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Not fit for a king.

Not Fit For A King

Who Is Mohan Mehta?: Indian Owner's $2.5-Million Purchase Of Camelot Raises Questions

A knight, complete with requisite shining armor and white horse, circled the crowd of dignitaries gathered to break ground for downtown Little Rock's Camelot Hotel.

Radio station KMMK-FM provided the recorded sound track from the musical "Camelot."

But before Richard Burton was through saying, "It never rains in Camelot," the clouds over Little Rock broke open, and the rain came pouring down.

The dignitaries, led by the knight, fled the muddy future home of the Camelot.

Some say the hotel was cursed from the start.

But Mohan L. Mehta believes the Camelot, which opened in 1973, has potential.

"It will be a challenge, of course," says Mehta, who purchased the 303-room Camelot on July 10 for $2.5 million. "But I'm very confident."

The Camelot, which is attached to the city's Robinson Center, is an integral part of Little Rock's convention plan.

Convention and tourism officials fear the Camelot has developed a reputation of being an out-of-date hotel.

The hotel is not in disrepair.

But heavy wooden furniture, orange-and-purple drapes and medieval-style fixtures create a milieu that is less than inviting for tourists and conventioneers.

It's the 1990s.

And the Camelot is straight out of the early 1970s.

The city has given Mehta 36 months to refurbish the hotel. That's more than two years before he will pay off his bank note.

Mehta says that's no problem.

And city officials seem to agree.

"When he first came to town, he impressed me with his strong desire to do good," says Barry Travis, executive director of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which operates Robinson Center and the Statehouse Convention Center. "He's definitely here to do what needs to be done."

Mehta won't reveal his plans for the Camelot. He's concerned he might be committed if he's too specific.

But Mehta, who until two weeks ago divided his time between homes in Mississippi and Connecticut, plans to make Little Rock his home.

It's clear he's mapping a new course for the Camelot.

Investing, Not Spending

When billboards for roadside motels and hotels read "American owned," it's a safe bet there's a lodging facility in the area that is owned by Indians or Pakistanis.

The perception is that these foreign-owned hotels are not quality establishments. American hotel and motel owners are capitalizing on that perception.

In Little Rock, the Japanese-owned Excelsior Hotel has thrived in the more than two years since the Kasuga family bought it.

John Charles, the Camelot's general manager, believes Mohan Mehta will see that the Excelsior's older neighbor also thrives.

"He's way above average," Charles says. "Most of the Indians have bought economy motels and are not in the market for first-class convention hotels."

When the Camelot was built, the Excelsior did not exist, and the Capital Hotel was home to winos and prostitutes.

With the Marion and Manning hotels falling apart, the Camelot was the place to stay.

"It's not going to be done today or tomorrow, but he realizes what it takes to get back, and he wants to prove to the city of Little Rock that he is here to do it," Charles says of Mehta. "He's not here to bleed it. He's here to be part of the city."

Mehta has more to overcome than stereotypes, though.

The Camelot hasn't been in the black since 1982 when Kinark Corp. of Tulsa, Okla., the original owners, sold the hotel to U.S. Hotel Properties of California.

Plans for redecorating were put on hold, and the hotel's occupancy rate dropped to 40 percent.

When U.S. Hotel Properties was unable to pay off its loan, Kinark took back the hotel and invested more than $1.5 million during the six years it attempted to sell the Camelot.

The Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission has suggested $2.3 million, almost the price Mehta paid for the hotel, be spent to refurbish the Camelot.

Mehta thinks that figure is too high. He says he's not sure how much refurbishing the hotel actually needs.

"Obviously, it will require expense," Mehta says. "I don't know how much, but I intend to spend it."

After pausing, Mehta says, "Not spend, invest."

Community Conscience

Mohan Mehta is diminutive and soft-spoken. Yet he exudes an air of confidence as he walks down the darkened halls of the Camelot.

This isn't the first failing hotel Mehta has tried to revive.

He has owned the Holiday Inn at Brookhaven, Miss., since 1990.

Before that, the only similar business experience Mehta had was as owner of a 70-unit apartment complex in the Bronx.

Mehta took a 20-year-old, 132-room Holiday Inn that was operating in the red, spent almost $500,000 on renovations in one year and saw revenues grow by 13 percent by the end of 1990.

"He definitely has been an asset to the community," says JoAnn Pickett, the guest service manager at the Holiday Inn.

Pickett adds, "Once you get to know him, he's great to work with."

Getting to know Mehta takes time.

"It takes him a long time to explain what he thinks," Pickett says. "He's meticulous. He doesn't just blurt things out. Sometimes we have to go over it again. But the more you work with him, the easier it is."

Mehta has professorial qualities. His hesitating preciseness reflects his years as a college instructor.

