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First American Hotels and Welcome Holdings Merging;
The Soleil Group Owns 11 Hotels in the Carolinas
By Dudley Price, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

June  21, 2004 - Two of the Triangle's largest hotel developers are merging their companies and plan to diversify into residential, office and retail markets in North Carolina and Florida.

Sanjay Mundra, president and chief executive of First American Hotels of Cary, and Dicky S. Walia, chairman and chief executive of Welcome Holdings of Cary, will merge their firms into a new company named the Soleil Group, effective July 1. The two own 11 hotels in the Carolinas.

They have hired Wayne C. Shusko, the managing director of Bissell Hotels in Charlotte, to manage operations.

"We were developing so fast, we decided there needed to be one company," Mundra said. "Wayne Shusko will take over day-to-day operations and we'll focus on strategies, planning, acquisition and finance."

Mundra and Walia in March announced plans for a $30 million renovation of the former Sheraton Hotel at Crabtree Valley that could give Raleigh its first luxury hotel, a 225-room Westin scheduled to open in summer 2005. They also are planning a $20 million redevelopment of five acres around the hotel into a mixed-use project that could include a Morton's of Chicago steakhouse, shops and up to 70 condominiums.

In Cary, they are planning a 32,000 square-foot office building adjacent to their offices at 1120 S.E. Cary Parkway.

In New Bern, the partners plan to begin construction this year of a $30 million project named SkySail that will add 90 condominiums and 100 boat slips next to the 171-room Sheraton Grand Hotel Inn & Marina, which they own.

In Jacksonville, Fla., they have agreed with a private developer and city officials to build a 200-room Westin with 50 condominiums on the top floors. Cost of the project is about $50 million, Mundra said.

In Orlando, Fla., they're planning to buy a resort with a 150 villas which would be converted into condominiums and sold. They also are negotiating with a Disney subsidiary to build 300 rental condominiums on a 15-acre site, Mundra said.

Mundra, a native of Bombay who came to the United States to study business at Campbell University, began buying distressed hotels in the 1990s. He resold them for a profit when the economy recovered.

Walia, a Burma native, grew up in Texas and earned a law degree at Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Michigan. The two met when Walia helped Mundra with some contracts.

After the 2001 terrorist attack, which caused a steep travel drop and soaring hotel vacancy rates, Mundra said the partners decided to diversify. "By balancing the portfolio, we're no longer just hotel operators, we're a fully integrated real estate company," Mundra said.

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