Hospitality chain OYO was founded in India in 2013 by 25-year-old entrepreneur, Ritesh Agarwal. The company has since grown a network of over 18,000 franchised and leased hotels across 500 cities and 10 countries including India and China.
When OYO launched in the UK late last year, it did so with the ambition to launch 50 UK hotels by the end of April. It also announced plans to invest £40m in the UK in 2019.
BLM spoke to Jeremy Sanders, Head of OYO UK, about his background, his time so far with OYO, and the company’s future plans.
What was your background before coming to OYO?
I started off life as a management consultant with Bain & Company, the US consulting firm. I did that straight out of university – it was a great place to begin a career because you get a very broad experience of a range of sectors and geographies. I worked largely in the UK and South Africa on retail, leisure, and private equity.
I then did an MBA in France, at INSEAD, before getting the itch to start my own company. Having done a lot of work in the leisure and hospitality space at Bain, I wanted to go into restaurants. This was in 2010, 2011, which was a tricky time for the economy for a good time for quick-service restaurants in the UK. I started an Italian quick-service restaurant, Coco di Mama, in London, and I rolled that out over 6 years until 2017.
I sold that to a private equity business and then, via a couple of other projects, came to OYO.
How is your experience with OYO different from your time with Coco di Mama? Are there any similarities?
The one big similarity is that in Coco di Mama, it was all about starting an independent, small restaurant, and taking on the big boys on the high street. On one side of us there’d be Pret a Manger; on the other side, Starbucks; across the road, McDonald’s. So, we were a challenger on a very local level, and we instilled that mentality into ourselves and our team. We’re challenging: we need to do things better, faster, differently, because we don’t have the experience or background that these larger chains have.
I feel that it’s quite similar at OYO. We partner with independent hotels, so these are typically sitting on the same street as a Premier Inn or a Travelodge. Every day, they are fighting for business and attention from the public against these very large and sophisticated chains. So there’s a challenger mentality in OYO, too.
In terms of differences, it’s mostly size and speed. With Coco di Mama, we opened 20 restaurants over 5 or 6 years. With OYO, after just 6 months, we are live in over 50 hotels across the UK.
OYO has expanded to the UK from India, China, Malaysia and Nepal. Did the business model need to adapt at all? How do OYO’s operations differ between countries?
Absolutely. The business is very well established in Asia, but the market is different between India and the UK and China and Nepal. We need to take the things that are valuable and that we can learn from in the Asian business and build on that in the UK. For example, the standards across the hotels in the UK are higher and more consistent than you might find in the Asian countries. So we need to find ways of adding value there.
We invest in the hotels and we do transformation work, but the work we do in India might be different from the work we do in the UK. In the UK, it’s more around the signage and branding of the hotels rather than deep, structural work.
In the UK, it’s also a smaller geography. We can work more intensively with our partners on a day-to-day basis because we’re covering less ground.
But there are also deep similarities. Why are we doing what we’re doing? The reason is the same: to improve customer experience. That doesn’t alter with geography.
Why was the UK next on the list for expansion? What are your plans for OYO in the UK?
The UK is the most sophisticated and exciting hospitality market in the world. So when OYO, which has had such success in Asia, looks West – this is where we want to be. We want to challenge ourselves in this market, to run at the pace of this market, to innovate within this market. Because if we’re successful here – which we are proving to be – then we know we can apply that anywhere.
In the UK, we’re partnering with hotels where we can add value, anywhere from Inverness to Brighton. But we’re going step by step. We want to be a significant player here in the UK and we want to compete with the big boys.
You became Head of OYO UK in October 2018. How have the first few months gone for you? What have been the highs and lows?
The first few months have been scintillating. It’s extremely exciting to be involved in a business that has a clear mission and that can add value and solve problems on a daily basis. And OYO is hungry. It’s innovative. It’s forward-thinking. It’s always looking to take the next step.
It’s challenging, no doubt, because you have to keep up the pace and momentum and keep everyone on board. But it’s worth it.
What is your leadership style? What are your priorities as a business leader?
I’m high on transparency. I try to keep things as clear and open as possible because I think people respond to that.
I also try to lead by doing. I hope to set an example in the way I work, what I produce, how I communicate… I want the team to feel like I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I myself wouldn’t do.
I think conviction is important, too. I want to believe in what I’m doing, every single day, and I want everyone in the team to share in that conviction.