Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Lord Diljit Rana: Past heartbreak for hotel tycoon

He's the man behind a £50m hotel investment across Ulster and is considered one of the UK's top businessmen. But repeated attacks on his businesses during the Troubles nearly ruined Lord Diljit Rana

Dubbed by a 1970s Belfast Telegraph reporter as a man to watch, Diljit Rana's transformation from ambitious immigrant into one of Ulster's wealthiest men is a real-life rags to riches story.

The Punjab-born father-of-two came to Ulster as a 28-year-old civil servant with big dreams of running his own business. Now aged 68 he is worth £60m, is a member of the House of Lords and is rated among the UK's top entrepreneurs.

Just a fortnight ago he announced a £50m investment creating up to 500 jobs in five hotels across Northern Ireland.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing for the multi-millionaire hotelier and property tycoon. His businesses were targeted by terrorists 26 times during the Troubles, he has been the victim of racial abuse and has had run-ins with communities in Londonderry and Larne over controversial developments Tillie and Henderson and Cairndhu House.

Speaking from his Andras House headquarters on Belfast's Great Victoria Street, Lord Rana recalled how he dabbled in a variety of businesses including restaurants, boutiques, property development and hotels.

He said: "This seemed a nice place in the summer of '66 so my wife and I both moved here.

"I was looking for a business opportunity and I bought a business. I bought a restaurant. It's demolished now, it used to be in Victoria Square where they are opening the new shopping centre. It was called Sam's Snack Bar and then we re-named it Quality Cafe."

Lord Rana is hailed as having been instrumental in regenerating Belfast city centre. And he believes he helped pave the way for its bright future: " It's a transition which is unstoppable.

He brought the first international hotel brand to the province when he opened the Plaza in 1990. His other big names such as Holiday Inn, Ramada and Days have all helped attract thousands of visitors to Ulster. His latest Ibis hotel investment is just the next step.

"I am committed to Northern Ireland and I have been in business now for over 40 years. When I came there were no Troubles at that time. For the first three years - '66, '67, '68 - there weren't any Troubles. It was a very peaceful society.

"Everybody seemed happy, things were looking up but it's really from '69 onwards that progressively it got worse. So it was quite hard when it got worse.

"In the restaurant business at that time, in '69, I had acquired two other restaurants, one in Donegall Square South and one in University Road, and these were very big major restaurants, established a long time.

"So I had done quite well progressively over three years and then gradually it got worse and worse, people were afraid to come into the city and the riots started and the Stormont government at that time - '69, '70 - issued orders to close bars because people were coming out of bars and there were riots, so there was a kind of semi-curfew.

"That affected us in business because if bars were going to close at 6pm people went home.

"And then progressively it got worse, so by December '71 I had lost it all, was totally put out of business. Bombed. We had a restaurant on Dublin Road called the Burlington. It burned for three days.

"I had another restaurant on University Road bombed a few weeks earlier. So after working very hard and then seeing everything destroyed it was very heartbreaking. I thought of moving from here but then with a young family, mortgage, bank loan, overdraft which is all gone up in smoke we couldn't really leave.

"We opened a boutique, a fashion boutique in Queen's Arcade and people were afraid to come in the city. We had two or three other shops over the years but it was a struggle trying to survive, trying to make a living when people are afraid to come into the city and a threat to your life.

"All those years we had many businesses in the city. We had boutiques, sheepskin shops, restaurants and then in the late 80s and early 90s, hotels. Our businesses were affected 26 times. Minor and major incidents. Sometimes we were direct hits, sometimes we were indirect because we happened to be in the area.

"Travelodge, our hotel for five years, they left a car bomb outside the hotel, then they left a bomb inside the hotel - at that time I was President of the Belfast Chamber of Trade so I was probably trying to put a positive slant about Belfast and maybe it was not liked."

Having suffered and survived the Troubles, Lord Rana is confident the new peace will last, and urged the Assembly to work hard to improve tourist facilities.

"There is still a long way to go. We were at about floor level and now we have moved a wee bit, but there is still a lot to be done if Belfast is to compete with other major cities. I'll do my bit but others need to do their's too.

"Belfast's transformation - it's only started. There's a lot more to happen. You wait another 10 or 15 years Belfast would have transformed itself even more - you haven't seen much yet.

"I am happy that I made a contribution to the regeneration of Belfast when others were afraid to. I took the risks and paid the penalty in a way, being bombed several times - new buildings, new hotels.

"I am glad that's all behind us now, glad I was more enterprising, more daring than many other people, more optimistic about the future of Belfast, had more faith in people, that this can't go on forever and I am sad that it did go on so long. We put our money where our mouth was."

Some people would argue that Lord Rana has destroyed old buildings. However, he disputes this.

"I have protected a lot of heritage buildings in Belfast. The Oxford Street Church building, that was going to be demolished in the 70s, it was in a very bad state and I restored that building and I am glad to see it is still there.

"Andras House was built in 1889; I restored this building.

"The Lincoln Building was an old warehouse, I restored that. Renshaws Hotel. A furniture store at Bruce Street - that was an old building and I converted it into modern use."

He blamed the controversial Tillie and Henderson saga in Londonderry on officialdom and violence. It had to be demolished after a series of arson attacks made the building unsafe.

A planning application on the building is still pending. He hopes to erect a budget hotel and apartments in the building.

He said: "We did our best to save that building ...

"And we boarded it several times and then thought the lower levels should be bricked up."

He added: "If there are 13 arson attacks over one weekend why can't the police apprehend someone?

"The whole of society is responsible for it.

"It was flattened because it was dangerous and our insurance company withdrew insurance. It had a poor structure and was at risk of collapse.

"We bricked up the windows, but there were repeated arson attacks," he said, adding: "It was unsafe because of a major fire.

"We couldn't take the risk of someone being injured."

As for the secret of his success he said: "I put it down to steadfastness, not giving up, a lot of hard work and perseverance, thinking positively whereas other people were afraid to invest in Belfast.

"I was still an optimist and kept investing and reinvesting despite all the trouble and the hardship.

"Ultimately hard work pays off. Sometimes you can be unfortunate and it doesn't, but most chances - if you persevere and work hard - sometimes the results come immediately, sometimes circumstances conspire against you and it takes longer."

He sees himself as a philanthropist, having donated more than £1m to charity over the years.

He said: "Money is not important, people are important. It's what you do with money that is important.

"We support a lot of charities. We support small charities here.

"Money is no use if you can't give it away. The Lady at the Lagan (statue), I am responsible for that.

"I am director of Caring Breaks which provides respite to parents.

"In India we have two charities to provide education in rural India."

As the province's most prosperous immigrant he urged people to welcome the new wave of workers from eastern Europe.

"I think immigrants, whenever they come to any country, work very hard because they come with that frame of mind. And if you look at Northern Ireland it is the people who came two or three centuries ago, who made a major difference to the Northern Ireland economy.

"But we have lived in a very insular society. This is a tremendous opportunity for people in the present to be part of the multi-cultural society and to enjoy other cultures.

"We should be saying we are world citizens, the world belongs to us. And that will open the horizon, to enjoy different music, foods, cultures you can travel to different countries.

"It's a beautiful world out there and there is so much in this world. We need to open up."

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