Rude Hotels by Vir Sanghvi: Aye aye Captain!
Remembering the Leela group’s founder, the late Captain CP Krishnan Nair, as a new biography hits the stands
Great hoteliers are hardly ever what you expect them to be. Biki Oberoi may be a legend with the most famous surname in the industry, but he is essentially a reserved and dignified private person who shuns publicity and is rarely comfortable in unfamiliar social settings. Ajit Kerkar was fiercely elusive when he created the Taj group. He would refuse to be photographed, rarely returned calls and was hardly ever spotted at one of the group’s restaurants. Nakul Anand has turned ITC Hotels into a luxury powerhouse, but he is soft-spoken and low-key, doing as little as possible to draw any attention to himself.
The exception to this rule was the late Captain CP Krishnan Nair. He never shrank from the public gaze, he made friends easily, he exuded flamboyance and when he entered a room, you always noticed. Captain Nair is suddenly back in the public consciousness because a new authorized biography by Bachi Karkaria has just been published. Reading it, I was reminded of the Capt Nair I knew.
More than any of the other hotel professionals I admire, Captain Nair willed himself to be a hotelier. He knew nothing about hoteliering when he entered the business. He was in his sixties and had already made a fortune in the textile business (he was one of the pioneers of the Bleeding Madras fabric that became such a rage in the US). His only experience of the hotel business was as a guest so, he did not always get it right to begin with. He built the first Leela in Mumbai on land that he already possessed when he realised that the new international terminal of Mumbai airport would open nearby. He patterned it on a hotel he had seen in Budapest (not exactly the centre of the hotel industry, then or now) and aimed too low. Because he had an airport hotel in mind, he tied up with the Penta group whose forte was three-star hotels.
The hotel ran into problems even before it opened. Did the Airports Authority actually have the right to build a hotel on the land or did he? Was it too tall a structure? But Capt Nair powered on undeterred. He was a man who had made many friends in his years in Mumbai and he called on such pals as Vasantdada Patil (best known as a powerful Chief Minister of Maharashtra) to get him out of the jam. In his mind, the entire controversy had been engineered by Ajit Kerkar of the Taj group to keep him out of the business and he never missed an opportunity to point this out.
His Goa hotel was, he later said, also a response to the Taj. He felt he had been treated badly at the Taj’s Fort Aguada hotel and vowed to build a hotel that put the Aguada in the shade. He succeeded eventually when the Leela Goa became Goa’s top hotel. He forgave the Taj only after Kerkar retired and his friend, a fellow Malayali, RK Krishna Kumar, took over.
Rivalries among hoteliers are not unheard of but, they are rarely made public. Capt Nair, on the other hand, relished feuds and public battles. He got away with it because, once he had entered the hotel business, he never stopped learning. Each year, he became a better hotelier.
He quickly dumped Penta and took his Mumbai property upmarket, using Kempinski branding. Then, he negotiated an arrangement with Four Seasons, hoping to give his hotels an international edge. When that relationship broke down and the Four Seasons took offence (he appears in Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp’s memoir in a chapter entitled ‘A Few Bad Apples’), Capt Nair fought back saying that Four Seasons had pulled the plug on the arrangement because it was scared of not getting the room rates it had promised. When people pressed him, he laughed: “Look at their Mumbai Four Seasons and look at my hotel. There is no comparison.”
When it came to speaking his mind, he had no filter. He said what he believed and he didn’t care what anyone thought. Rivals, politicians, colleagues, his own children—they all heard Capt Nair tell it like it was and not necessarily in a gentle way.
Nobody really minded his bluntness (well, perhaps, the rivals did) because just as he could be acerbic, he could be charming, warm, generous and kind. I met him first in the 1990s and knew him only slightly for years but, his ebullience ensured that everyone eventually fell under his spell. On one occasion, the late Sabina Sehgal Saikia, the food critic, and I were both attending a hotel conference at the Mumbai Leela. We were standing in the porch of the hotel when Captain Nair drove past. He recognised me despite our slender acquaintance so, he stopped the car and rolled his window down. “You must visit my Goa hotel,” he shouted, with an easy familiarity. Then, he saw that I was standing with a woman and added “You must go too. Take the kids with you.” Then, he drove off.
Sabina and I stared at each other till we worked it out. He had assumed she was my wife and that we had children together.
Later, when I knew him better, I told him what he had done and he laughed uproariously, not at all fazed at having got it so wrong.
It took time but the Mumbai Leela eventually become a cash cow. The Goa property was a huge success. But the purchase of land at the edge of Lake Pichola in Udaipur was a mistake because no construction was allowed. Always unwilling to give up, Capt Nair held on to the land till eventually Vasundhara Raje, whose parents had been his friends, became Chief Minister and sorted the matter out making the construction of the Leela Udaipur possible.
He was diddled by the Central government over his first Delhi property, never getting the land he had paid for and worse still, not even getting back the hundreds of crores he had already paid. But, he kept at it and eventually got his money back. In the interim, the company nearly went under but he got an unexpected reprieve when the Bengaluru Leela opened. The hotel was ideally located for all the software companies and as that sector boomed so did the Leela’s profits.
Even when things were rough, he never lost his zest for life. In the early years of this century I finally got to know him well. We would meet for lunch or dinner and he would regale me with stories from his past while (if we met for dinner) putting away large quantities of booze. At one dinner at Delhi’s Le Cirque when he was in his 90s, he polished off several glasses of spirits and most of a bottle of a good Italian red wine. By the end of the evening, I was a little buzzed but he was the same old Captain Nair.
He knew, I think, by then, that he had overspent on building the Delhi Leela and that the company would have a hard time managing its debt obligations. But he didn’t really care too much. He had been denied what would have been his first Delhi hotel and when he got a second chance, he built the best hotel he could.
His sons would handle the debts after he was gone, he said. “They can sell two or three hotels, may be”, he shrugged.
In the event, his sons did the sensible thing and sold out to Brookfield, an American company that has infused capital and new management talent (including a dynamic new boss in Anuraag Bhatnagar) and kept the Leela hotels gleaming, a lasting tribute to Capt Nair’s vision.
He died in 2014 but there is not a single time when I don’t remember him as I walk into a Leela hotel. He was an unlikely hotelier but though he started out as an outsider to the business, he ended up as one of its giants.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, March 6, 2022
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