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Obituary: Hari Harilela 1922-2014

While many wealthy families today are spread across continents, the Harilela family of Hong Kong is anything but multi-jurisdictional, with up to 100 members of the family occupying a 70-bedroom sprawling mansion in upmarket Kowloon Tong. Patriarch Hari Harilela said the living arrangement was based on a promise once made to his mother, to keep the whole family under one roof. The family patriarch, who went from struggling entrepreneur to international businessman through his eponymous hotel empire, passed away at the property on December 29. He was 92.

Despite his lavish home, Harilela kept a relatively low profile. His was born in Sindh, India, in 1922, but, with his mother and brother, relocated to the Far East as boy, joining his father who had already moved in search of greater fortunes. The family found relative success – enough to own several properties – but found themselves in poverty in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Foreshadowing his future living arrangements, Harilela lived with his siblings as a young adult, and together they worked as street vendors selling food and sundries. The influx of soldiers during and after the Second World War saw the family’s fortunes return, as a market was created for cheap but good quality textiles. The work evolved into a mail order suit company, which was to be Harilela’s main business until Harilela Group was founded in 1959. He had decided that he needed to diversify, and entered the property and hotel business.

It was around this time the renowned spiritual leader Swami Satchidananda became the family’s guru, acting as a consultant and blessing their new business ventures. It may seem like an interesting appointment given Harilela’s open displays of wealth, but Satchidananda said he believed there was nothing wrong with wealth as long as it was used well.

Today, Harilela Group oversees 19 properties from Hong Kong to the US to Europe, including several Holiday Inns, as well as InterContinental and Hilton. It also manages three hotels in the transit lounge at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Harilela was well known for his philanthropy, which he pursued with his wife, Padma. Indeed, following Harilela’s death the Hong Kong chief executive made note of the entrepreneur’s “tremendous” contributions to the tertiary education sector. The couple had six children, with Aron, their only son, now chief executive and chairman of the empire.

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