The Family Behind Naumi Hotels Opens Up About Its Late Patriarch’s Spirit Of Giving
Hard work, honesty and consistently challenging yourself—these are the values that Surya Jhunjhnuwala lives by, inspired by his late father, Shyam Sundar.
The founder and managing director of the Singapore-headquartered Naumi Hotels, under the privately-held Hind Group umbrella, says, “The entrepreneurial DNA in our family builds the foundation for the continuity of the business, ensuring that wealth can be sustained and grown through the generations to come. At the same time, Dad also taught us that philanthropy should be a value to live by, and not an afterthought. It should start from young, and anyone can do it regardless of their status or net worth.”
Surya, who shares three children and one grandson with wife Ritu, was born into a family of entrepreneurs. Originally from Rajasthan in India, the family moved to Rangoon (now Yangon in Myanmar) to become one of the country’s biggest textile merchants. They later had to flee the country, twice—first during the Japanese occupation, and later the military coup. Having to pick up the pieces, Shyam Sundar moved to Hong Kong and ventured into the watch business in the 1950s. They became one of the largest watch manufacturers in the city, producing over 300,000 watches a month at its peak.
“We’ve had a pretty interesting family history—having everything, and then losing everything. But we’ve always managed to get back on our feet—it all boils down to finding the right opportunity,” Surya tells us.
Today, the Hind Group’s core business is in property and hospitality. Surya helms Naumi Hotels, which he founded in 2007 with its flagship property at Seah Street, and his younger brother Girish runs the Ovolo Hotels in Hong Kong. The family’s remarkable rise from humble beginnings, through diversification and sheer resilience, can be attributed to the foresight of its patriarch, who passed away in 1997.
The fifth child among eight siblings, Shyam Sundar lived his life with honesty and integrity, showing kindness and concern for people around him, no matter what their station was in life. The fact that he never got to pursue his dream of going to college made him particularly passionate about education.
He was also a strong believer that girls should get an equal opportunity to receive a good education, and his family was no exception. With this forward-thinking belief, he became a mentor for the Phoola Devi High School for Girls, one of the first all-girls schools in the family’s ancestral home in Rajasthan.
Surya’s eldest son Gaurang, who oversees Naumi Hotels’ properties in Australia and New Zealand, says, “Despite the fact that we never lived in India, we’re Indian. We keep our roots in India and travel there almost every quarter. The philosophy around the cause of educating the girls is still prevalent in our family, and we still like to promote causes within India with that in mind. I think that has transcended between generations, and is something we would like to keep focusing on.”
The Hind Group also supports numerous selected charities on an ad-hoc basis, including the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, with which it has established the S S Jhunjhnuwala Diabetes Research Centre to fund research into the disease.
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Give Where You Live
With Naumi Hotels’ continued growth and expansion, and in a bid to do more when it comes to giving back to the community it operates in, the family pledged an initial sum of $200,000 to establish the Shyam Sundar Jhunjhnuwala Charity Fund in 2015, which is managed by the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS).
With philanthropic advice from CFS, the family continues its patriarch’s legacies and focuses on education, welfare initiatives, as well as health-related issues for underprivileged women and children in Singapore. One of its initiatives include a collaboration with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) to establish the S S Jhunjhnuwala – Naumi Hotel Bursary, awarded in perpetuity, to support financially disadvantaged and deserving female undergraduates who are pursuing a full‑time degree programme in the Bachelor of Hospitality Business at SIT.
Gaurang says, “We like that the bursary is awarded in perpetuity because even if we were no longer around, it would still be self-sufficient and make a material difference in someone’s life and the future generations.” Furthermore, the bursary recipients will also be able to access potential internships and work opportunities across the Hind Group’s hospitality properties.
The Shyam Sundar Jhunjhnuwala Charity Fund also supports on an ad-hoc basis the Ramakrishna Mission Boys’ Home, which helps boys from disadvantaged homes, as well as Presbyterian Community Services’ Gladiolus Place, which supports troubled teenaged girls. Having a charitable fund with CFS helps the family to give in a more meaningful and sustained way and ensures continuity in its legacy of giving as it passes from the current generation to the next. The family continues to work with CFS to identify gaps in the community that are aligned with its giving focus.
Ritu, who runs the family’s Rang Mahal Restaurants, elucidates, “We are strong believers in education to break the cycle of poverty. Rather than provide temporary measures or help, we are keen to support causes with a longer-term effect. Having a fund ensures that our family has continuity in our legacy of giving as it passes from generation to generation.”
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Family Of Givers
With the patriarch as a role model, the concept of philanthropy is deeply ingrained into the family’s way of life. The children and grandchildren learn directly from the elders. Ritu explains, “I’m very grateful to be born into a family where I saw my parents as helpful and caring people, going out of their way to do things for people. I married into a family, where my parents-in-law subscribed to a philosophy where you don’t just live for yourself; whatever opportunities you have, you do something for others to make a difference and benefit them in simple ways. When the children came along, they see this at home in the day-to-day.”
On the values that are passed through the generations, Surya expounds that “giving back is important, and it has been taught to us to help the less fortunate; everyone has a part to play in this, regardless of how much you have; and it’s not just about giving money, but your time too”. Shyam Sundar was one to walk the talk, giving his own time to advise and encourage entrepreneurs like himself who came to Hong Kong, giving them the will to succeed.
Surya sees this in his future: “I’m very clear that in five to eight years’ time, I would like to devote 50 per cent of my time to philanthropy, with a separate family office focusing on that. And not only in dollars and writing cheques, but to roll up my sleeves and sit on the boards of non‑profit organisations to guide and share ideas.
“My father left behind not only his wealth, but the richness of honesty, integrity, perseverance and humility. With him as my role model, I try my best to emulate his qualities, and hopefully, also be remembered by the same qualities.”
This story was first published in Singapore Tatler February 2019.
- Photography Darren Gabriel Leow
- Art Direction Jana Tan
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