As Ellis Hospitality transitions from a small family startup to a management company, a daughter and mother recount what has shaped them and the company.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—When Savita Patel and her husband’s extended family left India in 1951, they traveled for three months before arriving at Ellis Island and eventually making their way to San Francisco to plant roots. That’s where they saw that the hotel industry held an opportunity for the family.
Money earned from odd jobs afforded a lease on their first hotel, The Alder, which is still managed by the family today. Soon, more relatives made the journey from India to San Francisco to join the business. In 1967, when Patel was 17 years old, she arrived in the city with her husband Raman, ready to work.
“I grew up in rural India. I was the second eldest of six children, and my parents instilled a strong work ethic,” Patel said. “We worked hard and focused on our business. I was never afraid to work and was very lucky that my husband gave me the opportunity to work and treated me like an equal. He valued my opinion, and we always talked about our family and business.”
The family operation continued to grow over the next few decades. In 1992, Patel and her husband ventured away from the extended family to start their own company. With two hotels in Northern California, a new family business was born.
Today, the portfolio comprises eight hotels in California, ranging from independent to branded. Patel’s daughter Jyoti Sarolia is at the helm as COO, transitioning the operation to a traditional management company called Ellis Hospitality. The name is a nod to the family’s journey to the United States and ultimately the industry.
Shaping the future
Sarolia said her mother taught her and her two brothers, Vinod and Vyomesh, everything they needed to know about work ethic and growth.
“I have been working by my mother’s side since I was a little girl,” she said. “My mom would always talk to me about her life when I helped her; it was great hearing the advice she gave and all the stories as she was growing up.”
Her mother’s story helped shape who she has become today. In addition to heading up her family’s business, Sarolia is chairman of the Choice Hotels Owners Council, a member of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, a board member and former chairman of the Asian American Culture Society of San Diego, and a mother of two.
Challenges that Sarolia said she might face moving forward—such as defining the roles within the new company that each family member will play to create a more structured work environment—are guided by a strong foundation Patel set for her as a young girl growing up at The Alder.
She was inspired with how her mother “weaved her family, business and life, giving them the best and making them the best,” she said.
At 70, Patel is still involved in the family business, although her children urge her to retire.
Sarolia still catches her mother cleaning guestrooms when housekeeping needs help. As Sarolia explained her process for building dashboard technology to help the properties with revenue-management strategies, the two laughed when she mentioned Patel can work quicker than any system.
“I use the computer system to see what (average daily rate) and revenue was, and she opens a book,” Sarolia said. “She tells me that I may use tech, but she can do business without it, and faster.”
Her mother continues to teach her, but Sarolia has also been the teacher at times, she said.
When the recession hit, payroll was too high to justify in 2008. But Sarolia knew that it was important to invest in employees—more important than profit. Patel wasn’t on board.
“I had to teach her,” Sarolia said. “For me, it’s important to create a good culture in the workplace. We thought the recession would be temporary, so I thought that supporting the employees was more important than worrying about profits.”
Patel listened and tapped into a personal savings account to pay the team and save jobs.
“When you invest in employees, they take care of our customers,” Sarolia said.
Creating that culture has been key in migrating operations to a management company, she added, because not every employee is going to be related, but it’s important they are considered family.
“Just because people are part of a family doesn’t mean they are qualified for the family business,” Sarolia said. “It’s about finding the right talent to do the right job.”
The mother/daughter pair speak fondly, for instance, of employee Ken Westmyer, who started out as a GM and who has groomed many of the team’s line-level staff to become GMs. He’s now regional operations manager, overseeing the day to day for the portfolio.
“He’s just like my son. He’s like a family member,” Patel said.
Sarolia said Westmyer has inspired her to make sure she builds a strong team that will help the business live on with support from family, both destined and chosen. It’s the only way to grow, she said.
Patel and her sons trust Sarolia to do just that for Ellis.
Patel remembers watching Sarolia deliver a salutatorian speech in eighth grade and having no doubts her daughter would be a successful leader.
“I felt you would be someone. I was just waiting for you to come along,” Patel said to her daughter.
Sarolia noted that when she was elected the first female chairman of CHOC, “the first person I called was my mother.”