For the Indian Hotels Company, striking a deal with Orient-Express Hotels founder James Sherwood has not just bolstered its attempted takeover of Orient-Express Hotels.

It could well prove to be the ace in the hand dealing the cards.

In 1976, Sherwood bought the loss-making Hotel Cipriani in Venice, Italy, for less than £1 million ‘on a whim'.

Orient-Express Hotels was founded with this purchase and began as the leisure division of Sea Containers, where Sherwood was the president. It was later incorporated as Orient-Express Hotels, a Bermuda company.

When James Sherwood quit his role as CEO in August 2007, he retained the right of first refusal for the Cipriani, given any change of control.

However, by relinquishing it prior to the Indian Hotels bid, the Orient Express founder has given his stamp of approval, eager that Indian Hotels bag the famed Venice Hotel too.

With Orient-Express Hotels' new Chief Executive Officer meeting main shareholders this week, Sherwood's ‘crazy buy' that started the luxury empire, is sure to come up for discussion.

Sherwood calls himself a “self made man'' in a new autobiography, that details the story of how he brought the Orient Express train back to life and built up the company.

With six luxury trains and 50 top-end hotels under his wing, Sherwood has helped smooth the way for the Indian Hotels bid.

The American tycoon who founded the Orient-Express Hotels, is backing Indian Hotels, a subsidiary of the Tata group, which filed an $1.8 billion all-cash offer. There are 120.94 million shares of Orient Express outstanding.

Thick friends

Officials privy to the discussion told Business Line that Indian billionaire Ratan Tata has been conversing with Sherwood for some time about acquiring his network of hotels and luxury trains.

“Sherwood has been seeking a buyer for his business, which includes the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro. The conversation between the two picked up steam again in April this year, when Sherwood offered Reid's Palace in Madeira, Portugal. Tata already has the Taj Hotels there, and wants to expand its network,'' officials said.

The duo met again, at the Yale University, President’s Council meet on International Activities (2011–2012). Ratan Tata met up with James Sherwood, a 1955 batch B.A. student of the University.

End of last month, Ratan Tata reportedly visited Brazil piloting his own jet. He attended the meeting of the board of Fiat, and spent two days in Sao Paulo.

Scouting around

For some time now, Tata has been eyeing Brazil, and has been keen to open a factory there for Land Rover. At 78 years, James Sherwood is also scouting around.

Sherwood could have indicated to Indian Hotels that this would be a good time to try again.

A true perfectionist with an attention to detail, Sherwood was reportedly once stranded at 16,000 feet in the Andes with Princess Michael of Kent, after his helicopter had to make an emergency landing.

Hopefully, this landing won’t be that bumpy.

amritanair.ghaswalla@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 5, 2012)
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