Nicholas Owen meets the Surrey Business Person of the Year, Manny Sawhney
PUBLISHED: 21:06 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 06:31 20 May 2014
This year's Surrey Business Person of the Year, Manny Sawhney has made quite an impact in the county since opening his two green guest houses just four years ago. NICHOLAS OWEN went to meet him
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2009
Photos by Andy Newbold
It is very rare for hotelier Manny Sawhney to be at a loss for words. He bubbles over as he talks about his work, the way he runs his business, and his vision of how he wants things to be in the future.
He admits, though, that he was left speechless when he was named Surrey's Business Person of the Year at the 2009 Surrey Business Awards, supported by this magazine. In fact, I had the pleasure of announcing his name. Amid the applause, I whispered to him: "Would you like to say a few words?" He merely shook his head, and beamed at me.
"I was shocked," he tells me as we chat in one of two Surrey hotels he runs, the Asperion Hillside at Worplesdon. "I have only been around here a short time; only built this business up starting four years ago.
"I saw the other finalists on the shortlist and thought who am I? I didn't think I stood a chance. I was so taken aback..."
Manny was intrigued enough by his victory to find out what got him the coveted prize. "I asked the chairman of the judges," he continues. "I was told that for the first time, every judge had agreed straight away. They said, we saw your passion and dedication and your reputation in this community."
It must be said, there is no false modesty about 42-year-old Manny Sawhney. He is delighted to be successful, and, most of the time, delighted to talk about it. But then he has a great deal to be proud of...
He and his late father-in-law bought the Asperion Hillside four years ago and another called simply Asperion on the Farnham Road, just outside Guildford, shortly afterwards. They are four star hotels, not aimed at the passing tourist trade but mostly for business and other people who need to be in the area. What makes them so special, however, is their impressive environmental credentials.
Manny prides himself on running a firm that is not only as green as possible, but also one that buys as much local produce as it can. "We have strengthened our relationships with local suppliers, in order to promote organic and local food," he says. "We know visitors seek out businesses that support and promote these values." Some of the food is literally grown in their own backyard - several of the herbs come from the Hillside garden - and Manny encourages his staff to think about recycling and sustainability in every conceivable way.
He also supports many local organisations, too. They range from the Guildford Heat basketball team to the Ambassadors Theatre in Woking and the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford.
It's all been reflected in a long list of awards picked up in a few short years, culminating with Manny's own accolade as Surrey's top business person.
Journey to success
His story is certainly a remarkable one, coming as he does from a proud Sikh family whose ways of doing things are a combination of the highly traditional yet often highly original.
Born in Iran, where his Indian Sikh father ran some renowned restaurants, his family escaped the worst of the turmoil after the fall of the Shah, and were able to stay on to continue making a good living.
From very early days, young Manny had a passion few children develop: he loved to visit hotels, to check them out, from the front desk to the bathrooms. He can remember doing so when he was only five or six. He soon got to know the internal workings of such places: "If behind the scenes is okay, then front of house will be fine."
Eventually, in his late teens, he went to Switzerland, the country above all others that has a reputation for grooming good hoteliers. For two years, Manny learned the basics at a hotel school near Montreux. From there, family connections helped him get part-time work at a big hotel in Massachusetts in the US.
"By the time I was 20, I was often the manager on duty," he says. "Think of that: at that age in charge of a 500-bed hotel! I knew I would always love it."
In the late 1990s, when investment in hotels in America was booming, he became involved with the buying and selling of premises. To advise on that, his background was perfect, since three-quarters of all small hotels in the United States are controlled by the Indian community - those with Asian origins, not the indigenous Indians.
"It really helped that I was from the same background," he says. "I understood these people, I understood their ways, extremely well."
An arranged marriage
So what brought him to the UK? Now his story switches back to the deeply-held beliefs and traditions of his Sikh family. A marriage was arranged, to a woman whose own family lived in London. How did Manny feel about that? He pauses, and then is very straightforward.
"You have no idea how I fought it. But I was compelled to. No matter how much of a 'global citizen' I had become, it was all about the cultural ties, the respect for family..."
All has worked out well. His wife Rita, also 42, is a businesswoman, working for Sony Ericsson. They have two children: daughter Noor, eight, and four-year-old son Sabeer. Noor is a chip off the block already: "She is showing great interest in hotels," Manny laughs.
With his own family established in the UK, he set out on a methodical search for his dream: hotels he would own and run and in the best spots. The Guildford area soon looked perfect, with lots of companies and a university needing places for people to stay, plus good communications to and from London. "I soon knew it was one of the top places in the country," Manny says.
He bought the old Crawford House on the A31 in 2005, and that became the Asperion. The 15-room Hillside followed a few months later. Each has been modernised, and the ambience is of gentle, sophisticated comfort. No jazzy carpets and hectic wallpaper, as in some smaller hotels: "I want them to feel like home from home, and friendly. Very comfortable, very relaxed."
Attention to detail
Manny commutes every day from his home in West London, fanatical in his attention to detail in both Surrey establishments. There are some surprising things. Just before lunchtime, a drink from the bar is offered. It is an unmanned, honesty bar, where guests are trusted to write down what they have drunk. At the end of the first year, Manny totted up what had been declared, and reckoned the Hillside was a mere £75 short of where the takings should have been.
In keeping with his ethos, most of the drink available on the bar, especially the spirits, are organic, emphasising Manny's commitment to being green - which leads us nicely on to his next project.
"I am now looking to build the first completely ethical and sustainable hotel around the Guildford area," he says. "Even the building materials will have been recycled - everything from construction onwards will be sustainable, through and through."
Manny Sawhney insists that running hotels is "not rocket science". Maybe it is mostly common sense, yet the successful have to be ready constantly to innovate. And have enthusiasm that never flags. "I breathe it... I live it," he says. "This is such a fantastic business to be in."
- Asperion, Farnham Road, Guildford GU2 7PF. Tel: 01483 579 299.
- Asperion Hillside, Perry Hill, Worplesdon, Guildford GU3 3RF. Tel: 01483 232051.
Manny's secrets to success
Here, Surrey Business Person of the Year Manny Sawhney reveals his five top tips for succeeding in business
- Be passionate and have a can-do attitude
- Stick to your ethos and values, despite the ups and downs in business
- Be compassionate and fair to all of your staff
- Business is all about people. Get the people right and you'll be on to a winner
- The guest/customer is always right