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Hotelier Sunil Tolani: Racing to the Top With His Multi-Million Dollar Empire

Sunil Tolani with his wife Neelam and children Aryan, 5, and Krish, 4. (Parimal M. Rohit photos)
  • LOS ANGELES, United States

    When Sunil Tolani arrived in the United States in July 1993, he was earning a mere four dollars per hour as a cashier at an ARCO gas station and a delivery driver for a small warehouse at Canara Technologies. In his mid-twenties, the Mumbai native arrived in Southern California with the same aspirations as many immigrants before him: he wanted to live the American Dream.

    Nearly 19 years later, Tolani, now 44, is indeed living his American Dream. The Indian American entrepreneur now owns and operates 14 major hotel franchises in several states and retains a minority ownership stake in a semiconductor company. Based on his hotels alone, Tolani told India-West that he anticipates generating revenues of $35 million in 2012 — a far cry from the near minimum wage salary he earned almost 19 years ago.

    Even Tolani’s personal story is the stuff dreams are made of: he lives with his wife and two sons in a quiet, affluent Orange County neighborhood and a garage featuring a Lamborghini LP570-4, Ferrari F-430, and Bentley Continental. A Range Rover quietly fills the corner spot of his driveway. A racing car enthusiast (see separate box), the Ferrari 458 Italia and Lamborghini LP 700-4 are left at his office, accompanied by a McLaren MP-12c.

    To understand how the son of a Sindhi sari distributor and homemaker left Mumbai to build a multimillion-dollar financial empire in the United States, one has to go back to the beginning.

    Humble Beginnings

    Born in 1968 in Mumbai and raised there with his younger brother and sister, Tolani finished his formal education at St. Anne’s High School in Pali Hill, Bandra, before getting into the family business. Foregoing a college education, Tolani left India for the U.S. in 1993.

    As a young 24-year-old, Tolani arrived in Los Angeles on a visitor’s visa with the help of some relatives. Initially living with an uncle, he quickly landed his first job — with help from his uncle Haresh Israni — as a cashier at an ARCO gas station in Anaheim. He told India-West he could not afford a car so he had to walk three miles to and from work every day.

    Soon, he landed another job at Canara Techologies, a distributor of computer peripherals and parts, in nearby Yorba Linda. Starting as a driver for Canara, Tolani worked his way up the company ladder to become a vice president overseeing its semiconductor division. At the same time, he also networked with the industry’s business leaders and executives, which paid off when Tolani was offered an executive position and ownership stake in a semiconductor company.

    “I used to be a warehouse driver for one company, and then Princeton Technology in Irvine offered me an opportunity to head the memory division and become a general partner at 25 percent,” Tolani recalled to India-West.

    Never one to settle down, Tolani’s tenure at Princeton Technology lasted only three-and-a-half years. Based on his experience there, Tolani decided to open his own semiconductor company – Memory Card International, Inc. – in Fullerton in the year 2000, a business he still has today as 80% majority owner, that employs five people. At its peak in 2005, Memory Card was generating revenues of about $60 million. Though the semiconductor business has significantly slowed down since then, as did the growth of Memory Card, Tolani still services a handful of clients and customers.

    Yet, when he was earning millions at Memory Card International, the ever-so-restless Tolani was itching to do more. In 2003, he began plotting his next major business move, inspired largely by his decision to buy his first home.

    “From 2003 to 2006, I was also buying and selling homes in new developments. When I bought my first house, I bought one for me and one for my parents. I immediately saw the appreciation. So I just started to buy more homes with some extra cash,” Tolani told India-West.

    When the residential real estate market started showing signs of slowing down in 2006, Tolani pondered where he should next invest his money. His uncle, Ashok Israni, chairman of Pacifica Host Hotels, in August 2007 introduced him to the hotel business, which was attractive to Tolani because of its daily cash flow.

    First Hotel Purchased

    Heeding his uncle’s advice, Tolani combined his own resources and a bank loan to purchase his first hotel in August 2007: a 59-room Holiday Inn Express in La Junta, Colo., for about $4.2 million. Six months later came his second hotel in Pueblo, Colo., which, with his growing assets and strengthening business credit, he purchased for about $6 million.

    Within one year, Tolani earned a $1 million profit with his two hotel purchases and acquired his third hotel, another Holiday Inn Express in Alamosa, Colorado.

    “My average has been to buy a hotel every four months,” Tolani said.

    Five years later, Tolani is on pace to witness a 35-fold increase in profits and an expansive hotel empire, which he operates under his company, Prince Organization, which includes 14 franchises of several of the world’s largest hotel brands and chains, including the Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, Wyndham, and Best Western (see accompanying box 1). Considering this history plus new acquisitions in 2012, the company is on track for very strong growth. Now approaching a 468% growth in total rooms owned by Prince, 587% growth in revenue dollars, and 755% growth in company equity, the company looks set to hit a whopping 1000% growth by 2015.

