Great hoteliers are almost never 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 avoids publicity and is rarely comfortable in unfamiliar social settings. Ajit Kerkar was fiercely elusive when he created the Taj group. He refused to be photographed, rarely returned calls, and was rarely seen at any of the group’s restaurants. Nakul Anand has turned ITC Hotels into a luxury powerhouse, but he’s soft-spoken and low-key, doing as little as possible to draw attention to himself.
The exception to this rule was the late Captain CP Krishnan Nair. He never backed down from the public eye, he made friends easily, he exuded flamboyance and when he entered a room, he was always noticed. Captain Nair has suddenly come back into the public consciousness as a new authorized biography of Bachi Karkaria has just been released. As I read it, I remembered the Capt Nair I knew.
More than any other hospitality professional that I admire, Captain Nair wanted to be a hotelier. He knew nothing about the hotel business when he entered the business. He was in his sixties and had already made a fortune in textiles (he was one of the pioneers of the Bleeding Madras fabric which was all the rage in the United States). His only hospitality experience was as a guest, so he didn’t always get it right initially. He built the first Leela in Mumbai on land he already owned when he realized that the new Mumbai Airport International Terminal would open nearby. He modeled it on a hotel he had seen in Budapest (not exactly the center of the hotel industry then or now) and aimed too low. Because he had an airport hotel in mind, he teamed up with the Penta group, whose strong point was three-star hotels.
The hotel had problems before it even opened. Did the Airport Authority actually have the right to build a hotel on the land or did it? Was it too tall a structure? But Capt Nair started undeterred. He was a man who had made many friends during his years in Mumbai and he appealed to friends such as Vasantdada Patil (best known as a powerful chief minister of Maharashtra) to get him out of the dead end. In his mind, the whole controversy was engineered by Ajit Kerkar of the Taj Group to keep him out of the business and he never missed an opportunity to point that out.
His Goa hotel was, he later said, also an answer to the Taj. He felt he had been treated badly at Taj’s Fort Aguada hotel and vowed to build a hotel that would put the Aguada in the shade. He finally succeeded when the Leela Goa became the best hotel in Goa. He forgave the Taj only after Kerkar retired and his friend, fellow Malayali RK Krishna Kumar took over.
Rivalries between hoteliers are not unknown but they are rarely made public. Captain Nair, on the other hand, loved quarrels and public battles. He got away with it because, once he got into the hotel business, he never stopped learning. Every year he became a better hotelier.
He quickly dumped Penta and upscaled his Mumbai property, using the Kempinski brand. Then he brokered a deal with Four Seasons, hoping to give his hotels an international edge. When that relationship broke down and the Four Seasons took offense (it appears in Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp’s memoir in a chapter titled “A Few Bad Apples”), Capt Nair fired back saying that Four Seasons had terminated the arrangement because it was afraid 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 other people thought. Rivals, politicians, colleagues, his own children, they all heard Capt Nair tell it like it was and not necessarily in a soft way.
Nobody really cared about his candor (well, maybe the rivals were) because just as he could be acerbic, he could be charming, warm, generous, and kind. I first met him in the 1990s and hadn’t known him much for years, but his effervescence meant that everyone ended up falling 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 on the hotel porch when Captain Nair passed by. He recognized me despite our scant knowledge, so he stopped the car and rolled down his window. “You must visit my hotel in Goa,” he shouted, with easy familiarity. Then he saw that I was standing with a woman and added, “You have to go too. Take the children with you. Then he left.
Sabina and I looked at each other until we understood. He had assumed that she was my wife and that we had children together.
Later, when I got to know him better, I told him what he had done and he burst out laughing, not at all fazed that he was so wrong.
It took time but the Mumbai Leela eventually became a cash cow. The Goa property was a huge success. But buying land by Lake Pichola in Udaipur was a mistake as no construction was allowed. Still unwilling to give up, Captain Nair clung to the land until eventually Vasundhara Raje, whose parents had been his friends, became Chief Minister and settled the matter by making the construction of the Leela Udaipur possible.
He was duped by the central government on his first property in Delhi, never getting the land he paid for and worse, not even getting back the hundreds of crores he had already paid. But, he continued and eventually got his money back. In the meantime, the company nearly went bankrupt, but he got an unexpected reprieve when he opened Bengaluru Leela. The hotel was ideally located for all the software companies, and as this industry boomed, so did Leela’s profits.
Even when things were tough, he never lost his zest for life. In the first years of this century, I came to know him well. We would meet for lunch or dinner and he would regale me with stories from his past while putting away (if we were meeting for dinner) copious amounts of booze. While dining at the Delhi Circus when he was 90, he drank several glasses of spirits and most of a bottle of a fine Italian red wine. By the end of the evening I was a little buzzed but it was the same old Captain Nair.
He knew, I think, at the time, that he had spent too much to build the Delhi Leela and that the company would struggle to manage its debts. But he didn’t really care too much. He had been denied what would have been his first hotel in Delhi and when given a second chance he built the best hotel possible.
His sons would take care of the debts after he left, he said. “They can sell two or three hotels, maybe,” he shrugged.
As it happened, his sons did the right thing and sold themselves to Brookfield, an American company that infused capital and new management talent (including a dynamic new boss in Anuraag Bhatnagar) and kept the sparkling Leela hotels, an enduring tribute to Capt Nair. vision.
He passed away in 2014 but there isn’t a single time I don’t remember him as I walk into a Leela hotel. He was an unlikely hotelier, but although he started out as an outsider to the business, he ended up becoming one of its giants.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, March 6, 2022
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