Hotelier Kumar Sharma attributes his successful move up the ladder from small food marts and liquor stores to owning larger and more high-end properties to his willingness to “take calculated risks.”
And by the way, Sharma told India-West here recently, his success in America was written in the stars — foretold in his astrological blueprint.
A turnaround specialist, Sharma in February paid $5 million in cash to buy the former Radisson Hotel in Sacramento near Highway 160 and turn it into the “Red Lion Hotel Woodlake Conference Center.”
The hotel, which has skyrocketed about fivefold in value since he purchased it, Sharma said, is becoming a focal point for the Indian American and for other communities in the Sacramento Valley, with its 50,000 square feet of meeting space, grand ballroom and artificial lake abutting some of the rental units.
About 5,000 Indian Americans attended an event here recently. “There is nothing like it in Sacramento,” he said.
His company, Sri Vinayaka Hotel, Inc., has also purchased a Red Lion Hotel near the Arden Fair mall for $9 million and the company’s current portfolio of seven hotels includes properties in Chico, Calif., and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Born in February 1959 in Hajipar, a village of about 2,000 people in the foothills of Punjab, Sharma was given at his birth a Kundli, a 15-foot-long scroll foretelling his future in Sanskrit and Hindi.
His father, who owned a clothing store, was a political activist who organized villagers to oppose British rule. Both his parents were astrologers. The woman to later become his wife, Rajiminder Sharma, is the daughter of prominent astrologers who were often consulted by Indian movie stars and politicians.
The Kundli, Sharma told one reporter recently, predicted he would “never stay in India” and would “work abroad and be very successful.”
After earning an economics degree in Amritsar, Sharma was hired by a Yugoslavian firm in 1981 to build air force bases in Iraq for the defense ministry under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Sharma said the experience hiring more than 6,000 workers from India to do the job had a side benefit — it enabled him to add Arabic and Serbian to his Hindi, Punjabi and English language skills.
After vacationing in Europe, he returned to India in 1988 and met his wife through an arranged marriage. Sharma said after seeing American films and reading American books, he felt it was the “land of opportunity.” “If I could do it in Iraq, I can do it over there, too,” he told the Sacramento Bee.
Sharma landed at JFK Airport in New York not knowing anyone, with an agricultural visa and just $42 in his pocket. He made a collect call to a friend in Vancouver, Canada, who had someone pick him up at the airport.
Sharma caught a Greyhound bus to California, and Dr. Pardeep Kumar in Fairfield, Calif., gave him a job at a liquor and food store on Auburn Boulevard in Sacramento.
He worked for 16 hours a day at two jobs — at a gas station and a 7-Eleven store in Sacramento — and did seasonal work pruning and picking grapes in Napa Valley.
A turning point in his life, he told India-West, came when he met well-known Sacramento real estate developer George Tsakopoulos. “He used to come for coffee and we talked every morning,” Kumar told the Bee. “He said, ‘Kumar, I see you working seven days a week, you want to open your own business?’"
Tsakopoulos loaned Kumar $75,000 in 1992 to open a market in the developer’s shopping center in Sacramento. The Indian American fledgling businessman paid Tsakopoulos back in six months.
Sharma bought another convenience store from a Serbian immigrant, and before long he owned five convenience stores. He bought his first hotel — the Best Western Placerville Inn in Northern California — for $6.4 million in 2001.
Sharma and his wife live in Folsom, Calif. Their oldest son, Shivi Sharma, 21, is a pre-med student at U.C. San Diego. Their other son, Paras Sharma, 19, is majoring in business at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo. The Sharmas worship weekly at the Laxmi Narayan temple at Elder Creek and Power Inn roads in Sacramento.
Sharma is now trying to jump bureaucratic hoops to obtain a permit to relocate the Casino Royale card room on Auburn Boulevard in Sacramento to his Red Lion Hotel Woodlake Conference Center. The move is being opposed by another card room owner.
Sharma, who is very religious, and neither drinks liquor nor gambles, was asked how he justifies the fact that he runs at his hotels nightclubs, which sell liquor, and wants to operate a card club.
“It’s a very fair question,” he responded to India-West. “I don’t believe in it for myself, but I don’t want to impose my values on other people.”
He said one of the hardest parts of his job is running nightclubs. “Running the banquet facility is very hard and running the nightclub is even harder. After a person has two drinks, he is just not the same person.”
Sharma has raised money for disasters in India and hopes in the future to launch a non-profit hospital and school in Punjab.
“I have been blessed and I believe in giving in return,” he said. “I want to spend time helping humanity. I will get the benefit from helping someone else.”