One Sunday in November 1989, Barry Lall, an Indian-American doctor, was driving over the Coronado Bridge with his wife Hema, their four-year-old son Arjun, Lall's father and mother, and a real estate broker. They were on their way to inspect a 12-room motel for sale at the corner of Third Street and Orange Avenue, which, if priced right, Lall hoped to buy. Beneath them was the beautiful blue and iridescent channel, the port of San Diego where ships off-load containers from as far away as Hong Kong. At the time, Lall, who was practicing family medicine at Kaiser Hospital in Chula Vista, was not yet a citizen. He was here by way of a transnational diaspora common to many Indian immigrants. Lall's route had begun when his parents left the state of Gujarat, India, for the East African country of Nyasaland, where Lall was born; later, after medical studies in England and Scotland and an arranged marriage, he, his wife, and his parents ("she married them, too") emigrated to the United States in 1980, settled first in Georgia and then in San Diego.
Lall wanted to believe that the long geographical road that he and his family had traveled to get to America had prepared him for the longer personal road he was now on in America. Pulling the Lalls, Barry more than Hema, was the Holiday Motel. An ad in Sunday's San Diego Union offered under "Business Opportunity": Beach Motel, Coronado, priced to sell. Lall had pretty much decided that he would buy the place, fix it up, staff the front desk after work, if necessary, and make the beds himself. Owning a property was one thing; managing it another, a sore point between him and Hema. Hema, a petite woman with a boy's haircut, wanted no part of it. One of six daughters of a hotelier in San Francisco's Tenderloin, she grew up "on property," changing sheets and checking in guests. "I hated it," she recalls. "All I wanted was to get an education" -- which she did, a degree in accounting from UC Berkeley -- "and not marry a hotelier." Lall's father, whose name is Lalbhai, was opposed to Barry's dream, too. It was, after all, his hard work, savings, and relocation to four continents that helped insure his son's future as a doctor. But Lall was restless. While he hoped to leave medicine for what he calls the "risky world of business," he didn't want the family's security to suffer.
Today, much of his struggle is past. At 56, the millionaire motel mogul is flanked by his family in their La Jolla home. Lall sits beside a picture window, a Santa Ana-clear view of La Jolla Shores and the sandy coastal cliffs beyond, and discusses his life. "I had a yearning," he says. "I wanted to do something. I'd come to America, the land of opportunity. I was ready to go!" His son in college, his wife an employee, his father a homebody, Lall is revered like a chieftain, his venture capitalism having birthed agency in him and approbation in his family.
Seventeen years earlier at the Holiday Motel, Lall examined every room, pulling shower curtains aside and plunking onto beds. He recalls that Sunday with zeal: "It was like giving birth to a child." But the others who saw the motel were unimpressed: it was "a real dive," "totally dilapidated bathrooms and carpets and furniture, no telephones." The family conferred. Lalbhai wasn't sure what his son wanted. His son, he says now, has an intuition for the organizational. But he doesn't tell people what he wants to do. Lalbhai, who is 80 and a mathematical savant, remembers that, at the time, "inside his wishes, my son is regretting something, but he also has a vision. When he decides, he decides soon."
Going from room to room, Lall was guided by a past moment's imprint, the day he stepped off the plane in Dallas in 1980. "That day I felt free," he remembers. "I felt like this is my country. I never felt like that in Africa, England, or Scotland. And that freedom was tremendous. Maybe it was psychological, but I came to the country that offered me freedom." Lall knew he'd have to risk something to make good on that feeling. It had been nearly ten years, and this motel was his first real personal foray into what could happen if he'd only act on his gut. He'd done something like it before. In 1984, after being hired by Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, he bought a house in Clairemont, which neither his parents nor his wife had yet seen. "I first took my parents and my wife down Interstate 8 to Mission Bay, showed them how beautiful San Diego was. And then took them to the house [in Clairemont], and they said, 'Huh? Oh my gosh, what did you buy?' But they got used to it."
A half-hour spent perusing the motel and Lall realized this was it: "I got excited. Here's my opportunity to own my own motel!" Today, these words burst from him with lottery-winning laughter. He's otherwise a careful, unruffled man; a receding hairline gives him a pronounced forehead and a near-perfectly round face. He wears a black leather jacket; he sticks to a strict exercise regimen (undertaken because he was scared at turning 50). Standing next to him, one feels his impatience; he's still the distracted doctor who has a dozen more people to see before lunch.
Financing the Holiday wouldn't be easy. "Motels are considered very high risk by financial markets," Lall says. "They're not just real estate, they're also a business." During the 1980s, he made money on property; a condo sale netted him $40,000. He was itching to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars, but he needed twice that: the Holiday was $450,000. On Monday, he called a vice president he knew at Sumitomo Bank. The woman (who prefers anonymity) was his patient at Kaiser and had already gotten Dr. Lall to open an account at Sumitomo. Lall had once confided to her that he wanted to invest in commercial properties. One day, high blood pressure and a regimen of pills, prescribed by another doctor, brought her into his office. She was tired of the side effects, the tiredness, and the headaches. He recommended that instead of medication, she try exercise to control the hypertension. Every day for one month, she should take a morning walk and stop by his office to be monitored. Weeks later, her blood pressure was back to normal. "He saved my life," she says.