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Hari Harilela got his first taste of work hawking on the streets of Hong Kong at the age of 10. Today, at 77, he's as active as ever overseeing the family's global billion-dollar hotel, banking and real estate empire.

The Harilelas' rags-to-riches story began in 1922, when Hari's father, Naroomal Harilela, left his hometown of Hyderabad, Sind (now Pakistan) and journeyed to Canton in search of his fortune.

He set up a small shop and flourished on the West's fascination with the Orient, exporting a steady stream of Chinese antiques, jade and other curios around the world. Business was booming. Eight years after arriving in Canton, he was able to send for his wife, Devibai, and three sons -- George, Hari and Peter -- to join him.

They arrived as the Great Depression of the 1930s began devastating commerce around the world. Naroomal's business was among the casualties.

"He lost his fortune because the bills were always on D/A," Hari said. "He didn't want to sue anyone because he said they were good friends of his that he'd been dealing with for years."

Broke, Naroomal decided to come to Hong Kong and start over. He planned to work out of the small office he'd set up to handle his exports from China. Upon hearing that Naroomal was on his way to Hong Kong, his brother, who ran the business, took off with everything.

"We went into extreme poverty. We couldn't find a means to live. My father couldn't even afford the school fees, although they were only HK$3 at that time," Hari (right) recollected.

Naroomal managed to get some goods on consignment from factories and went to hawk outside the British army barracks selling shorts, soap, razor blades and daily essentials.

For months, the family sat under the scorching sun eking out a living. Luck started to turn for the Harilelas when one of the officers took pity on them and allowed them to hawk their wares inside the grounds. "Business then began to pick up," Hari said.

In the three years that the Harilelas hawked, the family had managed to save enough money open a small shop at 153 Prince Edward Road in 1937.

But the venture soon collapsed. Never one to accept defeat, Naroomal returned to hawking at the barracks. Within a year, he had managed to save enough money to open another shop in Mongkok at 733 Nathan Road.

"From there on we started getting more and more business. Meanwhile, my two brothers and I -- the elder and younger -- went to work with Indian companies to help support the family," Hari said.

George and Peter worked for retail companies, while Hari, who was 13 at the time, went to work in a trading company. Fate seemed to be on their side for a few years and their business grew along side their family with the arrival of their fifth brother Gary, and a sister, Rani.

The winds of war

The winds of misfortune blew again in 1941 with the outbreak of World War II. The family again lost everything they had. They moved like many other Indian families at the time into Tsim Sha Tsui as the Japanese overran the territory, and were given shelter in the Sawlani Silk Store.

Once the Japanese army had taken control of Hong Kong, civilians were again allowed to move around. A good friend of the family let them use his shop on Hankow Road, and the family earned a modest living.

Life was harsh under Japanese, but the family stuck together and survived, but not before Naroomal was almost beaten to death after being dragged from his home in the middle of the night by the Japanese secret service. He came out of the war with his life, but the incident left him bed-ridden and he never really recovered from the beating. He died in May 1948.

Hong Kong welcomed the return of the British forces in 1945, and the Harilela brothers again eked out a living hawking to them.

"At that time the British had no money so they used to ask us what we would like in return for the foodstuff we supplied them," said Hari. "They used to take us to the Kowloon Godown, open the warehouses and tell us to take what we wanted."

Hari recollected that the warehouses were packed with Red Cross mercy packages that the Japanese had hoarded. But the Harilelas only took one to two cases of scotch and about 20 cartons of cigarettes.

"They were very surprised that we always took so little. But my father always used to say: 'make whatever profit you want, but don't be greedy and don't cheat," he said.

Rather than missing the chance to make more, the Harilelas business integrity made them their fortune.

Impressed by their honesty, the army appointed the Harilelas as their main supplier. They also did their laundry, as well as made uniforms from cloth the army supplied.

They continued working out of their small shop on Hankow Road, and before long opened a shop in Kowloon Hotel.