    Tolani said his aim is to have Prince Organization own at least “one outstanding hotel” in each state by 2015. He also plans to make an Initial Public Offering that year and grow his business’s revenues to $300 million per year. In 2011, Tolani’s hotels generated revenues of $29 million.

    Thus far, Tolani oversees hotel operations in Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Utah and Washington. He also has plans to develop a chain of boutique hotels.

    For Tolani, his path from minimum wage employee to multimillionaire entrepreneur entailed ambition, hard work, shrewd financial practices, and vision. Yet, he also explained that treating his colleagues and employees with respect is equally important.

    The Tolani Philosophy

    “As a CEO, I believe in the fostering of a community of kinship,” Tolani told India-West. “I have tremendous praise and respect for my hundreds of team members. They’re my team and my family.”

    For its employees, Prince Organization has Christmas dinners, annual performance bonuses, employee of the month, and a $1,000 prize for “Inspiring Employee of the Month.” Such programs result in unprecedented employee loyalty, said Tolani, adding, “We have the lowest employee turnover in the hospitality industry.”

    Internally, Tolani promotes several goals with his colleagues and employees, such as acting with integrity, working as a team, embracing differences in others, providing top notch service, fostering innovation, striving for excellence, maintaining open communication, and giving back to the community.

    One significant community contribution was the establishment in 2009 of an annual endowment of $151,111. Known as the “Scholarship for the American Dream,” the endowment has helped 39 students attend 11 universities. Tolani hopes the scholarship fund will encourage others to create their own American Dream.

    Prince Organization also offers free rooms and meals at their hotels through a program called “Room Seva,” which is available to those who have friends or family hospitalized in hospitals, nursing homes, or treatment centers during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays, as well as during the Indian festival season of Diwali and Navratri.

    For all that he has done for the community, Tolani is not without acclaim, either. He was recently named a top nominee of the Orange County Register Holiday Spirit Award where the judges described Tolani’s focus as people, not money. Los Angeles County also honored him for being a social entrepreneur and humanitarian. And this month, Tolani will receive the Best South Asian Entrepreneur Award by the South Asian Business Alliance Network.

    Now residing in Orange County with his wife of seven years, Neelam, and two sons aged five and four, he still maintains his humble roots, explaining to India-West that the American Dream is very attainable with the right vision.

    “I’m living a dream. I don’t work. I just have a vision and hire Type A employees, paying them over-market wages and salaries, and they go work for me, making me a fortune,” Tolani said. “America is a land of opportunity. I’m not the first one to do this. I’m not the last one to do this. Many people have done it. There are hundreds of people who have done it. Just be honest and true to yourself.”

    Properties Owned by Tolani’s Prince Organization

    (Total 15 hotels to date)

    •Holiday Inn Express, La Junta, Colorado (59 rooms); valued at $4.5 million

    •Clarion, Pueblo, Colorado (185 rooms); valued at $4.95 million

    •Holiday Inn Express, Alamosa, Colorado (77 rooms); $7.5 million

    •Hilton Garden Inn, Shreveport, Louisiana (143 rooms); $12 million

    •Hampton Inn, Natchez, Mississippi (86 rooms); $8 million

    •Comfort Suites, Shreveport, Louisiana (74 rooms); $7.2 million

    •Baymont, Shreveport, Louisiana (120 rooms); $6.25 million

    •Holiday Inn Express, Nacogdoches, Texas (91 rooms); $8.4 million

    •Quality Inn, Nacogdoches, Texas (120 rooms); $6.3 million

    •Holiday Inn Express, Starkville, Mississippi (105 rooms); $8 million

    •Comfort Suites, Dallas, Texas (82 rooms); $7.9 million

    •Holiday Inn Express, Austin, Texas (101 rooms); $8 million (see image-above)

    •Holiday Inn Express, Walla Walla, Washington (81 rooms); $6.5 million

    •Hampton Inn, Killen, Texas (67 rooms); $4.5 million

    •Days Inn, Houston, Texas (110 rooms); valued at $3.7 million.

    Additionally, there are six properties that are currently in the due diligence process. Tolani’s goal is to own 20 properties by the end of 2012.

    A Love of Fast Cars

    Sunil Tolani confided to India-West that as a child, he used to dream about exotic cars, cutting out pictures from magazines and pasting them on his wall. Now, he says he is fortunate to be able to indulge in his dream.

    With a hobby of racing cars, Tolani has shattered the 200 mph barrier: last year, it was in the Ferrari Scuderia Spider. And this year, in November, he plans to do it again in his Lamborghini LP 700-4. The annual event is held at an abandoned airstrip in the Mojave Desert, called the Mojave Spaceport.

    So far, according to Tolani, only 184 racers have achieved this feat.

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