When Meenu Malhotra was invited to England from his home in India for a family wedding he never intended to leave.
Arriving in the region as an ambitious 18-year-old, he may not have had much money in his pockets, but he brought bags of enthusiasm and an inherited head for business from his family, who had been financiers and landlords for generations.
Fast forward 35 years, and Meenu is head of the newly-restructured Malhotra Group, a £40m turnover organisation with a string of successful businesses involved in the property, care and leisure sectors.
Now, having built up the firm on his passion for architecture – seeing opportunity where others have not by renovating grand but unloved buildings – his attentions are now far more focussed on the care home side of the business.
As well as expanding the care home division he is also forging ahead with plans to create a lasting legacy in his home town of Ludhiana, through the construction of a £50m hospital. Proud of his Punjabi roots, which dictate that the health if family and elders is paramount, he is taking a “helicopter view” over the business in between working on his dream legacy.
Turning 50 three years ago was a turning point in his philosophy.
“At home we have a proverb hanging on the wall – “You make a living with what you get, you make a life with what you give”, he said.
His position in life today is a far cry to how he started out, working in a papershop for his uncle.
“I was working 90 hours a week for £30, in Seaham Harbour – setting off every morning from Forest Hall in Newcastle at 6am, finishing at 7pm and then coming home again,” he recalls.
“Later I worked for another relative in a shop at the Swan House roundabout. But deep down in me, coming from a business family who had been financiers and landlords for years, I also wanted to be self-employed. I always wanted to prove myself to my father.”
Meenu’s maternal side of the family had lots of relatives here in the North East, some of whom were in the clothing business.
He teamed up with some of those relatives to start up his own business - a clothing shop in Longbenton, quickly followed by further stores in Wallsend, Byker and Hexham.
First year turnover was £50,000 – not bad from a standing start. His younger brother Devinder, known as Bunti, soon joined him from India, and they invested money from the clothing business into their real passion – property.
The property portfolio began with a deal to buy 50 residential homes across the North East, and it has grown to include some of the most iconic in Newcastle, including Parrish Court in Byker, a former Lloyds Bank in Gateshead which was once home to the famous engraver Thomas Bewick and, more recently, the Grey Street Hotel.
Today the group owns buildings across the city with high street banks and other big firms as tenants.
“There is nothing better than the property business,” he said. “It’s my strong belief that if you buy it right, give the property the TLC it deserves and requires, you will never lose out.
“I sold the residential homes but the other properties I will never barter with, they are my trophies, they are my babies.
“We have around 150 across the city, there is not a street in Newcastle without one of our buildings, and I’m biased – I don’t like to spend money outside of the area.”
Deals came thick and fast in the 1990s, often written, he says, on the back of a matchbox. Communication and networking skills have always been key – and he always replies to emails and messages within minutes – and with a permanent “can-do and will-do” attitude. It’s also hard to imagine a downbeat Meenu.
“Networking is the main tool to success, being happy to meet with your peers, sharing your experiences with them and learning from them – I like to think my network is a very close one,” he says.
“Whatever came along between 1991 and 2000 we basically bought. In the early days things were done very quickly. They were very quickly calculated and we had the hunger to do it.”
The family-run business first expanded into the care sector in 1984 with the purchase of Cestria House in Jesmond, Newcastle, which was a new experience.
“We were only taught to keep our elders at home, so it was a unique experience, but I immensely enjoyed it,” he said. “At that point the care business was little more than a business, like the property and clothing, but this is a business that gives you satisfaction that you are doing something worthwhile.’’
In 1991 he bought a care home in Birtley, followed by Bellvue House in Sunderland, swiftly following those purchases with the development of Bellevue House in Heaton, Newcastle. Today the Prestwick Care division of the firm has 10 homes, and more will follow very soon. And Meenu takes pride in the fact that new developments in this sector have created jobs for the region.
“Without having to blow our trumpet we have created a lot of opportunities – and wealth for the family – but importantly lots of jobs for people,” he says.
“Each time we do something it gives something back to the North East economy and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction; that during difficult years we were able to contribute and provide employment.’’
Earlier this year all the strands of the business – DAV Developments, Prestwick Care and the leisure division, which includes the Three Mile Inn and the two Scalinis restaurants, were brought together under the umbrella of the Malhotra Group.
The group secured a finance deal with RBS bank, which it is using to drive forward a £100m investment plan - £57m of which is being ploughed into the care division.
Only this July the Prestwick Care division opened 50-bed Brooke House, a specialist dementia residential and nursing care service – with close associate Sir Len Fenwick, chief executive of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals Trust, performing the official opening duties.
