Mike Leven’s most important accomplishment

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A first-hand account of the history and evolution of AAHOA and “The Godfather’s” lasting impact on our community and industry.

by STEVE VISSER

Mike Leven has had more than a little success since he started his hotel career in 1963 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. He has run the show at chains such as Days Inn and Holiday Inn, started his own hotel franchising company and turned around the Las Vegas Sands.

In his sort-of-retirement years, he is the CEO at the Georgia Aquarium, one of the jewels of Atlanta.

But if you ask him what accomplishment is the most significant, he won’t mention ascending to the top executive suites, making buckets of money or even a decent golf game. Straight out he cites helping start the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), the trade association that gave a voice and power to a then new and embattled immigrant group fighting for its piece of the American Dream.

Asked as the AAHOA’s meeting approached in March, whether co-founding the organization was one of his top career highlights, the 78-year-old Leven corrected.

“I think it is the most important accomplishment of my career – rarely do you have an opportunity to do something that is particularly different and important,” he said. “Lots of people can make financial turnarounds and grow businesses, which I’ve done.

“But when you have a chance to establish an idea and an organization that changes the course of history and changes the course of many lives, well that stands out as a very important accomplishment to me.”

New form of discrimination
As a Jew, Leven had seen his share of discrimination, from obnoxious signs at Cape Cod that said “No Blacks, No Jews, No Dogs” while growing up in Boston to finding himself banned from buying a house in certain neighborhoods in Chicago. While working The Roosevelt, he was appalled to be told to confine booking African-American groups or organizations to summer months so not to make whites uncomfortable by having too many people of color as guests in the hotel during the other months.

While antisemitism was on the wane and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court case involving the Heart of Atlanta Hotel banned racially discriminating against patrons, a new form of discrimination rose in the 1980s. This time it targeted motel owners. Specifically, Indian-Americans who were buying lodging across the United States and particularly in the South.

The rise of Indian-owned hotels
Leven first got a whiff of the bigotry when he took the helm at Days Inn America in 1985 to grow its franchise business. He had been in the 3-star business, the 5-star business, the resort business but never in an economy franchise. He called a consultant who told him a major factor was Indian-American owners, who were buying more and more motels, especially in the South, where Days Inn was based.

The consultant’s tone was dismissive, discriminatory and derogatory, Leven said. The consultant stereotyped the Indian-owned motels as “curry palaces,” a reference to fact that guests throughout the establishments could often smell dinner cooking from owners’ suite.

“That is abhorrent to me,” Leven said. “I felt that these individuals needed to have a voice.”

Not only that, they were his franchise operators and growing in number, and they were being stereotyped as running dirty motels, committing fraud through arson and being owners who didn’t pay their bills and suppliers. Other motels were trying to boost their customer base by advertising themselves as “American owned,” a description that particularly rankled Leven.

“These individuals were citizens of the country and they were just as American as anybody else,” he said. “It was always a moral decision with me. It was never a business decision.”

The Indian-Americans, he learned, were having trouble getting insurance, bank loans and franchises because of the stereotypes. Leven commissioned research that found the Indian-owned motels were as clean and well-run as their competitors and their owners were just as honest. In the late 1980s, Lee Dushoff, a Philadelphia consultant he used, asked for a project and Leven had one in mind.

What he suggested not only helped organize disparate business owners into a community but opened up a new world that changed Leven’s life.

“I said, ‘I would like to do something for the Indian community, these people are as good as anybody else and they should have a fair shake,’” he said. “I ended up marching in a Fifth Avenue parade in New York; I ended up studying the Hindu religion.”

Forming a like-minded community
Soon Leven – with Dushoff behind the scenes – was talking with H.P. Rama about forming AAHOA. In 1989, it got off to an inauspicious start: about 150 people showed up to an informal meeting in Charlotte, N.C. The next year, at its first official meeting in Atlanta, about 225 people – and none of the major hotel companies – showed up.

“They thought it was a Days Inn meeting,” Leven said.

