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Indians migrate to U.S., excel as lodging owners


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The story begins in Gujarat, India, where the Patels were mostly farmers.

Their name is derived from the Gujarati "pati dar," or "land owner."

The state is known for a merchant class that emigrated to Africa to start businesses in nations such as Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.

A few found their way into the American lodging industry by the 1940s, when Indian immigrants bought the Congress Hotel in Sacramento and leased lodges in Northern California.

By 1962, 23 Indian families had bought motels in San Francisco, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association in Atlanta, the major trade organization for Indian motel owners.

Indians flocked to the United States as college students in the mid-1960s.

With education considered critical in Gujarati culture, many earned graduate degrees in sciences and engineering.

One was hotel owners' association Chairman Bharat Shah, who is from another large clan. (Shah is derived from "shahukar," or "money lender.")

After earning a master's degree in Tennessee and a Ph.D. in Utah, he worked as a food research chemist on the East Coast.

But he yearned to be his own boss: "We came as students, but always in the back of our minds was to be in our own business."

His break came in 1977, when a Gujarati friend moved from South Africa and started telling him how to make money in motels.

"The wife did the housekeeping. The husband did the front desk, and both of them together at night did the laundry and folded the sheets," Mr. Shah said.

"The husband and wife, as a team, worked almost 16 hours a day. Doing that, we saved money from the payroll and could turn around and pay off the debt. . . .

"It hardly took two or three years to return the money to the lenders."

The formula looked so attractive that Mr. Shah started a sideline selling motels to newly arrived Indians.

Along the way he came across a sweet deal: the 89-unit Winkler Motor Lodge off Interstate 40 in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"After that, almost every two years I have built a new property," Mr. Shah said.

Today, he has a Days Inn and Comfort Inn in Spartanburg, S.C., an Econolodge in Winston-Salem and a Hampton Inn in Atlanta.

So many others have seen the same success in a similar way that "you can repeat that story about 3,000 times," Mr. Shah said.

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