With the arrival of more British and Commonwealth troops, the Harilela's found themselves importing more and more cloth to meet demand. The family opened another store and soon became the largest importer of British textiles in Hong Kong. The brothers were importing so much cloth, that Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon made a royal visit to the shop during their first trip to the territory.

While peace had returned to Hong Kong, the U.S. Armed Forces were fighting in Chingchow and asked the British to give them a reliable supplier for their PX (post exchange) stores for their troops. This marked the rapid rise of the Harilela empire.

After supplying the PX stores for a year, the U.S. Army audited the brothers' accounts. They found that the Harilelas' profits were the lowest of all their suppliers.

"I think they were impressed by our honesty, because the U.S. Army gave us open stores to look after," Hari said. "From 1948 until the end of the Vietnam War, we had almost 35 stores in the U.S. Armed Forces' camps in the region, from Okinawa to Saigon. That is how business grew to be an enormous business. We used to make 600 custom suits a day and we had 900 tailors working for us."

In the late a€?60s, seeing the U.S. forces were reducing their presence in the region, Hari suggested to his brothers that they diversify into other lines of business.

"Although my brothers were against me because real estate or other businesses meant very small profits, I kept on diversifying and I'm glad that I did," he said.

The brothers entered the local retail business and opened a Best Ladies' and a Best Men's retail store. But business was slow. The brothers then began to dabble in the real estate and hotel business.

"My first hotel was in 1960-61, the Imperial Hotel on Nathan Road. Then we bought this big plot on Mody Road and Nathan Road where the Holiday Inn Golden Mile now stands," Hari said.

Construction of the Holiday Inn began at the end of 1969, but riots in Hong Kong caused a crash in the local property and tourism market, and halted its construction as jittery investors were having second thoughts.

The brothers were forced to sell the Imperial Hotel and other assets to buy out investors and to fund construction of their new hotel. On November 12, 1975, the doors of the Harilelas' wholly-owned Holiday Inn Golden Mile opened for business.

But there were no celebrations at the opening. Their mother, Devibai, died on the day of the grand opening. To represent the family at the opening, Hari sent his 4-year-old son Aron to the hotel.

Despite a less than fortuitous start, the Harilelas' wholly owned Holiday Inn Golden Mile earned the family its major fortune and enabled the brothers to buy back the Imperial Hotel.

The family continues to invest in hotels overseas and is on the verge of becoming a global hotelier. With luxury hotels in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, London, Penang, Montreal and its latest edition in Sydney run by the Sheraton Group, which opens in June this year, Hari said his next targets are New York and Paris.

"It is one of the good industries. People like to travel more and more," he said.

Family ties

Amazingly, the Harilela empire is still a family run business. Each brother overseas a specific arm of the business -- hotels, real estate, restaurants, travel agencies, seats on the Stock Exchange.

Just as surprisingly, the family lives under one roof. Sixty family members spanning four generations live in their 40-bedroom apartment on Waterloo Road.

"We have a very strong temple in our home which binds us together," Hari said.

While Hari has toiled to build the family business, he has worked equally hard doing community work, and received an OBE in 1969 in recognition of his contribution to society.

"I was in most civic associations. I sincerely believe one thing that is very important in one's life is that if you do all the work for yourself you are very selfish. Hong Kong has given us a lot that we are grateful for. We must give back not by giving money, but by getting involved in the community," he said.

At 77, Hari radiates a boyish enthusiasm when talking about the company's business plans. But he says he is now trying to remain in the background to push the young generation ahead.

"I believe that the young generation always has something to say. And I will always remember one thing that my son said to me, 'If you have a hotel in London, one in Paris and one in Sydney then the Harilela Group as a group, has a much wider exposure'," he said.

The family is also increasing its exposure by diversifying its line of business with the recent establishment of the East Bank in New York, and two banks in California.

"But our major business is hotels. I'd like to see two more hotels open: one in New York and one in Paris. Once our hotel in Sydney opens in June, then my son is going to focus on these two," he said.
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