He has taught business and accounting at schools such as the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, Va., and South Carolina State College at Orangeburg, S.C.

Mehta is currently on the faculty of Southern Connecticut State University at New Haven, but Brookhaven residents consider Mehta and his wife, Asha, members of their community.

"She's popular here," says Pickett of Asha Mehta, who relandscaped the Holiday Inn and then joined a local garden club.

There aren't many landscaping possibilities for the concrete canyons that surround the Camelot. But Asha Mehta talks enthusiastically about new carpeting and bedspread possibilities.

Mohan Mehta is anxious to become integrated into the Little Rock community.

In his first full week at the Camelot, he attended at least three civic or professional meetings.

The first newspaper advertisement Mehta ran for the hotel was his "curtsy" to Little Rock.

"I thought I owed it to the people Little Rock," Mehta says. "You have to put your foot into the community."

Mehta has left his mark in several cities.

His resume shows a journey around the world.

He was born in India and attended the University of Rajasthan, where he received a bachelor of commerce and a master of commerce, graduating second in his class. He later received a law degree from the school, graduating first in his class.

Mehta was a fiscal officer for the Indian state of Rajasthan until his father convinced him to move to the United States.

Eventually, Mehta received two MBAs in the United States, one in 1967 for economics and finance from Ohio University at Athens, Ohio, and one in 1976 for accounting from the City University of New York.

Mehta became a certified public accountant the same year he became a naturalized American citizen -- 1976.

"He was brought up in a tradition of excellence," says Radha Narumanchi, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University who has known Mehta since 1977.

Narumanchi, whose family purchased Kinark's Camelot Hotel at Tulsa, says other CPAs have Mehta file their tax returns.

"His knowledge is in demand, even by professionals," Narumanchi says.

Mehta served from 1968-88 as a consultant to the American Board of Trade, a commodity trading firm.

As chief of operations and finance and as the majority stockholder of Intact Containers Inc. at New York, a manufacturer of cardboard boxes with annual sales of $30.5 million, Mehta made enough money to invest in other business interests.

Mehta left Intact Containers in 1984.

Mehta says he's frugal and follows his father's advice: "If you own a dollar, don't spend $1.25. Spend 75 cents."

He plans to apply that philosophy at the Camelot, a hotel in need of plenty of dollars.

Dawn At The Camelot

Although Mehta knows there's work that needs to be done at the Camelot, he's sensitive about the negative media attention the hotel has received.

One newspaper article began, "No one stays in room 628."

It's one of the 70 rooms that hasn't been refurbished since the hotel's construction.

Other parts of the hotel have been renovated, but the motif hasn't been updated.

Still, Mohan Mehta thinks there is something special about the Camelot.

"I came over with the idea that I would like it," he says. "And when I saw the place, my thoughts were confirmed."

Does Mehta like and want to keep the Camelot theme with its Jester's Lounge, King's Court dining room and Rampart ballroom?

He likes it, but he won't say if he's going to change it.

Mehta is not even sure he wants people to know he might be looking for a franchise opportunity that would help him gain worldwide reservations and increase advertising exposure.

Will the Camelot become the Hyatt Camelot or perhaps the Camelot Hilton?

It's likely.

But Mehta isn't making any decisions yet. He and his wife have been in town less than two weeks. They are living in the Camelot and still going to Mississippi and Connecticut on a regular basis.

The changes will come, though.

They have to, according to the city, which owns the land on which the Camelot sits.

Wally Allen, chairman of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, says convention business is crucial to Little Rock.

"We've got to have it," he says of the Camelot.

Allen likes Mehta's chances.

"I think he's competent and well-educated," he says of Mehta. "His goal is to make the Camelot a first-class convention hotel."

Will Mohan Mehta achieve that goal and overcome the stereotypes that beset Indian-owned hotels.

It's the question that has everyone connected with the convention and tourism business in Little Rock worried.

PHOTO : "INN" TOWN: Mohan and Asha Mehta insist they're in Little Rock to stay. They also say they're ready to devote the time and money necessary to give Little Rock's Camelot Hotel a new lease on life. They don't have any choice. The hotel sits on city-owned land, city officials have given the Mehtas 36 months to refurbish the outdated facility.

PHOTO : WELCOME TO THE ROCK: Mohan and Asha Mehta say they love the friendly people of Little Rock. But they say they don't appreciate the negative media coverage that has plagued the hotel.

PHOTO : CAUGHT: The Camelot motif sometimes consists of dark wood and heavy furniture, such as in the King's Court dining room. At other times, the motif is startling with bright purples, oranges and yellows, such as in the Country Squire coffee shop.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Mohan L. Mehta's acquisition of Little Rock's Camelot Hotel
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jul 22, 1991
Previous Article:Lazarone's.
Next Article:One more time.

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