Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Meghji family saga exciting enough to be a miniseries

An enterprising writer should quickly pen a multi-generational miniseries about the Meghji family.

Who, you ask, are the Meghjis?

They are the people who will begin building a 189-room Courtyard by Marriott Hotel at the Edmonton International Airport next spring.

The next-to-the-planes, eight-storey hotel will be linked to the airport by a heated pedway and boast everything from a fitness spa and top-notch restaurant to banquet facilities and large presidential suites.

"You could say it's the icing on the cake for our family-owned Platinum Investments company," 37-year-old Rahim Meghji told me.

Rahim and his brother, Ali Meghji, 35, are the young face of the Ismaili Muslim family and are gradually taking over the business reins from their uncle, 64-year-old Amin Meghji.

Rather than icing on the cake, it's the natural ending to the first miniseries.

As for the beginning, it goes back more than a century to Gujarat in northwest India. "Our family lived in poverty; and led by my great-grandfather, they sailed across the Indian Ocean in a small boat in 1893," Amin says.

"The boat was so overloaded they threw everything they had overboard, including their shoes. They arrived in Zanzibar penniless."

Amin's father was nine at the time and went to live on a coconut farm. Later, his father bought the farm with help from his wife's family before moving to Dar es Salaam, then Tanzania's capital.

"My father and my two older brothers created a soap, glycerine and oil manufacturing business that did very well," Amin says. "But the government nationalized everything, including residential and commercial properties. We lost everything except some savings.

"My mother was paralyzed with shock at the loss of our empire, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died within the hour in 1972."

The family left for Kenya and rebuilt their business in Nairobi.

"Again we did very well, but the government began taking over businesses and we feared for our future," Amin says.

"My father died in 1975, but not before telling us to get out of the country. We sold our business for about half of what it was worth and came to Canada in 1976."

Finding themselves amid the Alberta oil boom at the end of the 1970s, the close-knit, extended Meghji family bought and expanded a 10-unit, west-end motel. That was followed by a 178-unit, $12-million downtown apartment building.

"We lost everything again in 1981 when the market crashed," Amin says. "The building was 70-per-cent vacant and we couldn't make mortgage payments at 21-per-cent (interest)."

The Meghjis rose again in 1998 and bought the Forum Inn near Rexall Place, renaming it Coliseum.

In 2004, the family opened the 160-room Hilton Garden Inn in the west end, followed two years later by the Hampton Inn and Suites.

"They are rated the top two city hotels by travellers on the Trip Advisor website," Rahim says.

"We hope our Marriott Courtyard opening soon in the west end, and our nearby Marriott Residence Inn, due to open next year, will be just as successful."

Amin is sad his older brother, Aladdin, the visionary of the family, died just before the Hilton opened.

This miniseries would end with Marriott Canada senior vice-president Michael Beckley saying at the airport Friday: "We see Platinum as a key partner in Alberta, Western Canada and beyond.

"Marriott is the fastest-growing hotel brand in North America and has gone from 12 hotels to 60 in Canada in the last 10 years."

Rahim quipped: " The airport hotel will be our flagship. If hotels in Canada are nationalized, the whole family will jump off the High Level Bridge."

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