The Last Emperor
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The Last Emperor

Habib Rehman has finally retired from his job as ITC supremo. In his extraordinary career, he changed the way we ate – and reinvented ITC as a luxury chain, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2009 15:50 IST
Rude Food | Vir Sanghvi
Rude Food | Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

If you are a part of the hotel or travel industries, you will probably already know who Habib Rehman is and will be aware that just this weekend, he finally retired from his job as supremo of ITC’s hotel, food and travel operations. But if you are not an industry insider, then the chances are that you’ll probably never have heard of him or, at best, are vaguely aware that he is a hotelier of some description.

Which is just fine by Habib Rehman because he has spent several decades trying to keep a low profile. You know who Bikki Oberoi, Ajit Kerkar and RK Krishna Kumar are, but Habib Rehman has remained far from the limelight, eager to ensure that his is not a familiar name in your household.

And yet, if you were to look at Rehman’s record over his extraordinary career, you would be startled by the influence he has had on the way we eat, travel or stay in hotels. One reason North Indians are now aware that South Indian cuisine is not entirely vegetarian is because Rehman pushed for the opening of Dakshin restaurants at ITC’s hotels. If you’ve heard of Dum Pukht cuisine and convinced yourself that this is a throwback to the traditions of Avadhi Lucknow, think again: the cuisine was more or less invented by ITC under Rehman’s tutelage. If you’ve been told that ITC is the Indian luxury chain, providing personalised service at distinctive properties, then that too is Rehman’s contribution to a chain that wasn’t even sure of its name (was it ITC? Was it Welcomgroup?) till he took on the job of giving it an identity.

As impressive as these achievements are, they pale in comparison to the story of Rehman’s own life. Brought up in an old Hyderabadi family, he signed up for the Indian Air Force, was accepted but then failed his medical (he is partly colour blind). Disappointed, he joined the army instead where he served in a series of high-altitude postings. Then, the army decided that his health was suffering from the continued exposure to these difficult postings and sent him to Poona instead.

Rehman was bored in Poona, looked for diversions and finally left the army as a major. Then, he began a second career.

He had met PL Lamba, the legendary co-founder of the Gaylord and Kwality chains when he was in the army. Lamba had been impressed by the young major’s knowledge of food and by his fascination with ice-cream in particular.

Lamba was opening a new ice-cream factory in Poona and he asked Rehman if he would run it. The major was in search of a new role so he agreed to give it a shot.

Then, he suffered yet another setback. PL Lamba discovered that it was cheaper to make ice-cream in Bombay and put it on the Deccan Queen to Poona. The plans for the ice-cream factory were dropped.

But Lamba was a man of his word. He had promised Rehman a job and when the ice-cream factory did not work out, he offered to let him run a new hotel he had opened in Aurangabad. Rehman knew quite a lot about food but nothing about hotels but he took the job anyway.

It was to prove more difficult than he had anticipated. His senior staff consisted of seasoned hoteliers (some of them ex-Oberoi) who resented having to report to this army man and did their best to trip him up. But the major persevered and eventually he trounced his internal opposition with the support of his immediate boss, Ravi Ghai, the son of Lamba’s partner.

Rehman had settled into his new role when Lamba told him that there would be a hotel convention in Aurangabad attended by India’s leading hoteliers. Was the hotel up to hosting the big guns of the industry?

Rehman responded that he had no worries about the hotel’s ability to host the guests but he thought that the kitchen – run, as in many hotels of the Sixties and the Seventies, by chefs all of whom were called Gomes – was not up to the task.

Lamba took his point. He knew a chef called Imtiaz Quereshi, he said, who did catering in Lucknow and he would ask him to bring his cooks to Aurangabad for the duration of the convention.

That move had long-term consequences for Rehman – and for Indian food.

Among those attending the convention was Ajit Haksar, the charismatic Chairman of ITC who had just launched his hotels division. Haksar ate Imtiaz’s food and realized immediately that he was dealing with one of India’s great chefs. He was impressed too by how much Rehman, who had only just met Imtiaz, understood the cuisine.

