Could Vikram Chatwal become the world's first Sikh billionaire?

The owner of the Hautel Couture chain of hotels has come a long way from the days his father used to describe his work ethic as 40% industry, 60% leisure. But he's beginning to regret his intention to the be the world's first Sikh billionaire...

Vikram Chatwal has come to regret his declared intention to become the world's first Sikh billionaire. "I'm not even a fifth of the way there," the 34-year-old tells The Observer's Joanna Walters. In any case, "I'm going to stop at $950m". He may not have made a billion, but he has come a long way from the days when his father, the hotel magnate Sant Singh Chatwal, described his work ethic as 40% industry, 60% leisure.

That ratio is now firmly reversed and Chatwal, the former "entrepreneur, Bollywood actor and playboy", is now a serious businessman, husband and father-to-be. He won the Entrepreneur of the Year' award at the first South Asia Media Awards in New York last year, and has big ambitions for his hotel group, Hautel Couture, which now has five hotels in three cities and is valued at $380m. He also owns the 16th-century country house hotel in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where Beatrix Potter used to spend her summers and Henry VIII hunted for stag, and plans to open a branch of Dream, his flagship boutique hotel brand, in central London in the next two years.

The Chatwal story is "unusual, however familiar its opportunistic strains", says Forbes Asia. Vikram's father, a former Indian Navy fighter pilot, left the Punjab for Ethiopia where he set up a restaurant and became close to Emperor Haile Selassie, but ended up losing a $5m fortune when Selassie was overthrown in 1974. The family eventually settled in New York, where Sant Singh continued to expand his restaurant and hotel empire. Today, Sant, owner of the $900m Hampshire Hotels & Resorts business and Bombay Palace restaurant chain, is "probably the best known Sikh in America", says The Hindustan Times.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Such success afforded Vikram a luxurious upbringing and he initially followed a conservative route, attending Wharton School of Business before working at Morgan Stanley as an investment banker. But his experience of the financial world was short-lived, says Rachel Shapiro in The Independent on Sunday. It provoked what Chatwal says was a "crisis"; after one year, he gave it up to become a model, and dabbled in acting, starring in the Bollywood film One Dollar Curry. Singh gave his son an ultimatum: have an arranged marriage or join the family hotel business.

He chose the business and it proved a natural fit, says Shapiro. As a child, he had been made to work in the family's hotels, collecting rubbish and delivering room service, so he was at home in the environment. In 1999, his father gave him "free rein and undisclosed start-up capital" to start his own independent firm, says Walters, and he now has ambitious expansion plans. "I want to open four more hotels in the next two years," he says, "taking the valuation to $520m and the annual turnover to $140m." He is funding expansion with institutional and personal investing ("I went to work at Morgan Stanley to make my own millions").

Being his father's son has been a mixed blessing, he tells Walters. As soon as he opened his hotels, "any failings that might be excused in another more anonymous business, or given time to fix, were immediately savaged in gossip columns". He is doing his best to prove his detractors wrong. But for the time being Chatwal is probably better known for his appearance in gossip columns and his lavish wedding to Priya Sachdev, a former investment banker (pictured), which hit the headlines in February.

A high-flying lifestyle but a good Sikh boy at heart

Dubbed the "turban cowboy" by the press, Vikram Chatwal is "possibly the world's greatest single human embodiment of the converse characteristics of ancient and modern, East and West, work and play," says Joanna Walters in The Observer. During his bachelor days, his brightly coloured turbans were a familiar sight in New York clubs. He famously dated Kate Moss and sports an impressive array of tattoos, including a G' inspired by the supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Yet at heart, Chatwal has always been a good Sikh boy. Despite skipping school and "getting busted" a few times for shoplifting ("because that was the cool thing to do"), Chatwal has never cut his hair and prays every day, says The New York Observer. Five of the tattoos on his arm are Sikh. His eventual marriage, to Priya, an Indian model, actress and like him briefly a former investment banker, was exactly what his father wished for. The wedding itself was "a lavish display of wealth and power", says The Guardian. Three hundred guests were flown in on chartered jets for the celebrations, which lasted three weeks and were spread over three cities. Highlights included elephant polo matches and a masked ball on a floating Mughal palace.

The dichotomy in Vikram's character is apparent in the design of his hotel interiors, which have deliberately wild public areas but calm, simple bedrooms. This styling, together with a system developed in conjunction with his father whereby room prices are adjusted almost daily according to demand are the keys to his success.