At the age of 11, Surinder Arora was, in his own words, a ‘complete nutter’. He smoked, he gambled and he carried a knife while roaming the streets of Punjab, India, where he grew up with his aunt and uncle, who adopted him when he was a couple of days old.
Two years later, his life was turned upside down when he was moved to live with his biological parents in Southall, a West London town dubbed ‘Little Punjab’. Young Surinder quickly fell back into bad habits, but was put straight by his mother, who threatened to evict him from their family home after he lied about bunking off from school.
‘She gave me a good hiding,’ says Arora, who remembers his mother telling him: ‘You ever go and do anything wrong and you tell me the truth, I’ll protect you. If you lie to me again, next time I’ll chuck you out of the house.’ He adds: ‘She was that kind of person.’
Empire: Surinder Arora has built up a fortune worth £350 million after launching his first hotel in 1999
Now aged 60, and a father of three himself, Arora’s life has taken a turn for the more respectable. A resident of Wentworth, Surrey, he names Sir Cliff Richard and Tony Blair as his close friends.
He has built up an empire of hotel and property assets, and is one of the UK’s richest Asian men, with an estimated net worth of £350 million. And, to cement his position within the British Establishment, Arora was even a guest at last month’s wedding of Princess Eugenie. ‘My daughter Sonia went to the same school as Beatrice, [Eugenie’s elder sister],’ he says somewhat bashfully. ‘So we’ve known the family for a long time – Sonia’s now 32. It was a great honour and it was a fabulous time. It was wonderful.’
Arora, sitting with a beaming smile in the coffee bar of his Sofitel hotel at Heathrow Airport, is clearly proud to be a friend of the Queen’s son, Prince Andrew, and other well-known figures.
But he is bidding to make his own name – and become part of Britain’s history – by being the man who (finally) builds Heathrow’s third runway and sixth terminal.
He faces an uphill struggle. Parliament voted in favour of Heathrow expansion in June – 50 years after a Labour government first commissioned a report on growing London’s airport space – but there remains major political opposition. Including from Boris Johnson, tipped by many as a future Tory Party leader, and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s Labour.
‘I hate being controversial,’ says Arora when asked about Corbyn and McDonnell. ‘But I will be on this one: I think they would be a complete disaster – an absolute disaster. We would go back to the 1970s. We need to go forward as a nation and I think it would be a real tragedy if Jeremy Corbyn came into power.’
Arora also faces the challenge of persuading the Government that he is better positioned to lead Heathrow’s expansion than the airport’s own operator, Heathrow Airports Limited (HAL). Arora’s background is in property. He specialises in developing hotels, offices, car parks and other assets in airport areas.
Many, including Heathrow bosses, had assumed HAL would be the only candidate for the job of building a runway and terminal. So it came as a shock to onlookers – and apparently ‘upset’ Heathrow executives – when Arora unveiled his plans in the summer of 2017.
One of Arora’s big selling points will be price. He claims HAL could rack up costs of £31 billion, while he believes his team can complete the job for £14.4 billion.
Heathrow insists its plans have a similar cost and that the £31 billion cited by Arora includes other necessary work at their airport. A spokesman dismissed Arora’s plans, saying Heathrow development must ‘not be delayed by ‘vested commercial interests with untested ideas’. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye has warned Arora’s plans could turn his airport into a ‘disaster’, like JFK in New York where different companies operate different terminals.
‘John – JHK – is a lovely guy,’ says Arora, who is the largest landowner in and around Heathrow, and is in fact HAL’s landlord. ‘I never say anything about my competitor – that they’re bad, that they are worse at anything,’ he adds, before reeling off a long list of gripes about the way Heathrow is run.
His concerns centre on Civil Aviation Authority rules that mean Heathrow and its investors – including Spanish firm Ferrovial, the Qatar Investment Authority and the China Investment Corporation – charge airlines in line with the value of the airport’s assets. Therefore, the more HAL spends on building up Heathrow, the more money is returned to investors.
Arora believes HAL’s third runway and terminal plans will be overpriced because the company currently has a ‘monopoly’. He adds: ‘I’ve been saying to senior executives: ‘Why are you so scared of competition?’ We should actually be saying competition is a good thing. It keeps everyone on their toes.’
So far, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have spoken in support of Arora’s proposal being considered, to introduce competition and potentially drive down their costs.
SURINDER ARORA, 60: LEEDS UTD FAN AND FORMER FOOTBALL REF
Fan: Surinder started watching Leeds United in 1972
Family: Married to wife, Sunita, for 36 years. He has three adult children – Sapna, Sonia and Sanjay – and five grandchildren.
Holidays: He has a holiday home in Dubai, which is a good meeting point to see his relatives in India, and an apartment in Pune, India.
Hobbies: Loves all sport. Plays golf at Wentworth – and used to own a stake in the club – and tennis. Arora was also a semi-professional football referee and supports Leeds United.
‘When I came from India in 1972, the first game I watched on the telly was Arsenal v Leeds, and my brother was an Arsenal supporter at that time, so I said I’d go against him. Thank God, it’s not Man U.’
Music: Whitney Houston and Tina Turner.
Film: All of the James Bond movies, especially Casino Royale.
Food: Chinese and Italian.
Heroes: Allan Leighton – former chief executive of Asda, chairman of Royal Mail and currently the chairman of Co-operative Group – because of the kind way he ‘treats people’.
And Mark Dixon, the founder of serviced offices company Regus.
Arora’s team, which includes construction group Bechtel as lead partner and architects firm Corgan, is working on its rival planning application now and plans to file it in 2020. In the meantime, a smaller dispute is playing out between Arora and Heathrow.
Over the summer, Arora launched a High Court challenge to HAL after it blocked his plans to build a 2,000-capacity car park on Heathrow’s grounds. Under planning rules, no more than 42,000 spaces can be built there, and HAL argues that it alone is entitled to these slots. If he wins the battle, which would be a good omen ahead of his runway war, Arora is guaranteeing a 50 per cent discount on Heathrow’s current car parking charges.
Since his tearaway teens, Arora has worked hard all of his adult life. ‘In my earlier days I would put in 17, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, doing three jobs at a time,’ he says. Floor scrubber, security guard, semi-professional football referee and Heathrow baggage handler are just a few of the roles he lists.
He launched his first hotel in 1999, and has since amassed his £350 million fortune. Why then bother fighting Heathrow over car parks and runways when he could comfortably retire now, at the age of 60?
‘This will make a huge difference for future generations,’ he says. ‘If we don’t do it – it doesn’t have to be me, I don’t care who does it – then our friends [HAL] will keep on milking it and the consumer, the airlines, the passengers, the nation will keep on suffering.
‘Then it will get to a stage where it’s a white elephant – no one wants to fly in because they can’t afford to.’
When Arora is finally ready to hang up his construction cap, he will probably not be around to experience the benefits – or environmental costs, depending on one’s political position on airport expansion – of an enlarged Heathrow. Instead, he plans to return to the Indian streets he once frequented as a knife-wielding youth.
‘India’s home,’ he says. ‘I’ve got family there, I’ve kept my roots. My eldest brother and my sister still live there. One day, when I’m a bit old and frail, I’m going to go back.’