When he first came to America in 1990, Ssunny Shah (yes, he spells his first name with two S’s) had only $400 in his pocket. Born in Bombay, India, Shah’s father owned a successful textile business and family tradition directed that the son continue in that business. Shah had other ambitions.
“Instead, I decided to come to America because I heard a lot about ‘the land of opportunity’, and I wanted to do something of my own rather than under the shadow of my Dad,” recalled Shah, “ because …everybody knew me because of him.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in commerce and accounting, Shah arrived in the United States at Virginia Beach in June 1990. His sister, who was already here when he came, was in the hotel industry. “So I wound up getting attracted to the business. I came as a tourist and then looked at the country, and I thought it would be great for my daughter if I brought her up here rather than in India. That’s why I decided to settle in America.”
Twenty-two years later, Shah embodies the American Dream as the owner of several area hotels, as well as being involved in the Democratic Party and serving on several Roanoke City and County boards. Despite the current hard times, Shah still has faith in the promise of America.
“I still believe it is a great country—great traditions we have here, great culture we have. And it is still a land of opportunity. I know the economic conditions [are tough]. Every businessman is struggling right now to survive this economy, [but] I think down the road in the long run it is a great country and the people will be happy – but people have to work hard for that.”
Shah’s own progression in America was a reflection of the latter. “When I came here, to survive we had to work hard. I had my wife with me, my daughter was with me—she was just eighteen-months-old. And I worked fourteen hour, fifteen hours [a day].”
His wife was also attending nursing school. “So we both worked very hard initially for five years and put our daughter into a day care center for four hours or five hours a day. We couldn’t afford more than five hours of day care. So that is how we struggled, when I was working for several hotel companies.”
In 1994 Shah made his move to make a name for himself when, with the help of his family and a lender, he secured the funds to buy the Ramada Inn on Franklin Road in Roanoke. From there Shah went on to build two hotels on Peter’s Creek Road, acquired Howard Johnson properties in Roanoke, Daleville, and Salem, and with partners, recently acquired a Days Inn on Orange Avenue.
Shah currently owns and manages four hotels in Roanoke, encompassing close to 600 rooms in the Roanoke Valley. He ticks off the names of some of his other ventures: “I still have one convenience store next to the Ramada. I own the store property but I leased it. I had 6-7 convenience stores between 2004 and 2008 but then I got out of it. I also own an office leasing business. I have an office complex behind Ramada on Franklin Square. But I have no intention of going away from the hotel [business]. I would like to develop more hotels in Roanoke down the road when the economy improves.”
As to what attracted him to the hotel business, Shah cites his sales background. “We used to be in the sales business, in textiles. Now I’m selling rooms. I love people, enjoy talking to people, and that’s why this is the best business you can have if you enjoy people.”
Active in the Democratic Party (his office complex on Franklin Road, adjacent to the greenway, houses a Democratic regional headquarters), Shah became politically involved as a way to make a difference in what he calls “the day-to-day problems of people. I want to get involved in everything. I met a lot of Democrats who influenced me in the city. I started going more toward Democrats [philosophically].” He’s also a member of the Democratic Party committee for Roanoke County.
Shah doesn’t rule out a run for political office himself. “Down the road, when the hotels are set and I get more time from my business and family, I would love to go into office and do something for the City or the County.” (No, he was the not the mystery donor who gave Roanoke mayor David Bowers two five-figure checks during his recent campaign.)
Shah plans to stay in the Roanoke Valley. “Circumstances brought me here and I think it happened for a good reason. So I will never leave the Roanoke Valley. People are very nice. People always help me [and are] generous.”
He’s not certain his daughter will follow him into the field, since she is pursuing a master’s in Literature and Human Resources. “But right now she’s doing an internship with Wyndham Corporation, so she might get tempted to join the hotel industry.”
Shah’s wife, an RN, enjoys her job at a Carilion hospital. Ever the optimist, Ssunny Shah declares, “I will be still in the hotel industry and I want to grow [the business] in Roanoke.”
By Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.