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February 26, 2000

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Hospitality business leader ventures into banking

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Sonia Chopra

You could say he is a banker with a game plan, with the rules borrowed and improvised from life and sports.

Or how else could Mike Patel, an immigrant who has lived on two continents and been a professional soccer player, build 15 hotels in the US and be the chairman of a new bank?

Horizons in Decatur, Georgia, opened last month, with a $ 7 million investment by 29 other Indian Americans. Most of the investors are doctors and businessmen.

One of the first clients was a person who sought a loan for a small business.

"When we see this little guy sitting across from us, animatedly discussing his plans for a ice-cream or a donut store, we know what he wants and we know the setbacks and advantages -- we have been through similar experiences," said Patel.

Patel, 37, is among the newer generation of motel and hotel owners in America, whose parents and relatives migrated in the 1960s after having lost most of their savings in Uganda and Kenya to resurgent nationalism there.

"We are different from other banks who are very conservative and can be biased. We make prudently risky decisions," said Patel, the former president of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

The new bank, unlike the more established ones, will give small personal and commercial loans to help its clients build homes or businesses.

"Most banks are resistant to change but we know change is coming in the form of Internet investment," said Patel.

"We know the work ethnic of our countrymen. They have a very rich cultural life back home, but they want an economically rich life. They are determined to succeed," he said.

Patel, who lives in Georgia with his wife Hasmita, 38, and two children Ayesha, 13, and Rishi, 11, still has his hotels.

"Running a hotel is 90 per cent labor and 10 per cent thought. We want to reverse that," said Patel, who compares Indian businesses to the Jewish ones.

"They also came as carpetbaggers and went into money. That is the next step for Indians. That is where our future should be headed," he said.

At 18, Patel became the co-owner of a Holiday Inn in Alabama with his brother Rajesh.

They had migrated from England in the 1980s because the European recession had hit their family's convenience store business very hard.

They put down exactly $ 200 for the investment.

But the brothers were rich in experience.

"Thanks to working there with our dad and doing part-time jobs in maintenance, it was hard to swindle us," he said.

"For instance, everyone has a septic tank. What the workers do is that they skim the grease off the top only and leave the rest, so you can call them the next month," he added

"At first the other workers resisted, but I told them I was the boss and if I could do it, they could too. All I had to do was go in, clean it out, throw those clothes away and have a nice shower and save 500 times into 12 which is $ 6,000," said Patel laughing.

Patel played professional soccer for an English team, which loaned him for the summer of 1981 to the Atlanta Chiefs.

Since the Atlanta Chiefs was part of the National Association Soccer League, he got an opportunity to explore the business opportunities in the south.

In between the hotel business and traveling, Patel made time to educate himself.

"I read all the newspapers, between stocking shelves from the cellar, helping customers and cleaning up. It made me realize the opportunities that were out there," he said.

His parents -- Chandubhai and Chandrika -- had migrated from India to Uganda, where his father's family had settled.

Mike Patel, who was born in Uganda, was nine when his parents left for England, after Idi Amin expelled them and thousands of other Asian businessmen and professionals.

"Basically, I am the product of what Idi Amin threw out," he said. "My grandfather and father helped make Uganda the jewel of Africa with their hard work."

The family could take about 500 shillings ($ 50).

In England, the parents brought them up in a western tradition, he said.

"We weren't railroaded into anything. We shaped our own lives and kept our values," said Patel, who still speaks with a British accent. His father did not have the 'I want my son to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer mentality,' he added.

The family encouraged him to play soccer.

At 16, he was playing for the South Hampton Football Club and was made an apprentice. The club sent him to evening school, so he would have his education as back-up. He joined the London School of Economics after finishing his schooling at Cheat Clark Crowydon.

It was also at that point that he changed his name to Mike Chadd.

"I was asking for trouble with that name. As it is I was always at the receiving end, but what they didn't understand was that the harder they tried to take me down, the harder I came back up," Patel said.

"This was business lesson number one and I learnt others too: working against something is a challenge, but very rewarding. My coach always said 'no pain, no gain,' It was good for me to learn tough lessons and see life," said Patel, who played across Europe.

"I remember my coach telling me, 'If you have a game on Saturday and on Friday night, if you have to train for it and it is cold outside. What do you do? Do you sit by the warm fire with a nice meal or do you go out and train and come back for the nice meal and the warm fire later?' How you choose will make all the difference," Patel said.

In case you are wondering, Patel chose the ten degrees below zero to train outside.

"That was dedication and that is what you have to have. You can't cheat life, there are no shortcuts, you always have to pay your dues and do the groundwork, while watching your back all the time," he said.

"And you have to have another thing -- a sixth sense, both at the game and in life. I followed all these lessons and I made out OK, I think," Patel said.

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