Ambition: How two men built top hotel chain

Jimi Kariuki and Sandy Vohra. [Courtesy]

Imagine two men, a Kikuyu and an Indian, having a drink in downtown Nairobi. It is in the early 1970s and the city’s social vibe may not have been as boisterous as it is today. Or at least well before Covid put brakes on Nairobi’s nightlife.

But what would the two men, whose social and cultural backgrounds are diametrically opposed, be talking about over a drink? Business. And not just any business.

“Why don’t we just start a hotel business?”

This is no fiction and the two were not dreaming.

John Kariuki and Gurcharan Singh Vohra, better known as Channi met by default when Kenya was still taking some good strides to become the economic powerhouse in the region. It was a country of promise and the two men wanted to share in this economic journey.

But how would a fuel salesman and a barrister actualise their ambition of starting and running a hotel business when neither had prior experience in the hospitality sector?

Learn on the fly and adjust the sails as per the wind. In any case, Channi had a knack for working with people from the mountain as witnessed in his law firm, Vohra and Gitau Advocates.

Kariuki, on the other hand, worked as a sales manager for Esso Petroleum in Nakuru, with jurisdiction over much of the Rift Valley and parts of Nyanza. He used to supply gas cylinders to Channi’s sister and her husband, Harwant Singh Mahendru, who were in the gas distribution business in the region.

Sardar and Channi Singh. [Courtesy]

With his business mind, Kariuki’s vision was to open a retail business in Nairobi. Channi’s sister suggested that he talks to her father in Nairobi who perhaps knew of some shops on River Road left vacant when some Asians left the country for the United Kingdom.

“It was the old Vohra, Sardar Singh, who introduced my father to his son Channi and the two started to talk about the hotel business in their drinking sessions,” says Jimi Kariuki, son to John Kariuki.

Hotel Ambassador in Nairobi was up for sale and Kariuki needed at least Sh600,000, a princely sum at the time if their idea of owning a hotel was to come to fruition.

“My father bought a house in Thika, opposite the Blue Post Hotel after our family moved from Nakuru where my mother was also a teacher. He sold it and bought another one in Garden Estate, Nairobi, which he later sold to buy the hotel together with Channi. It was a mix of personal savings, small investments and bank loans,” says Jimi.

They two came from humble beginnings, but set out to climb insurmountable odds.

Vohra’s father grew up in the shadow of the Himalayas before taking a dhow ride to East Africa, setting up a bicycle shop in downtown Nairobi.

The senior Kariuki grew up on the slopes of Mount Kenya, where his father eked out a subsistence lifestyle to feed, clothe and educate the children.

“My grandfather could not afford to have all children at home at the same time. So he looked forward to my father staying in boarding school a bit longer so that he could ‘sort’ things out. None of the two men was born in privilege,” says Jimi.

Their purchase of Hotel Ambassador in April 1974 set them down the road to the creation of one of Kenya’s leading hotel brands — Sarova — that is today in the hands of the two men’s progeny.

A general view of Ambassador (left) and Eureka Highrise Hotel along Moi Avenue, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The name Sarova embodies the two families’ affinity for each other, an umbilical cord that ensures the two shall never part. There is ‘SA’ for Swarna Vohra, Channi’s wife; ‘RO’ for Rose, the Kariuki family matriarch; and ‘VA’ for Varsha Vohra, Swarna’s maiden name.

From those humble beginnings, the Sarova family grew, first by acquiring Sarova Whitesands in Mombasa and Sarova Stanley, Kenya’s oldest, having been founded by Mayence Bent in 1902. Stanley had a few “firsts” as far as local hotels are concerned.

It was at The Stanley (named after European explorer Henry Morton Stanley) where the first Tusker beer was opened. The Nairobi Securities Exchange was started on the hotel’s first floor.

Other hotels followed including the Sarova Panafric, and as the name suggests, was at the centre of the Pan African movement of the 1960s, having hosted prominent patriots and heroes of Africa’s independence such as Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkuruma and Milton Obote.

Since then, the group has operated hotels and lodges in Masai Mara, Mombasa, Nakuru, Taita Hills and Shaba National Reserve.

Pravir Singh Vohra, one of the company’s directors and grandson to Channi says the group has weathered many storms over the years, including the recent deaths of several members of the Vohra family in tragic road accidents.

But the group, says Pravir, has overcome them in the same spirit as that set out by the founders. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the board approved the more than Sh1 billion needed to renovate the Sarova Panafric.

“The past year has been tough for everyone in the hospitality industry. The group has survived the tough times due to new strategies and endless efforts by the management led by Jimi, our managing director. However, we should not take the low Covid-19 numbers for granted,” says Pravir.

Kariuki is now 84 years old and the Sarova Group chairman. His son looks back with pride at the 50-year legacy left behind by the two “brothers”, careful to strengthen the link that reinforces the chain.

“I look back with pride at the sacrifices when the two were buying the properties to invest. They never lived a lavish life. They even shared offices. We have an important role to maintain that legacy.

For example, I make sure our employees are in a safe space, especially during Covid-19. If you have happy staff, you have happy customers too. Sarova is about the people who work here. Even during the height of Covid, we never let go of staff though some stayed home and got a stipend,” says Jimi.

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