Haksar returned to Calcutta but two things then happened in relatively quick succession. He sent ITC’s scouts to Lucknow to track down Imtiaz, offered him a job and then put him in change of the Indian kitchens at the Maurya (at that stage this meant Mayur and Bukhara).

With that single move, Haksar determined that ITC would not serve Oberoi-style Punjabi food.

Then, he began talks with PL Lamba about acquiring the Aurangabad hotel for the fledgling ITC chain. When Lamba sold out, Haksar called Rehman to Delhi for a conference where ITC General Managers were giving presentations about their hotels to the company’s board of directors.

Most ITC managers – drawn in those days from the Oberoi, ITDC and the cigarette business – came with entourages and delivered detailed presentations. Rehman, on the other hand, was not quite an ITC employee. He was manager of a property that ITC had acquired and did not think that the company would keep him on beyond the transition phase. So he arrived on his own, was not overly concerned about impressing the directors and spoke without slides or pictures.

As it turned out, the ITC directors were so taken with this articulate ex-major that they told Lamba that not only would they take over the hotel but they would also keep Rehman.

Lamba agreed, Rehman said he would give ITC a shot and suddenly the chain’s fortunes were set on a different track.

Though this is usually edited out of company histories, the truth is that the ITC chain, for the first ten years of its existence (till the mid-1980s or so) was an utter and complete disaster; a fine example of how not to run a hotel company.

ITC had a lot going for it. Because the chain was Haksar’s personal obsession, he committed crores of the cigarette company’s profits to it. He offered huge salaries to those he wanted to hire, stealing managers and chefs from the Oberoi and ITDC chains as well as freelancers like Imtiaz.

But it never came together. The Maurya and the Taj on Man Singh Road in Delhi opened at roughly the same time. But to Haksar’s dismay, it was the Taj that made the splash not the Maurya. In Madras, the Chola was the hotel preferred only by those who could not get rooms at the Taj Coromandel. In Bombay, ITC failed to acquire The President (Taj got it) and ran the dismal Sea Rock while the Taj and the Oberoi ruled the city. In 1982, the Taj went further, opening a new Delhi property right next to the Maurya.

A desperate Haksar tried everything. He stole the former manager of the Delhi Taj along with 32 key employees and asked them to run ITC Hotels. The Maurya was renamed the Maurya Palace in imitation of the new Taj Palace next door.

Nothing worked. ITC became a bit of a joke in the industry as a chain with lots of money and no image. The managers imported from the Taj failed and moved on. Bikki Oberoi began re-launching the hotels his father had built as up-market, quality operations and ITC’s properties began to seem even more characterless.

Rehman sat out this phase, learning how a big chain functioned but doing little to make waves. When the upheavals at ITC began to abate and Yogi Deveshwar was moved from tobacco to head the hotels division, Rehman finally had his opportunity to make a difference.

Deveshwar gave Rehman the freedom he needed to function. He gave him the brief of turning the Maurya around and Rehman’s first big idea was to close down the Mayur and to open a new kind of Indian restaurant.

He knew he could count on Imtiaz but recognised that the old Lucknawi cuisines of Mayur had become stale. Instead, he re-invented the cuisine, dish by dish.

The raan – a leg of lamb – was a staple of the Bukhara menu but Rehman wanted to turn it into a fine dining dish. He changed the recipe to include cocktail onions and whole cloves of garlic and tinkered with old styles of presentation to create a dish that looked like Beef Wellington with a pastry covering. He refined the kakori kabab that had been a regular on the Mayur menu and turned it into a signature dish for ITC.

He wanted to serve biryani in individual portions so he mixed the Hyderabadi and Lucknowi traditions to create the Dum Pukht biryani that is now copied by nearly every upmarket Indian restaurant in the world. He made Imtiaz rework the gravy dishes so that they lost their oiliness but none of their flavour.

He hired Jiggs Kalra to package the restaurant and Kalra came up with the notion of selling Imtiaz as a brand and claiming that Dum Pukht was a lost style of Avadhi cooking. (It was no such thing.) Manjit Gill, who was Executive Chef of the Maurya, oversaw the actual running of the kitchen to make up for those evenings when Imtiaz was too tired and emotional or those mornings when he was hungover.

