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Hinduja: Restoring Old War Office was ‘labour of love’

The Princess Royal unveiled a plaque to mark the reincarnation of the Grade II-listed Old War Office (OWO) in Whitehall, London, as the OWO Raffles hotel and residential complex

Princess Anne, Gopichand Hinduja, Saad Hasan and Sébastien Bazin at the launch of The OWO hotel

By: Amit Roy

TUESDAY, September 26, 2023, will go down in the history of the Hinduja family as a spectacular night to remember.

On that day, the Princess Royal unveiled a plaque to mark the reincarnation of the Grade II-listed Old War Office (OWO) in Whitehall, London, as the OWO Raffles hotel and residential complex.

“Today was always going to be a special day for us,” said Gopi Hinduja, 83, who considers the restoration of the building over an eight-year period as his “legacy”.

The OWO, with its marble staircases and floors and chandeliers, now features 120 guest rooms and suites, plus 85 luxurious apartments.

The inaugural party was held in the courtyard, which was festooned with fresh flowers. Ballet dancers weaved in and out, while composer Andrew Lloyd Webber on the piano accompanied the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Among the 600 guests were top hoteliers Jasminder Singh (The Londoner and the May Fair), Surinder Arora (Fairmont Windsor Park and the O2 in Greenwich) and Joginder Sanger (The Washington and the Berkeley), possibly checking out the rather glamorous new kid on the block. Other senior businessmen present included Adar Poonawalla (Serum Institute of India), Sri Prakash Lohia (Indorama) and Yogesh Mehta (Pickford).

The Princess Royal with the Hinduja brothers Gopichand (left), Prakash (second from left), and Ashok (right), and Hasan

 

Frenchman Sébastien Bazin, the chairman and CEO of Accor hotels, which includes the Raffles franchise, was not one for understatement. The OWO “will likely be among the top five hotels on the planet”, he declared.

As he explained, it will be his job to run the hotel and residences. “Within the last 20 minutes, I’m actually feeling the weight shifting from your (Gopi’s) shoulders to my shoulders. And I’m going to have that weight for the next 20 years.”

Bazin went on: “The Raffles brand has been a beloved brand from Asia. Sir Stamford Raffles left Singapore (to return to England) exactly 200 years ago in 1824. And it took us 200 years to bring Raffles back here in London. And that brand is known, it’s legendary for service, for art, for culture and for generosity.”

Towards the end of the evening, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, dropped in briefly. No doubt his chauffeur brought him, but 10, Downing Street, is not even a 10-minute walk away. The Bollywood actor, Akshay Kumar and his wife, Twinkle Khanna, grabbed a selfie with Sunak and put it out on social media.

The prime minister had been preceded by business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch and Gillian Keegan, the education secretary. From the House of Lords, Jitesh Gadhia came along, as did Tory parliamentary hopeful for Hendon, Ameet Jogia. Also in attendance was London mayor Sadiq Khan.

The Old War Office is nothing if not a place of history. The TV presenter Tania Bryer, who acted as mistress of ceremonies, spoke of Winston Churchill’s “wafting cigar smoke, for the great man had an office in the building during the Second World War”. She also talked of “TE Lawrence scanning a map of Europe, perhaps even James Bond on his way to a briefing where there was just a bit of flirting with Miss Moneypenny”.

“But in 2016 (when the Hindujas acquired a 250-year lease on the Old War Office for £350 million), an entirely different mystery began to stir within these walls. For eight long years, it was no longer inhabited by politicians, diplomats and spies, but by hundreds of artisans and craftsmen, who were working behind closed doors to realise a new vision, a vision that would breathe new life into this famous corner of Whitehall. It was a vision that would redefine this landmark, not just as a British icon, but a global destination,” Bryer said.

Near the spot where she stood, “Neville Chamberlain decided that war in 1939. Winston Churchill, who spent so much time here in this building, famously said, ‘We shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us.’”

Princess Anne and Shalini Hinduja and other guests look at a model of the luxury hotel

Indeed, this was the theme picked up by Princess Anne, who thanked the Hindujas for “what you’ve done for this landmark building. Weirdly, we managed to build landmark buildings which are actually secret, and what went on inside them seems an amazing contradiction.

“But we will learn more about the history of this building now than we perhaps ever did before,” she added. “So, along with this genuine opening ceremony, our people can now come and enjoy this building. We will all learn a lot more about what this building did in London and the people who served here, but we look forward to the people who are going to serve you in the future.”

No doubt King Charles and Queen Camilla were invited to do the honours – after all, his private secretary, Sir Clive Alderton, attended the family’s Diwali party last year – but Anne’s presence indicates the Hindujas have the royal seal of approval. And in business, that will open doors across the world.

As it is, Gopi, who was described by Bryer as “the visionary behind this extraordinary project”, was able to point to the presence of Pravind Jugnauth, the prime minister of Mauritius, and Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, among his guests.

Sensing there was a good party going on near Buckingham Palace, Prince Andrew’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, came along with her husband, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi. They are undertaking some royal duties that might have been undertaken by Prince Harry.

Gopi said his family had “enormous admiration” for “hard-working Princess Anne”, who was championing “so many charities”.

“Our parents gave us the values that have steered our family and group over the last 100 years,” he said. “I am proud that we have been closely associated with many of the charities which have the patronage of the royal family.

“The idea to acquire and restore this iconic building came about while I was on a walk with my late brother SP (Srichand). And although he’s not with us today, I am sure he is proud of what has finally been achieved. We have his blessings upon us always, on the total family.”

Significantly, Gopi stressed the need for family unity. “Nothing is better in the world (than) to have a united family. Our efforts are always there to keep the family united and be unique.”

He went out of his way to thank two members of his own family: “This project has been a labour of love for the family. I pay special credit to my elder son, Sanjay; and my daughter-in-law, Shalini, the wife of (my younger son), Dheeraj, who really helped me to bring (the project to) completion.”

He emphasised: “This is not a renovation, it is a restoration, breathing life and colour back to something that had become jaded with time. We have created a new destination for Whitehall in London, while still preserving the essence of the building.”

Saad Hasan, an Iraqi investor based in Dubai and executive chairman of the Onex Group, revealed how he came to put money into the OWO: “To be completely honest, when Onex is asked to invest in real estate, we tend to smile politely before we say no.

“And then, in the middle of the winter lockdown of February 2021, we were asked whether we are interested in what we were assured was a very special building.

“‘What is that?’ we asked. ‘Where is it? In London? Where exactly?’ Metres away from Downing Street. ‘What sort of building?’ Historic, Grade II-listed.

“Then we saw a single picture of the facade and it was a case of love at first time. So, we completed the deal in fast forward,” Hasan revealed.

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