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The Remarkable Rise of Surinder Arora from Troubled Kid to Billionaire Businessman

When he moved to England age 13 he couldn’t read and left school with few qualifications. But the work ethic he adopted from his mum saw him become a successful businessman

Surinder Arora when he won the KPMG Entrepreneur of the Year at the Asian Business Awards in 2007. Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Surinder Arora when he won KPMG Entrepreneur of the Year at the Asian Business Awards in 2007. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

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Surinder Arora was a troubled Indian 11-year-old boy. By his own admission, the spoilt only child had fallen into bad company in the Punjab, smoking, gambling and carrying a knife.

So his parents decided to send him out of harm’s way to England at age 13 telling him he was going to live with an aunt and uncle in west London.

When he arrived with nothing Arora got another shock. The aunt and uncle were his parents who had left him in India to be raised by his real aunt and uncle. He also had an older brother, not a cousin.

Arora’s new life was in a crowded three-bedroom terraced house occupied by eight people in two Indian families who worked all hours to scrape together a living – but it meant his wayward ways were replaced by a work ethic that has today made him a billionaire. The “opportunist” turned his gambling instincts to business.


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Arora’s real mum appears to be his inspiration, with him telling BBC Sounds in 2019 that he was shocked when he found she had three jobs and worked seven days a week – a day job in a factory, an evening job cleaning a bank and an insurance company and a weekend job cooking Indian food for students.

Arora initially spent eight months in a class learning to read – he didn’t know the alphabet – and speak English but left school at 18 with a Hindi O level and little else, and not sure what he wanted to do.

A family friend took him to Elstree flying school and Arora developed a passion for flying and decided to be a pilot. He had no chance of doing this academically, so got his first job as a junior clerk with British Airways so he could pay for flying lessons. Like his mum, Arora took evening jobs including being a waiter at the Renaissance Hotel at Heathrow which he now owns.

His next job was at Abbey Life Insurance where his Indian supervisor suggested he invest in property to make more money. And he did, buying up some maisonettes in Harrow and renovating them for profit. Arora then spotted a gap in the market – many British Airways crew had to stay overnight but had difficulty getting accommodation. So he brought a row of terrace houses and converted them into B&Bs for aircrew. This became very profitable, so he bought more houses and took a £20 million gamble to build a purpose built 249 bedroom hotel for aircrew. By the time it was built it was worth £40 million and with the setting up of the Arora Group in 1999 he was well on the way to be able to acquire more hotels – either directly or through franchises – and build a property empire.

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Today, Arora is a billionaire and the Arora Group owns hotels at Heathrow and Gatwick, Windsor Great Park, Luton Hoo, two golf courses in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire and shopping centres in Crawley and Woking and has just completed  buying the Heythrop Estate in Kensington, on the market with Savills for £750 million, an iconic listed estate surrounding Kensington Square, which has development potential. He also plans to turn the Luton Hoo golf course into a championship golf course so he can bid for the Ryder Cup to be held there in the 2030s.

But his rise in the property world has not been plain sailing. Arora told the BBC he cried all night when his property portfolio crashed in the financial crisis. And since the Conservatives, first as a coalition in 2010 and later as government, he has been involved in a number of controversial meetings with government ministers and a major planning controversy over one of his premier hotels.

Previously, after publicly backing Tony Blair, he became part of the Conservative business advisory group set up by George Osborne, the New Enterprise Council, before the 2010 General Election. His company also gave two donations worth £6,450 to Philip (now Lord) Hammond the former chancellor’s constituency party in 2017.

However, his public relation consultant, Oli Winton, said: “He is not a notable or significant donor in any way nor a member at all – despite what I appreciate are the regular Tory donor headlines (based on that one historical donation). Surinder has never had a party allegiance (eg has not been a party member) and doesn’t switch/ change sides … it is possible to support and be friends with both Tony Blair and his (previously) local MP Philip Hammond for example.”

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Arora’s friendship with Lord Hammond led to him wooing him to join his company as a paid advisor. This led to a ruling from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments prohibiting him for two years from providing the company any privileged information on Brexit and, as he sat on a Cabinet committee handling the expansion of Heathrow Airport, any inside information from the government on this. At that time, Arora was bidding with other partners to build a third runway and a new terminal 6. Lord Hammon is still an adviser.

Oli Winton said: “Any plans need to be reworked according to what future governments and indeed the new leadership at Heathrow itself plan to do – whether R3 ever happens is a separate debate but there hasn’t been any pledge or push from Labour so it doesn’t seem imminent that we will see a drive towards a new runway.”

The pandemic hit his hotel business at the same time, and Arora became involved in a fresh controversy over the government award of a lucrative contract to house quarantined people coming back or visiting the UK at the time. An investigation by the Good Law Project, revealed he had lobbied Lord Bethell, then a junior minister at the Department for Health and Social Care, just two weeks before getting the contract.

Following the meeting Lord Bethel had recommended the company to the government’s Test and Trace department. The National Audit Office later said that the whole scheme cost £757 million, nearly double the predicted £428 million. And the scheme was expensive for people using it – a family of two adults and a child would pay £367 per night for 11 nights.

The same year Arora and his son Sanjay, now chief operating officer of the company, had a meeting with Priti Patel, then home secretary and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, along with British Airways and Dubai International Airport. The meeting became controversial because Patel had no home office civil servants present and it was seen as a breach of the ministerial code.  BA said afterwards it was just an informal lunch.

Some six years earlier Arora had used some of the first properties he had bought in the village of Longford near Heathrow to house asylum seekers much to the consternation of villagers there.

Arora’s latest controversy surrounds the luxury Fairmont Windsor spa hotel. Rishi Sunak chose the venue for his groundbreaking agreement – known as the Windsor Agreement- with Ursula Von der Leyen, the EU President, which ended the long-running dispute over Brexit.

What was not known at the time was that this hotel, which borders Windsor Great Park, had been expanded without obtaining planning permission. This only came out when local people thought the scale of the development violated the Green Belt and complained to the local council, Conservative-controlled Runnymede.


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Local planners were furious about the breach of planning laws and demanded the extension be demolished, which was initially backed by the council. Arora resisted this offering to raze other buildings instead.

Arora said that it was now close to an agreement with the council to avoid demolition and instead get retrospective planning approval for the entire development. This is quite unusual since in many cases where people flagrantly break planning laws the council can insist that the buildings are pulled down. This now seems to have been averted which would be a victory for the Arora Group.

Arora’s next huge development that could run into controversy is the Heythorp Estate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A large part of the estate is listed and it has planning permission for luxury retirement homes. Arora would not say what they planned to do with this highly valuable and iconic site with its own square. The group says it looks forward to working with Kensington and Chelsea council.

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