The significance of Dum Pukht in Indian hoteliering cannot be overstated. It brought a Muslim style of cuisine to hotels that had previously been content to do Punjabi or Catering College Indian food.

And it introduced a refinement to North Indian cuisine that had previously been lacking. Not only did it seal ITC’s reputation as the Indian food chain (the Oberois vacated the space and the Taj’s core competence is still in South Indian or nouvelle Indian) but it forced all restaurants to re-examine their menus.

If Rehman had retired after launching Dum Pukht, that would have been enough to ensure that he would be remembered as a seminal figure in Indian hoteliering. But he did much more. He created Dakshin, as a compendium of South Indian regional cuisines (copied by the Taj as Southern Spice) and introduced unfamiliar dishes to India’s big cities. He refined the Bukhara formula so that it could be rolled out (as Peshawari – there’s only one Bukhara!) all over India.

And then, he started on re-inventing the hotels themselves.

If you look at the hotels of any chain, you will find that they are united by the vision of the men who ran that chain. Till the 1980s, the Oberoi Hotels were built around the Rai Bahadur and Gautam Khanna’s vision of modern American hotels. By the end of the 1980s, that changed to Bikki’s vision of the Oberois as an Indian chain that incorporated the best of the Regent, Four Seasons and Aman. The Taj hotels that were built before 1998 or so (i.e. most of them) reflect Ajit Kerkar and Camellia Panjabi’s vision of Indian hospitality with flair and originality.

The exception is ITC. Even the early properties have nothing in common: the Mughal and the Maurya are as far apart as you can imagine. The later hotels – the Windsor Manor, the Park in Madras etc – are clearly the work of completely different sensibilities. Part of the problem is that so many different people contributed to the ITC ethos at various times that the hotels had no unified vision or identity, and neither did the chain itself.

Rehman’s task when he eventually took over as boss of ITC hotels with Yogi Deveshwar’s blessings (by then, Deveshwar ran all of ITC) was to pull those disparate elements – most of which he had nothing to do with – and to create a coherent chain.

He chose several routes. The first and the most obvious was food. All hotel chains have unified Food and Beverage visions. The old Oberoi hotels had Mughal Rooms, Trader Vic-style Polynesian restaurants, nightclubs with live bands and American-style coffee shops. The newer ones had brasseries, rotisseries, delicatessens and (in a direct lift from ITC) Kandahars. The Taj hotels all had Sichuan restaurants, coffee shops that could have been specialty restaurants and Indian restaurants that emphasised regional cuisines.

ITC had no such unified vision. So Rehman and his deputy Nakul Anand standardised ITC’s restaurants, creating five distinct brands: Dum Pukht, Peshawari, Pan Asian, Pavilion (for coffee shops that reflected the character of the city they were located in) and Dakshin. A sixth brand, Kebabs and Kurries combined Bukhara (or Peshawari) and Dum Pukht. A seventh brand, West View, is still a work in progress.

Then, Rehman got to work on the accommodation. At the Maurya, a new tower block had already been constructed, keeping in mind the 1980s fascination with dedicated wings and floors for the business traveller.

But everybody was doing Club Floors so Rehman knew he had to do more. His great advantage was that because he came from a non-hotel background, he had none of the baggage of managers who had been hired from the Taj or the Oberoi who approached every problem by asking, “What would ABK do?” or “What would Bikki do?”

Rehman approached each problem without prejudice, drawing on his travels around the world. By the early 1990s, he was convinced that space was the new luxury and conceived of ITC One as a luxury hotel-within-a-hotel with huge rooms, massive bathrooms (ITC was the first Indian chain to increase bathroom size though this is rarely remembered), massage chairs in every room, and dedicated butler service. Others chains have since tried to imitate the idea but Rehman had an advantage: he could build new rooms.

In Delhi, he moved the corporate office out of its prime location next to the Maurya and effectively built a new hotel in the ITC One block. In Calcutta and Bombay he was building new hotels anyway so he could design the rooms the way he liked.
Consequently, ITC One is still the only real luxury option for guests who do not take suites. You may prefer Taj Hotels or Oberoi service. But rarely will either chain be able to give you a room of this size. In that sense, ITC One is to India what the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton are to the rest of the world.

