agent," Jhunjhnuwala recalled. "He said the whole building was for sale."

Using the proceeds from the sale of the watch business, he bought the entire building, refurbishing it and turning it into a serviced apartment and, later, a boutique hotel.

The building has a special meaning for Jhunjhnuwala. It is not only his first hotel project, but also sits right next to his childhood home. His office is at 3 Arbuthnot Road, just opposite the boutique hotel.

"I was born and brought up on this street. I have lived here for the first 18 years of my life," he said. "So I know this area very well. It's close to Central but it's quiet. It's got charm."

Today, the Ovolo Hotels Group remains a privately run family business. Jhunjhnuwala is its founder and chief executive. It operates under the Hind Group, which has businesses in Singapore and India. His family also own the holding company.

The switch from manufacturing to hospitality was hard to begin with because Jhunjhnuwala had a different concept as to how a hotel chain should be run. He wanted each of his hotels to have its own character, not simply cookie-cutter dwellings.

He wanted to bring in local culture. That's why he chose not to put up a new building. Instead, he preserved the old one and invited local artists to redecorate its interior.

"Big chain hotels are boring," Jhunjhnuwala said. "We don't believe in a modular approach. We want to bring local arts into each property so each hotel is different from the others."

But the game changer that he has introduced is "an effortless living experience." For instance, an electrical socket is provided next to the bedside table for mobile phone charging. All the group's hotels provide free minibars, breakfast and Wi-Fi to its guests.

"Customer experience is very important to us and we want that experience to be one of daily living," he said. "We don't nickle and dime you once you walk through the door. When you walk into your room, everything is free."

The group will continue expanding in the Asia-Pacific region, although it has no concrete plans yet. One thing is certain: the hotelier is not slowing down. "In the watch business, I spent my time chasing after people for money they owed me. Now, I concentrate more on customer experience."

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