There are only four legends in the Indian hotel industry. One of them is the story of Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi who started out as a clerk in a hotel in Shimla and went on to create a formidable chain of hotels. The second is the Rai Bahadur’s son, Biki, who lived the life of an indolent playboy, travelling the world till he was well into his 30s.
Then, when his contemporaries had written him off, he came back, took control of the hotels and transformed the Oberoi chain into a world-class operation, easily on par with Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental. The third is Ajit Kerkar, a boy from a village in Goa, who wanted to be a professional cricketer but ended up in the catering business. He was spotted by the Tatas while he was working in London, brought back to India and asked to turn the sloppy old Taj Mahal Hotel around.
Kerkar had the vision and the street-smarts to turn the heritage of that old property into India’s largest hotel chain. The fourth legend is a man who passed away last weekend. Each time I write about Captain CP Krishnan Nair, people are always gobsmacked by his story. A former military officer and relative of the great VP Menon (who helped Sardar Patel unite India’s states after Partition), Captain Nair took early retirement and went into the fabric and garment export business.
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He was the man who introduced Bleeding Madras to America and when that fabric became a rage, he made millions. His company, Leela Lace, named for his beloved wife, Leela, soon became one of the most important exporters from India. Then, when he was already in his 60s and a millionaire many times over, he realised that the new international airport in Bombay would be a stone’s throw from his sprawling bungalow and factory complex.
Though his experience of hotels was limited to staying in them, he decided to build a hotel on the site he already owned. In those days, airport hotels were not regarded as being particularly luxurious. But Captain Nair thought big and built a grand property surrounded by gardens. He went wrong, though, in his choice of collaborator. He went with Penta, a three-star chain owned by a consortium of European airlines.
India’s other hoteliers were not pleased with the prospect of competition and they threw every objection they could find at Captain Nair’s hotel. It was too high for a property near the runway. It was built on Airports Authority land. Most of these objections had no basis. And the hoteliers had reckoned without Captain Nair’s impressive capacity for friendship.
Eventually, he went to one of his pals, Vasantdada Patil, then chief minister of Maharashtra, and got the project cleared. His second major property emerged out of a snub. He felt he had been mistreated by the Taj during his stay at the Fort Aguada resort in Goa and vowed to build a property to rival the Aguada. That’s how his Goa hotel came up. (I am not sure how right he was about the Taj). He had something of an obsession with Ajit Kerkar and believed that Kerkar had tried to scuttle the opening of the Bombay Leela. He overcame his hostility to the Taj only when RK Krishna Kumar, a fellow Malayali and a pal, took over from Kerkar.
What I always found interesting about Captain Nair was that he thought big. He would first plan a grand hotel and then worry about finding the guests to fill it, or even the money to build it. He thought of the Bangalore Leela when he had been invited to Karnataka by the then chief minister RK Hegde. He decided at once that he would build a massive hotel designed with south Indian temple architecture as its theme.
Of course, there were the usual problems. One: his hotel was far from the city and located near an airport which was due to be shut down in a few years anyway. And two: he didn’t have the money to build it.
It was this desire to think big that led Captain Nair via his friend, Bob Burns (founder of the Regent Group) to the Four Seasons. Negotiations were nearly concluded when Captain Nair suddenly pulled out. The split was not without bitterness.
In his autobiography, Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp, refers to Captain Nair as a ‘bad apple’. Captain Nair, on the other hand, used to claim that the deal collapsed because the Four Seasons wanted to kill the Leela brand and in any case, had begun to wonder if the room rates they had targeted for India were too ambitious. "What does it matter anyway?" he told me, many years later. "Look at my hotel in Bombay. Look at theirs! Haha!"
But all this compulsive building and failed deal-making cost him heavily. There was a time when everybody wrote the Leela chain off. The Nairs would always be rich because of the money they had made from garments, people said, but their hotel company will go bankrupt because it has too much debt. But when gamblers like Captain Nair win, they always win big. His Bangalore hotel rode the success of the IT boom because of its proximity to the software companies.
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In no time at all, it had the highest room rates in India and so great was its cash flow that it saved the company. After that, Captain Nair was unstoppable. He threw out the Penta branding and transformed the Bombay Leela into one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. He planned a grand hotel in Chennai whose unique selling point would be that it was the only deluxe hotel overlooking the Bay of Bengal.
He had been friends with the Rajmata of Gwalior and had known Vasundhara Raje for decades. When she became chief minister of Rajasthan, she helped clear obstacles to his stalled Udaipur hotel. When that property opened, a few years ago, it became a favourite with discerning travellers. By then, the Leela had taken over the old ITDC hotel in Kovalam and transformed it, turning it into Kerala’s best hotel, a triumph of the Captain’s Malayali roots. Captain Nair’s final gamble was his most spectacular. The Leela had suffered because of governmental duplicity when it had bought land in Andrewsganj (the area where Ansal Plaza now is).
After years of wrangling and legal decisions, the company got its money back. But by then, land prices in Delhi had sky-rocketed. Yet, such was Captain Nair’s determination to open a Delhi property that he paid too much for a site at the edge of the city’s diplomatic quarter. Then he spent even more in building the hotel. When it was ready, it was one of Delhi’s most spectacular hotels. But the problem was that even if it got the highest room rates in the city and had hundred percent occupancy all around the year, it would still not turn a profit because the capital costs were so high.
I last had lunch with Captain Nair at the Great Wall, the Chinese restaurant at the Bombay Leela, a few months ago. He was 93 years old and yet physically active and mentally as sharp as ever. We talked about the Delhi property and he conceded that it was his last grand throw of the dice. He accepted also that the Leela Group had debts in excess of Rs 4,000 crore.
But he did not seem particularly worried. "You only worry about paying back your debts if you have no money in the bank," he said. "I have told Vivek and Dinesh (his sons) not to worry too much. Just be patient. The economy will pick up in a year or so. Then, we will sell two, three hotels and the debt will be reduced to normal levels."
Wasn’t this easier said than done, I objected. "Oh no," he responded. "In every business there are ups and downs. You can sit quietly and not take any risks. But then, what do you achieve? You have to look further and go faster than everybody else if you want to be remembered. Otherwise, what is the point in doing anything?"
Looking back, I think that conversation will remain his epitaph. He was a man with a big heart who took big risks and made big decisions on instinct. What kept him going was his inner core of self-belief and nerves of steel that helped him cope with every crisis. Which other millionaire would dare, when he was in his 60s, to enter a completely new field? And who else but Captain Nair could turn such grand dreams into such grand hotels? I will miss him.
From HT Brunch, May 25
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