It is one in the afternoon when Habib Rehman walks into Wasabi at the Delhi Taj for lunch. I have asked that we meet outside of one of his hotels and he seems slightly dazed by the attention that the Taj showers on him. The manager tells him what an honour it is to have him as a guest. The F&B manager drops in to tell him about the hotel’s list of whiskies. (Rehman has just won an award from a whisky association.) The General Manager comes down to Wasabi to check that everything is fine. The chef arrives at the table to ask if Rehman would like anything in particular.

Some hoteliers are used to being treated like visiting royalty within the profession but Rehman is clearly not one of them. He may rule ITC like an Emperor but outside of his empire, he is a strangely modest, shy man who seems genuinely embarrassed by the attention he gets.

I ask him about his career. “I have gone from life in the trenches to life in the luxury business,” he laughs. “And all of it because of disappointments: because I could not join the air force; because I left the army; because the ice-cream factory did not open…”

Rehman has retained some of his military bearing – and his loyalty to the Indian army. Among his initiatives is WelcomJawan, dedicated to helping the troops and ITC’s management school is based on the standards of the National Defence

What is he most proud of? Rehman stops to think. I imagine he will talk about his role in changing the way Indian food is served in restaurants. But no, Rehman prefers to think of the hotels as a more significant achievement.
We discuss the concept of the Sonar Bangla, a city resort like no other. He talks about the attention to detail that went into the construction of the Maratha in Bombay. He says that he is looking forward to the opening of the Gardenia in Bangalore.

I ask him whether he sometimes feels that ITC has not got the credit it deserves for its innovations in the hotel field. He pauses. “You know, when the Kaya Kalp spa got the Tatler award for the world’s best city spa, you wrote that ITC does not know how to market itself abroad or to communicate its achievements,” he says. “I thought about it. And you are right. Our failure has been our inability to communicate what we have achieved. We were too busy building things to worry about communication. That was a mistake.”

Then, there are the achievements that get lost in the welter of accomplishments. Rehman was instrumental in the developmental of Fortune Path, ITC’s chain of mid-priced hotels. Even more significant has been the success of WelcomHeritage, a chain that ITC markets and unifies but does not necessarily manage.

WelcomHeritage was developed in the 1990s, when smaller properties based around conversions of palaces, forts and havelis, complained that they lacked the resources to market themselves. The Government of India created the Heritage Hotel category, outside of the Star classification, and the owners of these properties suddenly discovered that they had a new opportunity.

Rehman and ITC united these properties under the WelcomHeritage label with the Maharaja of Jodhpur as Chairman of the company. Today, there are 110 WelcomHeritage properties, each with a character of its own. ITC may not have big palaces or Vilases, but it is able to offer a more specialized, more authentic experience.

Does Rehman think that his career would have followed a different path if Yogi Deveshwar had not taken over ITC? “Oh absolutely,” he responds. “We were able to achieve so much only because Yogi gave us the freedom to do what we believed in. He was the best boss anybody could ask for.”

I tell him that Nakul Anand, his successor at ITC, says much the same sort of thing about him. When I told Nakul that I was writing about Rehman, he said, “I have reported to him for 20 years and nearly everything I have learnt about hoteliering has come from watching Mr Rehman in action.”

Rehman’s face softens. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I had Yogi above me and Nakul below. Nobody could have asked for better colleagues.”

What will he do when he retires? He says he has no idea. He needs to take a break after having functioned at this insane pace for so many years. But after that, who knows?

Will he consider writing an autobiography? Not only has he had a remarkable life, but he has also been witness to an important phase in the development of India’s hospitality business.

Rehman looks thoughtful. “I suppose I could do that,” he says, “But I really have made no plans.”

And then, he pushes back his chair and walks out of the restaurant, still a little embarrassed by the attention the hotel staff shower on him as he exits: a Last Emperor in a business that is becoming increasingly corporate.

First Published: Mar 23, 2009 15:47 IST