'Working on the Titanic Quarter gave me the perfect excuse for coming home to Belfast'
This Big Interview: Rajesh Rana
Sitting at ease in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, looking much younger than his 49 years, Rajesh Rana's calm demeanour belies the fact that he is one of Northern Ireland's most prolific business figures.
It's a bustling Thursday afternoon in the Shaw's Bridge hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, still gleaming from a major upgrade two years ago. One of seven hotels now owned by the Andras House group, Rajesh says that the complete refurbishment of its 120 rooms are next on his 'to do' list.
As director, the father-of-two is responsible for an ever-growing portfolio of hotels and property.
Fresh from the completion of a £5m extension to the Holiday Inn Express on University Street, the group is about to open Belfast's latest hotel, Hampton by Hilton.
A new £8m hotel in Portrush is also on the agenda along with a new Belfast office development.
In between it all, he's somehow taking on the role of president of Belfast Chamber of Commerce.
"I don't get too stressed," he says. "Maybe I should.
"I think I've got a good team and I rely on them a lot."
As an architecture student at Queen's University, there was always the expectation that Rajesh would enter the family business.
It all started back in 1966, when his father and now life peer Lord Diljit Rana, made Belfast his home after moving from India.
Starting out in hospitality, the family moved into retail and eventually into property, which gave rise to Andras House Ltd in 1981.
It has continued to expand as a major player in the development of hotels and offices here.
But at 21 Rajesh decided to move to England.
He attended the Oxford School of Architecture and then spent 10 years as a master planner and urban designer in Milton Keynes and in Manchester.
But the lure of home was always there, especially working with Belfast man Rob Turley's firm in Manchester.
"I was hoping to move back to Belfast and Rob said to me: 'We've got this project starting there called Titanic Quarter and we want you to work on it'."
He spent the ensuing six years immersed in the landmark project, a symbol of the new era of regeneration in Belfast.
Back on home ground, he become more involved with Andras House.
But looking back, he's satisfied with the experience gained in England.
"It's always good to spread your wings a bit in the outside world. You learn best practice by going to work in other environments and different fields. I did learn a lot I think, and you bring some of that back," he says.
It's understandable then why Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Industry was so keen to have him involved.
Andras House and Lord Rana, had been a constant presence in the Belfast Chamber for three decades. Rajesh joined the council five years ago. Two weeks ago he was elected as its president.
So, was it a role he sought out, or was he gently encouraged?
"As Tony Blair said, sometimes you feel the hand of history on your shoulder," he explains.
"It wasn't something I ever thought I would be doing, but sometimes it's hard to say no.
"It's a great honour, a great privilege and I'm excited about it."
The role has perhaps reawakened the urban planner within the Belfast man.
"One of our objectives is to help generate a vision for the city centre, which is going to embrace the change coming forward in the next few years.
"One of the things I'm trying to help is co-ordinate a regeneration plan for what I call the south-west of the city centre. It's the area between Dublin Road going west around to Grosvenor Road, it's that six o'clock to nine o'clock quadrant.
"There are a lot of vacancies there, a lot of need for regeneration."
Acknowledging the impact of new tech jobs for the city, he adds: "These people tend to be younger, more mobile, a lot of them are cycling to work, which is changing the way the city operates. They're happy to use public transport and probably happy to live in the city centre as well."
But there's been a change in how he now looks at urban planning these days and it's largely down to the change in his family circumstances.
Home is south Belfast with his wife Olivia, a writer, and his two children Marcus (8) and Lucia (10), who attend St Bride's Primary School.
Unlike his earlier career in England, he's looking at the world through the eyes of a parent. "One of the things I'm suggesting is to make the city more family friendly. As soon as I had kids, I realised you look for places to go, things to do with your kids," he says.
"I think the city centre could really grow into that area, whether it's more play parks or more children's markets, festivals or attractions."
Being a dad has also inspired some subtle changes to his hotels, including playrooms for children.
"It's not a big investment, but I understand now, that helps attract the parents."
He admits Marcus and Lucia see his job as "quite boring", but he does get excited when he gets to take them on hard hat tours of some of the group's building sites.
Typically working 11 and 12-hour days, Rajesh often finds it hard to switch off.
But he adds: "Kids are great for making you focus on what they are talking about. That probably is the way I find to turn off and relax, by focusing and spending time with them."
He used to paint as well, even putting on an exhibition a few years ago in Belfast's Transport House.
"I don't get much time for painting now. It's quite hard work, but like work, it's satisfying when it goes well and you see the results," he adds.
He takes a similar approach to his completed hotel projects: "It's a great buzz when you get a new hotel open. That's really satisfying," he says.
Perhaps key to his success is focusing on his people and allowing them to do their work.
"I wouldn't be hands on operationally, I leave that to the experts," he adds.
But he does revel in the development of his staff. While the group now employs upwards on 350 people, he says there's a family feel and sense of loyalty within the company.
"We have a really loyal group of people working with us. Some who are now general managers started off in entry level jobs and they've been promoted. So it's really satisfying seeing them move on and upwards," he explains.
"It is totally a people-based business."
Recruiting the right staff and retaining them has been another project for the company. He declares recruitment as the biggest challenge facing Belfast in the next few years.
In response, the group has started the Andras Academy, which is dedicated to recruiting and developing staff at all levels.
"I appreciate that the only way we are going to keep people in the company and also get the managers we need in the future is to develop people internally," he says.
"That's something I really enjoy, seeing people develop and grow. I think it's the father in me."
Although deeply involved in his own group of Belfast hotels - which include a Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and two Ibis hotels - as president of Belfast Chamber he's excited by the explosion in new hotels throughout the city.
"I think it's good for the city. I think we need the extra rooms," he says.
"People have not been able to get a room, which isn't helpful."
He notes that demand has also been driven by the new companies opening in Northern Ireland as a result of foreign direct investment. "They generate a lot of bedrooms, because they have their executives flying in from America and from all parts of the world," he explains.
"Plus the Waterfront Hall has ambitious plans for conferences coming in. To deliver that they need to see enough capacity in the city to sell a conference of 2,000-3,000 people.
"I think the city needs it."
Rajesh adds that when new hotel projects are announced, people often assume that major international brands are investing significant sums.
But he says: "Sometimes make the misconception that they're buying and we're selling. But it's us who are buying and they're selling, because they need developers to build hotels and that's how they get their fees."
The director claims that international brands see Belfast as a key location now and are lining up to get hotels here. Andras is nearing completion on the first Hampton by Hilton hotel on the island of Ireland.
"They're delighted to be in, Hilton were really keen," he says.
"They see Belfast as a really key market.
"It's good for the city, because when international travellers come in, they recognise the brands."