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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Vimal Kolappa

FOUNDER AND CEO
EAST COAST HOSPITALITY
WASHINGTON, N.C.

At his first meeting on the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees late last year, someone asked Vimal Kolappa if he had attended the university. “No, but my heart beats UNC, UNC, UNC,” he responded, noting that he had undergone a heart valve surgery at UNC Hospitals.

Kolappa is an unabashed promoter of the American dream. He emigrated to the United States at age 22 in the 1970s with $8 and a master’s degree in commerce from an Indian university. His goal was to earn an MBA at Roosevelt University in Chicago. After working for a suburban Chicago bank for five years and earning his green card, he moved to North Carolina. He spent more than a decade in the telecommunications industry before launching his hotel business. His first stake was a Comfort Inn in Havelock in Craven County. 

East Coast Hospitality, the lodging company that he owns with his wife, Kalavathi, now controls 17 hotels with four more expected to open this year.

Kolappa’s profile has risen because of his UNC appointment, but he’s also been a longtime director of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the state’s key industry recruiting organization. Former Gov. Pat McCrory made him one of the group’s initial directors in 2014, and he was later reappointed by the N.C. House of Rep. Speaker Tim Moore. He’s been a prolific bipartisan donor to N.C. politicians.

“This is the greatest country in the world,” says Kolappa. “No other country offers the opportunity that allows you, with hard work, to make anything you want to make.”

All of Kolappa’s hotels are in smaller cities in North Carolina like Goldsboro and Williamston, with the exception of a suburban Hampton Inn in Cincinnati. That’s by design because of the owner’s preference for less competitive markets. “The cost of operations is less, and hospitality is engrained in the people in rural North Carolina areas,” he says. “Our business is all about customer service because everybody has the same rooms. The difference is the people that work with you.”

Kolappa also credits his company’s success to his experiences with the downside of corporate America during his nine years at Northern Telecom, the Canadian company that had a spectacular collapse starting in the early 2000s. He’d left his job there as a strategic pricing analyst in Durham several years earlier, having concluded his work was largely meaningless amid what he describes as a mismanaged multinational.

So he started his hotel business, building gradually with limited debt. He was living in Beaufort County; his wife is a psychiatrist who has worked for Greenville-based ECU
Health and other medical groups for many years. The Kolappas have lived in Chocowinity, population 720, for more than 20 years. Their two children are physicians and not part of the hotel business.

Kolappa targeted towns near beaches and military bases, providing a steady source of visitors throughout the year. Half of his hotels have the Holiday Inn Express brand. He notes that he’s not a Patel, referring to the Indian family whose members are dominant forces in the U.S. lodging industry, though he has partnered with some over the years.

East Coast now employs more than 400 people, including several managers who have had 20-year-plus tenures with the company, he says. “I urge them to run the hotels like it is your own business. I’m here to coach and help and I try to give them a lot of freedom. If the business does well, then I give them a very good bonus.”

Kolappa’s confidence in his adopted state is shown in his plans to open new hotels this year in New Bern, Rockingham and Sanford. “If there’s a heaven on earth, it’s North Carolina.”

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David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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