A wonderful interview our founder Koolesh Shah with City of London School.
Koolesh Shah (Class of 1973) is an entrepreneur and philanthropist. His London Town Group, founded in 1988, owns and operates a collection of branded 4* boutique hotels in the UK and, as well as real estate, has interests in natural resources, software and automation and e-commerce.
With a range of philanthropic interests :Koolesh is Chairman of the Sri Aurobindo Trust which promotes wider understanding of the teachings of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). He is also Chairman of the Koolesh Shah Family Foundation which harnesses the family’s ongoing philanthropy work.
Koolesh has been involved in the Jain community, and is a former President of the Jain Social Group, London. He also actively supports Making The Leap, a charity focused on promoting social mobility for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Were you always going to be an entrepreneur or was there a ‘lightbulb’ moment?
It started at university. Somewhere along the way I had gained a year, so I left school at 17 after my A-levels. At university, an opportunity came to me: my uncle had developed a business importing and wholesaling Indian garments. He asked if I could find some contacts around Norwich to give us an opportunity to integrate with the local business community to enable contacts to stock within stores around the city.
At university, my room was filled with cheese cloth shirts, wraparound dresses, and Afghan Coats! And then I’d go out and do deliveries in my little red Fiat 126.
It’s a big step, becoming an entrepreneur. You hold your breath and back yourself and say, ‘This is who I am’.
What had you initially planned to do after university?
I intended to go on and become an accountant like my father. I did get my article traineeship at Arthur Anderson… but my father suggested I go and establish a confirming house to supply local Nigerian traders, initially in Lagos, and then into Eastern Nigeria, formerly Biafra. I established myself there and really became quite an entrepreneur.
Outside of lockdown, what does your diary look like?
I’m an early riser. Pre-Covid, I would be at one of our hotels for breakfast. The Hyde Park-Paddington area is our nucleus; we have several hotels there. First, I’d catch up on my business interests in the Far East, talking to Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai – where we have an office – and catching up on the news. Then, I would start on the UK side of things at 10.30-ish. We would have morning review meetings with specialist teams in the UK – covering marketing, revenue, and technology on different days. Once every two weeks, I’ll go out of London to meet members of my team in other parts of the UK.
How had you first come to be a pupil at CLS?
The school was recommended to my father by one of his friends. I had started out at a Rudolf Steiner school, where the philosophy is to develop a child’s senses first and foremost. We would sew and knit, perform eurhythmy [dance-based therapeutic art] and we learned the alphabet quite slowly, one letter a month. They were wonderful years but in traditional academic terms, it meant that I was a little behind. I had a couple of years at a Prep school and then CLS was recommended to us.
In those days, you needed to be recommended as well as applying I remember going to see an Old Citizen, who interviewed me and recommended that I be allowed to apply! And then I took the 11-plus exam too…
What were your favourite subjects at school?
I enjoyed French and German and I took them on to A-level. I also did Economics at A Level.
Frank Gregory, our Economics teacher, was a character. If we asked him a question he didn’t immediately know the answer to, he would sit down, put his hands on his head and he would light up a cigarette in the classroom and have a think about it (if he didn’t have one he would ask if any of us had one!) He would give us these handouts outlining the topics that he expected to come up in the exams. Someone asked: “What if these subjects don’t come up?” Frank said: “Well, then, you’ll be a cropper, won’t you?”
Our German teachers were Colonel Bond – Cyril Bond – and ‘Rock’ Cornish, who was a wonderful gentleman, such a nice guy. In French, we had Mr Lorquet and Dr Pat Whitmore. Then, for Maths, Horace Brearley – the cricketer Mike Brearley’s father – who had a catchphrase, which he delivered in his broad Yorkshire accent: “You’re not the only pebble on the beach”.I can picture myself there now in the old building, it was a beautiful building, with the hall and its stained-glass windows.
Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?
I played soccer, but Eton Fives was the sport I enjoyed most. I enjoyed swimming very much. I was secretary of the swimming club and a member of the Combined Cadet Force – the RAF section – and really enjoyed that for three years: I took my proficiency exams, although I never went on and got my pilot’s licence.
There are four or five of us who have kept in touch over the decades, and we still meet whenever we can. A few years ago, I arranged a bigger reunion at one of our hotels and we all met up and talked about our lives. What became of the Class of 1973.
We’ve all had our ups and downs. We are just one group of friends; our backgrounds don’t matter: I was probably one of the first generation of Asians to come to the School. There were maybe three or four of us out of 800 boys.
But the School is certainly more multi-cultural now… I went back a couple of years ago, after 30 years you could see there were people from all different backgrounds and many more Asians. The captain of the rugby club was introduced to me – he was Asian – and you could see how closely integrated the whole community was.
