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Creating the Taj

Ajit Kerkar’s story is nothing short of amazing and will be retold every time the history of Indian hoteliering is discussed

brunch Updated: Apr 23, 2017 13:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Taj

Ajit Kerkar’s first stint with the Taj group was as a catering manager in Taj Mumbai

A few weeks ago at HICSA, India’s most important hotel investment conference, Manav Thadani, who runs HVS, the organisation behind HICSA, presented Ajit Kerkar with a lifetime achievement award. Before the presentation, they showed a brief video in which various important people (Bikki Oberoi, Amitabh Kant, etc.) spoke about Kerkar’s career and Manav interviewed him on stage (with a little help from me). Manav began his questions with: “What does one ask a legend?”

One of the earliest pictures of Ajit Kerkar with JRD Tata

In most circumstances, this would have seemed like hyperbole. But on this occasion, it was spot on. Ajit Kerkar is one of the two greatest hoteliers of his generation. (The other is, of course, Bikki Oberoi.) But for far too long, he has been a prophet without honour in his own country. Because of the circumstances of his exit from the Taj (more about which later), the industry has never given him the formal recognition that is his due. The Taj ­– which would not exist had it not been for Kerkar – spent many years airbrushing him out of its history with a Stalinist zeal. And many Taj stalwarts who would not have had careers but for Kerkar’s mentorship, later ignored him in the pursuit of their own ambitions.

The Taj Mansingh, Delhi, turned the Taj into a national chain

As Manav and I interviewed Kerkar at HICSA, it struck me that an entire generation of hoteliers – most of the audience, in fact – really had no idea of the role Kerkar had played, not just in creating the Taj, but in building India as a global tourist destination. And indeed whenever I have written about Kerkar in this column – which is often, because you can’t write the story of Indian hoteliering or tourism without giving Kerkar credit – I have felt like the only person to remember his stupendous achievements and the only journalist to give him the credit that is his due.

By any standards, Kerkar’s is an amazing story. He moved to Bombay from his Goan village because he wanted to be a cricketer. It was cricket that took him to England where he eventually joined the restaurant business and ended up as a manager of Lyons Corner House, a great British catering institution of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was in this role that he came to the attention of first, Darab and then JRD Tata. The Tatas owned the Taj in Bombay and knew that it was a mess. As Bobby Kooka of Air India has famously written, he once asked JRD why, when he was so tough on Air India, he did nothing about the abysmal standards at the Taj. “Because I would not know where to begin!” JRD replied.

Both Tatas visited the Lyons Corner House where Kerkar worked and were impressed to discover that he was senior enough to stand them lunch with good wine. (“Do you get this wine free?” they asked incredulously.) There were few Indians of any consequence in the British hospitality industry in those days so Kerkar’s rise seemed astonishing.

But the Tatas wanted to check his knowledge too. Did he know what a T-bone steak was. Yes, said Kerkar. One side of the bone is a fillet while the meat on the other is like a porterhouse.

The Tatas were thrilled and lured Kerkar back to India as Catering Manager of the Taj with the understanding that he could run the whole hotel if he managed to clean it up. When, to their delight, he turned the Taj around, they dropped plans to hand the hotel over to Hilton and let him build a new modern tower block next to the hotel on the site of the old Green’s Hotel.

Ajit Kerkar in his Mumbai office.

My guess is that JRD’s plans for the Taj ended there. But where the Tatas saw a grand hotel, Kerkar saw a chain built on the grandeur of that iconic Bombay property. He seized every passing opportunity. Maharana Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur asked if the Taj would run his Lake Palace Hotel. Kerkar took a look at it, recommended adding more rooms to make it economically viable (the Taj added a whole block so skilfully that most guests have no way of telling the difference between the old and the new). Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur asked the Taj to take over the Rambagh Palace. Kerkar grabbed the opportunity (here too, new rooms were added) and created the concept of ‘Palace Tourism’ in India. The Taj’s marketing department, led by Camellia Panjabi, then sold Rajasthan as a destination to foreign tour operators and transformed the global travel business’s view of India.

