Naresh Israni – SodexoMagic
When you serve a discerning clientele, a shortcoming in one area might as well be a shortcoming in every area.
Such is Naresh Israni’s modus operandi. Directly employed by SodexoMagic, he oversees integrated facilities management at the Arlington, Virginia, base of one of the world’s largest aerospace companies and is the direct contact between the two entities. If the efforts of his team are taken for granted, that’s fine with him.
In this line of work, only the problems tend to attract attention. It’s a lesson Israni learned in previous roles aboard cruise ships and at world-class hotels and restaurants.
“Look at this way,” he tells Blueprint in early January with his responsibilities intensified by a very unusual blizzard that’s paralyzed much of the nation’s capital and its neighboring communities. “If air conditioning or heating fails but the food and service are great, your customers are still unhappy. The same goes if the air is good but the food and service aren’t. Everything is connected.”
That extends to his team of 70-plus members whom he intends to retain, cross-train and nurture. For a multitude of reasons that include COVID-19, there has been a nationwide labor shortage the past couple years, and Israni doesn’t want it affecting his department.
“A leader is only as strong as those he delegates to,” he says. “A lot of industries suffered from firing people and then when COVID hit, they couldn’t find staffing. That wasn’t the case here.”
A farsighted approach
When the pandemic emerged in March 2020, Israni urged his employer to keep its hired hands, who could be moved to other roles such as cleaning and sanitizing. Many of the properties SodexoMagic oversees for its corporate clientele were due for upgrade and renovation that Israni’s crew could handle, and he enlisted contractors for the more complex projects.
“It’s not just a body you’re filling in,” he says. “It’s a full character who understands the scope of the service and what’s expected of them. It’s your people who do your heavy lifting.”
Even during the pandemic, the client’s headquarters were bustling, the aviation industry being 24/7. In addition to the regular workforce, the huge and gleaming building was frequented by board members, politicians and other high-profile guests. Protocol could mean white-glove catering. If a lightbulb went out, Israni expected it to be replaced within eight hours.
Sodexo being a Paris-headquartered heavyweight in food services and facilities management, Israni hasn’t had to worry about shortages in personal protective equipment. Soon after news broke about a mysterious virus from China spreading worldwide, Sodexo laid out a plan to minimize supply chain disruptions of personal protective equipment, Israni says.
Since then, his employees have been well-protected throughout the pandemic, and he reminds them that their well-being is among his foremost responsibilities. He appreciated the same in his earlier jobs.
Mind for maintenance
Born in India, it initially seemed that the young Israni was destined for an engineering or technology career and, in a sense, has—those principles seemingly factoring in all facilities functions. He honed his early maintenance skills at a hotel in his native land, then set off to the United Arab Emirates where he grew in the hospitality industry.
Wanting to progress professionally, the then-24-year-old Israni moved to the United States during the late 1990s, and for six years directed food and beverage aboard Carnival Cruise Line vessels sailing out of Miami and to all shores. Quite the confidence booster that gave him.
“A floating hotel that must run like clockwork with 3,500 guests of 60 nationalities,” he says. It was “nonstop crisis management, but I figured if I could manage that at 23 or 24, I could do anything.”
Still on his to-do list: Learning to swim—something Israni vows to do soon. But upon moving to the D.C. area with his wife and two children in 2005, the need hasn’t seemed so urgent with him on dry land.
Following roles at Channel Inn Hotel and Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, Israni became area general manager in 2017 for Sodexo Live!, overseeing aviation lounge operations for United Airlines and leading the redesign of United Polaris, an exclusive airport hideaway for business-class passengers. Two years later he moved to his present position with SodexoMagic, a joint venture between Sodexo and NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson with added emphasis on community, equity and inclusion.
Himself having benefited from employers who pursued DEI early in his career, Israni ensures his crew is multicultural and afforded opportunities to advance. He’s never stopped advancing his own growth and juggles the SodexoMagic role with a restaurant he co-owns with his wife Liza in Herndon, Virginia.
“My weekend gig,” Israni calls it, and it’s part of quite a love story, Liza and him having met while working on a cruise ship. In 2016 they bought A Taste of the World, noted for its diverse beverage selection and ever-changing menu of made-from-scratch international cuisine. They endured some challenges keeping the restaurant afloat during COVID-19 but persevered in online ordering and catering services.
“Good things come my way because I never shy away from accepting challenging roles and say ‘no’ to an opportunity,” he says. “I always give it my best and I can adapt very easily. India to Dubai to Miami to Virginia and different industries and different playing fields.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. III 2022 Edition here.
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