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HP Rama honored for going the distance in philanthropy at the Lodging Conference

publication date: Sep 24, 2013
author/source: Judy Maxwell

Above and Beyond

- Judy Maxwell (Assistant Editor)
HP Rama tutors an after-school student at the Frazee Dream Center.

HP Rama to be honored for going the distance in philanthropy at the Lodging Conference in Phoenix, AZ…


Thursday, September 12, 2013 - AT THE BEGINNING of this year, two pioneers of the global hospitality industry stood side by side as they announced a ground-breaking deal in Surat, India.

HP Rama, chairman and CEO of JHM Hotels in Greenville, SC, and Simon Cooper, president and managing director of Marriott Asia Pacific, unveiled plans to build the first Fairfield Inn in India.

The announcement was significant for several reasons: JHM Hotels is a long-time and highly decorated franchisee of Marriott’s brands in the US; it is the first franchise agreement Marriott has signed in India; and the Fairfield Inn is being built on the campus of Auro University, a college founded by HP Rama, his family and JHM Hotels just two years earlier.

Another meaningful point that probably escaped most observers is the announcement marked a 20-year relationship between Rama and Cooper, who first laid eyes on Rama when the diminutive hotelier stood in the midst of 4,000 people during a question-and-answer session with Marriott executives in the US and politely asked why the hotel company did not give franchises to Asian-Americans.

“Cooper was silent for a good 45 seconds,” recalls John Hogan, a hotel consultant and educator in hotel management at Hogan Hospitality.  “And then Cooper said Marriott had never thought about it and the company had no strategy one way or another.” Several weeks later, Cooper got back to Rama.

Today, JHM Hotels is a family-owned enterprise established by HP and his brothers and headed by HP’s nephew DJ Rama; it is a star franchisee of Marriott’s brands and a Top 25 hotel development and management company in the US as well as a prime investor and developer in India, where the Rama family has channeled millions of dollars in the development of educational and health care facilities, housing and water and sewer systems to serve under-developed areas of their homeland.

It is for this reason that HP Rama is to receive the Above and Beyond Award from the Lodging Conference this month in Phoenix, AZ. Harry Javer, president of the Lodging Conference, said Rama follows a line of prestigious hoteliers in receiving the award that recognizes industry leaders who have made a positive impact on people’s lives through selfless giving. Those hoteliers include Mike Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands, who holds Rama in high esteem, having known him for more than 30 years after the Asian American walked into Leven’s corner office at Days Inn and introduced himself.

“He said he owned a couple of Days Inns, and I said, ‘OK,’ and we talked,” said Leven. The small statured Rama carried himself “like a little king,” remembers Leven, and as they talked Leven sensed Rama “had a mystical, spiritual aura around him.” Dressed in a suit and well-coifed, recalled Leven, Rama was different from other Indian hotel owners at that time. “He was quieter, softer spoken.”

As the friendship developed, Leven learned the difficulties Rama and his fellow Asian Americans were having in growing their hotel businesses because of discrimination and bigotry in the industry. “I did not even know about the ‘American Owned’ signs,” said Leven, who is Jewish. He reacted to Rama’s story with empathy.

“I faced my share of discrimination,” said Leven, noting that as a young man just out of graduate school in the early 1960s his dreams of rising to the top in business were quashed by prejudice. “I worked with a couple of African American guys and they could not get jobs or housing in certain areas of New York City, just like me.

“Through HP, I learned that Asian Americans could not get business loans, home mortgages or insurance.”

So Leven and Rama joined forces with other Asian Americans and 25 years ago founded what has become the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which today has 11,000 members who own more than 40 percent of all the hotels in the US.

“There is something special about HP,” said Leven.

Hogan agrees. “HP is not combative and he solves a problem by trying to find ways in which everyone can win.” When teaching his certified hotel operator courses, Hogan uses JHM Hotels as a case study “to show how the Ramas use the strength of the family to succeed. They are such a wonderful example of succession planning, recognizing that each brother is better at something than the others.”

HP will accept the Above and Beyond Award in Phoenix just two days after arriving from a seven-week visit to India, where he is chancellor of Auro University. “The award is a symbolization of my realizing the American Dream,” said Rama, “which has given me the ability to give back.”

The businessman and philanthropist said he shares the award with the many people who aided his career. “I came to America with $2 in my pocket, and this award represents other people’s giving to me.” Most importantly, said Rama, those who sacrificed their time and expertise or who financially invested in the family business over the decades had indirectly aided the poor and needy in the US and abroad.

A large portion of Rama’s trip was spent in his home village of Sarona, the home of 2,000 people in the Navsari District of Gujarat, where the Rama family has invested nearly a half million dollars of their own funds in building 150 homes and public services to benefit farm laborers and their families. A primary school is under construction and will join a free health care clinic and an improved sanitary sewer and water system that assure a healthy lifestyle for the village’s children.

“At first I looked at it as merely providing shelter,” said Rama during a phone interview with Asian Hospitality while in India. “But I have found that we have done more than that. We have given them existence as human beings and a pride of living.” As a result, the Rama family has “adopted” the entire village, said Rama, and plans on developing more housing and infrastructure to enable Farona’s children to grow up happy and healthy.

While the kids can obtain a primary education in the village, they may also compete for financial aid and scholarships to Auro University, which has enrolled 350 students in its four colleges: hospitality, business, law and information technology.

Back home in the US, JHM Hotels focuses on local outreach by participating in after-school tutoring and mentoring of Greenville’s children as well as buying and collecting food to give under-privileged kids to take home at the end of a school week. “A lot of American children go without food over the weekend,” said Rama.

JHM Hotels also raises funds for Habitat For Humanity, the United Way and non-profit medical research organizations such as the American Heart Association. JHM Hotels contributes to a children’s art museum and provides college scholarships to children of local police and fire fighters.

Most importantly, said Rama, JHM employees are given time off and encouraged to participate in community-service projects. “Our vision, our mission, is to share our resources with others. You start with your family, then your company’s associates and then the community. This mindset is part of our human existence.”

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