What was your first experience of work?
I worked for a boutique called Chelsea Freak. There were three of us there all trying to earn as much commission as we could. We did a lot of psychoanalysis of the customers! “How should I approach this customer? Is this one more likely to buy trousers or a skirt?” And it does work! I ended up getting more commission than anyone else there.
You were a ‘people person’ with good sales patter…
I became that, but I think it is important to note I wasn’t naturally like that. I developed my sales confidence at university and when I went to do business in Nigeria in the 80s you really had to get the banter going. If you didn’t, you would end up not even having the essentials of life never mind running a successful business! You have to get the gift of the gab if you can.
What qualities would someone who is 15 now need to follow in your footsteps?
First and foremost, you need to have hunger and the will to succeed. That’s easy to say but it’s true: if you don’t have that hunger, opportunities pass you by. And you have to take risks: no guts no glory. You must believe in yourself.
My business plan for the first hotel I bought was, simply, to never give up. It was all about my self-belief that I would make it work, whether I had to work 24 hours a day and be the receptionist, the cleaner, the maintenance man… do everything myself if needs be. You go in with that personal belief, but you also need opportunities and good fortune.
It is important not to become overconfident. Even if something is working today, tomorrow may be different. You need to keep innovating and moving forward
You need to keep an open mind, too. The whole idea of branding hotels only came to me after a random chat with one of our receptionists. She said, ‘Why don’t you become a Comfort Inn?’ and I thought, ‘Well, what’s that?’ But then you get to be part of a franchise and you have bookings coming in from thin air. I strongly believe in listening to others, taking on board thoughts and ideas to excel. Everyone has something positive to contribute, it is all about your ability for weeding those ideas out and being able to listen.
London Town Group has diverse interests – but in which business area was your emotional interest, initially?
We have diverse interests now, but my initial emotional interest was in property… When I was a young boy, my father had several properties in north London, which he later lost, but I would go with him to collect the rents on a Saturday. Then when I was doing business in Nigeria, I started buying and doing up property and then there a natural progression to working with bigger and bigger properties and, eventually, hotels.
How does your spiritual life relate to your business life?
There is a common thread. Sri Aurobindo is really about man as a transitional being, and the soul’s evolution from matter to mental consciousness and, eventually, to become divine. We are all on that journey at different stages. It is a pathway.
Sri Aurobindo [1872-1950] was an Indian visionary. My father was a devotee, I am a devotee, and my daughter now has become, by chance, a devotee. There is a very live experiment going on in South India about the real-life implications of his ideas – it’s been going on for over 50 years. It’s called Auroville. It is an experiment in human unity.
It’s all about positive energy. We all get to a point in our life where we wonder what is going to happen next? I’m 65: I’m not going to live forever. What’s the next stage? Is that it – do the curtains close and everything’s forgotten? Or does the soul evolve? We all ask those questions.
So, Sri Aurobindo gives you a positive framework in which to reflect on those questions – a positivity that you need in life and as an entrepreneur. You are going to have setbacks, but you need to look at them positively, and spiritually, and see how you can move forward.
Can you tell us the aims of your charities?
I am Chairman of the Sri Aurobindo Trust; one of the initiatives we have funded modules on Modern Indian Philosophy within the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, with a specific focus on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
The Koolesh Shah Family Foundation supports a range of charities, many working with young people and/or the homeless. One I will single out is Making the Leap, which nurtures youngsters to achieve their potential, via mentoring programmes. It is really for anyone who needs help finding a positive direction in life.
I would like Making the Leap to expand on some of the things I have already encouraged within my businesses, in terms of mentoring.
For instance, there was a young woman who joined us when she was 19 or 20; her job was making sure the public areas of the hotel were kept in good shape. She was so diligent; she really caught my eye. And now she’s married, with children – and she’s a high-flying lawyer. And she still comes back to me and says that the encouragement I gave her to study really helped her get to where she is now.
I hear back that people who used to work for us remember their time with us fondly and that it helped them in their lives. Often, we have children of past employees coming to work with us: that is quite unusual for a London-based company. When you run your business the way we have tried to, the whole operation starts to feel a bit like a family.
Do you have moments where you can sit and appreciate having made something happen?
Certainly, on the hotel side. Every hotel I’ve acquired has been re-positioned. So when I go into one of my properties, I know exactly what it was like and what our plans for it were and now we’ve made it all happen. You can have a moment of feeling very proud. You just feel it from the inside – it’s not to do with what other people say, it’s your own feeling that you’ve seen it to fruition.
With every project, you start with a vision. There will always be points where you wonder if you are doing the right thing. You do have your moments of doubt. But when it does work, when the hotel is finished and open and I am sitting there having breakfast, I might find myself thinking: ‘Hey, that went well’.