A regular guest at the Bombay Taj asked if the company would manage a hotel he was building in Madras. Kerkar said yes and by 1974, Madras had the Taj Coramandel. All of these expansions required no capital infusion from the Tatas. But soon the Taj needed money.

It happened this way. Kerkar bumped into the Chief Minister of Goa on a flight. The Chief Minister berated Kerkar for doing nothing for his home state. Goa is so beautiful, he told him, but we get no tourists. You should build a hotel there. So Kerkar and the late Xerxes Desai spent a week touring Goa. Finally, they settled on the Aguada Fort and agreed to build a hotel on the beach there.

Except that the Taj had no money. And the Tatas would not invest a penny in a project located in Goa where no tourists went. No matter. Kerkar found investors (Manubhai Madhvani, RV Pandit, and others) and created a new company called Indian Resort Hotels (majority owned by the Taj), which built the Aguada and turned Goa into a global destination. It took the hotel a decade to break even so Kerkar would debit the management fee the Taj received for managing a royal guest house in the Gulf into its accounts to balance the books.

Delhi came next. I’ve written about this in detail some months ago so I won’t repeat myself but we can all agree that (a) the Taj Mansingh turned the Taj into a national chain and (b) because this was the Emergency, the Taj which had a clear title to the property was forced to enter into an agreement with the NDMC, the consequences of which still linger today.

Ajit Kerkar with Maharana Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur after signing the Lake Palace Hotel agreement

There were other successes. Jyoti Basu invited the Taj to Calcutta and the company chose a site opposite the Alipore Zoo to open the Taj Bengal. The Taj took the Spencer’s Hotels (including Bangalore’s West End and Chennai’s Connemara) on long lease.

Kerkar signed a joint venture with the Kerala government in the 1990s and launched Kerala as a global destination repeating what the Taj had done with Rajasthan and Goa. In the video at the HICSA Summit, Amitabh Kant who created the God’s Own Country campaign for Kerala acknowledged Kerkar’s role in promoting the state and said that Kerkar’s real skill was as a “builder of destinations”.

It is a good phrase. Sadly, the Taj, in its desperation to erase Kerkar’s legacy, has forgotten its own history and denies itself the credit that the group deserves for creating India’s destinations. Without the Taj, there would be no Palace Tourism, no Goa, no Kerala and quite possibly no real Indian hotel industry. It is men like Kerkar (alongside the Taj’s traditional rivals, the Oberois) who ensured that India is the only Third World country where the domestic industry runs hotels that are better than those managed by the great global chains.

So why did it all go wrong? Some of it, I suspect, was inevitable. JRD Tata had run the group as a loose federation giving autonomy to his managing directors. Ratan Tata believed that the 21st Century needed a more centralised approach and eased out all the old JRD men. Many of them were retiring anyway (Kerkar was 65) and none of them fitted in with Ratan’s style. Kerkar, for instance, ran the Taj as though it was his own company. An entrepreneurial manager is required in the early life of a company. But often, you need a more systems-led approach as the company grows in size.

That said, the controversy that accompanied Kerkar’s ouster was unnecessary and did the Taj no good. Stories were planted in the media about Kerkar’s alleged misdemeanours (not one charge has stuck) and the new management went to great lengths to indicate that he was a villain who would not be welcome at the Taj – the company he created! – any longer.

Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur asked the Taj to take over the Rambagh Palace

At HICSA, I sensed that things were finally changing. When Kerkar finished speaking he got a standing ovation. And the first person to stand up and lead the applause was Rakesh Sarna, the CEO of the Taj.And Kerkar has no bitterness. Manav tried to prod him into talking about his ouster.“I am a Tata man,” Kerkar said. “No regrets. If I had to live my life again, I would still go to work for the Tatas.”

Wherever JRD Tata is today he must be pleased that the unnecessary and damaging unpleasantness is finally over.

From HT Brunch, April 23, 2017

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