Dushoff noted that the forerunner of what is now called the American Hotel & Lodging Association was hostile to Indian-American hoteliers. Initially, he said the plan had been to get the national association to bring the Indian-American motel owners into the mainstream, but its executive director gave him a cold shoulder on the topic when they met in Washington, D.C.

“They had absolutely no interest in reaching out to the Indian community, he said. “They represented the same prejudices that were in the entire hotel industry: that the Indian hotels were dirty; they couldn’t get insurance because [of suspicions]that Indians burned down their motels.”

Leven hit the road with Rama and Ravi Patel to recruit motel owners and give talks about how other new immigrants – Irish, Jews and Italians – had combatted discrimination and how AAHOA could be a vehicle for Indians to do the same.

They ran into some opposition in that the Indian-American community didn’t have a lot of cohesion – in fact there was a lot of internal feuding about who should run what. There were competing organizations such as Mid-South Indemnity Association, which was formed by Shankar “Big Sam” Patel in 1985 and became the Indo American Hospitality Association (IAHA).

There was suspicion that Days Inn was sponsoring it to enhance its business by peddling more franchises, Leven said. There was wide-spread distrust of motivations and people who didn’t want Rama and Ravi Patel and others to get the glory, Leven said.

Evolution into the modern-day AAHOA
Eventually the IAHA merged with AAHOA. “The [association]elections were raucous but they got through it,” said Leven. “They’re well-educated and they all have their own opinions.”

Now the organization has more than 15,000 members, who own more than 20,000 motels and hotels: Indian-Americans have moved from being a dominant force the select-service motel business to being a force in dominant chains, he said.

Dushoff credited the sweet nexus of where social justice and profits intersect for the association’s explosive growth. Leven sold franchises to Indian Americans while at Days Inn, and when he became president of Holiday Inn Worldwide and started Holiday Inn Express, he again banked on the Indian community.

“They knew Leven was honest and straightforward; they call him the Godfather,” Dushoff said. “Now 30 years later, the Indians are bankable, get insurance. They build empires.”

That changed lives and the trajectories of families, he said, as the second-generation Indian-Americans moved into different career fields and fully integrated themselves to the point the South has two Indian-American governors, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.

“How many times do you get the opportunity to open the door to literally thousands of people,” Leven said. “Many of the children of these hotel owners are not in the business anymore. It is absolutely amazing to me what happened, and I think AAHOA made a major contribution to it.”

Looking to the future
Now Leven hopes the association won’t be a victim of its own success. It was formed to help Asian-American hoteliers to band together to fight discrimination, but he feels that industry issue has largely gone by the wayside. He is optimistic that its newer and younger leadership will take it the next level.

“Everything depends on the leadership,” he said. “H.P. Rama, Ravi Patel and the others who led were totally unselfish. They helped their own people. My view is they [the newer leaders]should be using their voices the same way to help other people who need a voice.”            ■

Steve Visser is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mike Leven’s principles for running a successful business

Leven still sees the select-service hotel trade as one of the smartest tracks to take in the lodging business for anybody looking to carve out a slice of the American Dream. Investment dollar for investment dollar, it is “the best way to go” in terms of returns for both owners and guests, who mostly need a bed.

Of course it often requires a good deal of sweat equity. One of Leven’s main guiding principles for hoteliers is while brains are good, they are never a substitute for hard work.

His other principles for running a business include:

  • The customer is not always right, but is always the customer.
  • Every employee is a human being who deserves dignity and care, and it is OK if they ask why, rather than simply accept an order because people often need an explanation for why they should do things. If you have to fire one, make sure you never take his or her dignity away.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Participation in industry activities is not only a giving experience to others, but is a learning experience for yourself.
  • Remember this is a human industry where you can touch thousands of people and build friendships. Competitors are not enemies.
  • No matter how much money you make, someone always makes more – and somebody else makes less.
  • You should enjoy every obligation because with obligations done, responsibility is earned and success follows. But despite what you hear, realize that ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ is a bad strategy. Your life is made up of small stuff so live with it.
  • The boss is not always right, but is always the boss.
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