Last December's Tsunami could have meant disaster for Ho Kwon Ping, the 53-year-old founder and chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, one of Asia's leading hotel chains. Nine of the group's resorts are in areas hit by the waves -- Phuket, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. "Miraculously...all of our guests and employees were safe," Ho says, and only one hotel was damaged. Ho and his employees quickly set to work along-side U.N. and local aid workers, transporting relief supplies and helping to rebuild, particularly in the Maldives. The tsunami, says Ho, brought Banyan Tree hotels and their employees closer to their local communities.
Ho's activist streak goes way back. He was a political radical in college, then he became a journalist. His articles for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore rubbed the government the wrong way. And in 1979 he was jailed for several months under the city-state's tough Internal Security Act. After his release, he worked for the magazine for two more years, then decided to take over his father's commodities trading and construction company, Wah Chang/Thai Wah Group. He decided to diversify it, and settled on hotels.
The idea was to cater to the growing number of affluent Asians by investing in high-end resorts in tropical locations. As Banyan Tree expanded, so did its horizons. "We needed to be global because that's what our customers want," says Ho. Banyan Tree now has 17 resorts, 45 spas, and 50 retail stores selling local handicrafts. It's a family affair. Ho's wife, Claire, runs the retail subsidiary; his brother, an architect, designs the resorts. If Ho's luck holds, this former journalist plans to keep his empire growing.
By Assif Shameen