The RBS facility also included development funding to support the construction of a new purpose built 54-bed care home at Melton Park, Newcastle, a home creating around 70 new jobs which forms part of the group’s plans to provide 2080 specialist care places across the North East by 2018.
Meenu said: “The care business is something which gives me tremendous satisfaction – it maddens me to see the older generation suffering when they are the ones who have made this country great.
“People worry about the younger generation but they have time on their side. As for the older generation, it is their time now to be looked after, when they are old and can’t fend for themselves.”
The remaining £43m is being invested in the leisure side, with renovations for the leisure venues and a major refit for the newly-acquired Grey Street Hotel.
Patrons of other venues including the Three Mile Inn will also see some impressive changes unfold in the near future. The investments should see the current turnover rise significantly, and Meenu believes the workforce of 1,000 across the group could double to 2,000 employees. Meenu is thankful for the strong support he has had from the likes of council planners and English Heritage over the years, while relationships with banks have also been strong.
“We certainly continue to work with the lending institutions which, in spite of adverse publicity, are there to help on the right projects,” he said.
Some businessmen and women find it hard to talk freely and openly about themselves, their personal and professional accomplishments.
Meenu, however, is relaxed and eager to communicate his passion for the North East, those he deals with, his staff and family and he conveys that enthusiasm – and his achievements – without pomp and bluster.
He regards Newcastle and the North East as his second home and a place that has enabled him to take advantage of lots of opportunities, so he said he has always been keen to deliver opportunities to others, something he has been able to do through the firm’s strategy applied since the recession – to landbank as much as possible.
Meenu said the group sought to buy several plots of land around the region on which they could gain development permission, a move which has ensured 100s of jobs for those involved in subsequent developments.
“Without having to blow our trumpet,” he said, “we have created a lot of opportunities – and wealth for the family – but importantly lots of jobs for people.
“Each time we do something it gives something back to the North East economy and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction; that during difficult years we were able to contribute, and give employment that’s so badly needed.
Now, at 53, the creation of the Malhotra Group and the last he’s intent on keeping himself and the group healthy, maintaining his family’s health and security, and also creating a legacy.
He said: “My style of management is simple – you have to trust and listen to your senior managers, you have to back them, and I like people to be happy in their roles because all of the employees are part of the family: their problems are my problems.
“And we continue to learn from each other.
“The most important part that the family is focussed on is ensuring that we have the right personnel, protocols and structures to take the business into the next phase.
“It was always my aspiration to form an Asian plc in the North East, getting the right personnel in place – in other words handing it over to the next generations, to Bunti and my son Atul.
“Under this umbrella of the Malhotra Group plans are to steadily grow and contribute to the economy of the North East, and I have already started mentoring my son and my brother, and I have a helicopter view over the business.
“On a personal note, I have signed a collaboration with Newcastle health services, the NHS trust. My dream was always to contribute something to my home town in India, so I’m in the process of developing a hospital. It’s going to be the Freeman Hospital in Ludhiana, a sister hospital to the Newcastle site.
“Our plan is take all the most senior staff there and make our centre next to none, with designated theatres and top equipment, and I have been working with Sir Len Fenwick on this for some time. It’s what I have always wanted to build in India, a legacy.
“The land has been acquired, PwC have registered the centre and we are finally at the planning stage . . . and I can’t wait to start.
“As you get older your basis of perception and values in life suddenly change. Certainly I have seen this in me, when I turned 50. Getting a £10m deal does not give me as much pleasure as it does to help SMEs and charities. I was recently involved in giving a contribution of £100k to Newcastle University and to the NHS for research, and I also offer my time and services to SMEs.
“It has been an illustrious and satisfactory journey which I have thoroughly enjoyed, but these are the areas on which I want to contribute more of my time to. The reward I now want to reap in life is basically giving back to society.
“And the wealth I accumulated I never aspired to – I just wanted security and a three-bed house.”
What car do you drive?
Rolls Royce Ghost
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Louis, Jesmond, Newcastle
Who or what makes you laugh?
People’s sense of humour
What’s your favourite book?
Seven Habits of Successful People by Stephen Covey
What was the last album you bought?
Ghazals by Jaghit Singh (Indian semi classical music)
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Venture only into what you know
And the worst?
To buy a football club
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£30 per week working for 90 hours in a Newsagents
How do you keep fit?
David Lloyd Gym
What’s your most irritating habit?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Champagne and cars
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Admire - Gandhi
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Gandhi, Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Successful People), Sachin Tendulkar and Ratan Tata