The marshy land of Mumbai's Sahar area, surrounded by slums, was long considered dirty and uninhabitable. So, when Captain Krishnan Nair approached the then Maharashtra chief minister Vasantdada Patil in the early 1980s with a proposal to build a luxury hotel there, Patil urged him to think again.
But then, Nair had sniffed an opportunity. The Sahar site was next to the newly-built international Mumbai airport, and he believed it was the ideal site for his foray into hoteliering — at the age of 65.
Over the years, the forlorn suburb of Sahar has been transformed into a destination of opulence, while The Leela Group, Nair's baby, has expanded into a hospitality chain with nine properties across India (four more are on the way).
Last fortnight, Nair, who turned 91 on February 9, and two of his peers — Yusuf Khwaja Hamied of pharma firm Cipla and Prithvi Raj Singh (PRS) ‘Biki’ Oberoi of the Oberoi Group — passing on the baton to sons, siblings or colleagues after more than half a century at the helm of their companies.
Cambridge-educated Hamied revolutionised the pharmaceuticals industry with low-cost AIDS drugs that challenged multinational giants. His work has had a profound Robin Hoold-style social impact in Africa. When he hands over charge of Cipla to his younger brother, he will do so with pride.
Both Oberoi and Leela are under pressure with international hotel chains growing in their home base. Oberoi, who took his chain overseas, recalled the struggles of setting up the group’s first hotel — in Delhi in 1965: “After considerable difficulty we got a US dollar loan from the Exim Bank, Washington to import essential hotel equipment from US. Arranging debt capital was a challenge as banks and financial institutions in India were not allowed to fund hotel industry.”
Interestingly, none of the retiring trio is looking to quit action entirely. The 76-year-old Hamied will stay on as chairman of Cipla, India’s second largest healthcare company, while Oberoi, 83, will continue to be executive chairman of the hotel chain whose reins he has handed over to his trusted aide of four decades, Shib Shanker Mukherji.
And Nair has become chairman emeritus of The Leela Group. “I want to see my sons gain control and flourish,” he said. After his morning yoga and exercise, he still turns up at office at sharp 9.30 am. “I will continue to be involved,” he said, with his characteristic wry smile.