Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Leela's Patriarch May Be No More, But His Vision Will Continue To Guide His Hotel Chain

Born: February 9, 1922
Dead: May 17, 2014

I met the visionary behind The Leela chain of luxury hotels for the last time last year, after he had presided over a seamless succession for his two sons, Vivek and Dinesh Nair. He left an indelible impression on me as he outlined the group’s future plans and its imminent global foray. A shorter version of this report appeared in Mail Today.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

AS CAPT. Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair, founder and chairman emeritus of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, passes the baton on to his sons, Vivek and Dinesh, he’s confident that the hospitality group that has become synonymous with style and grandeur will go international “very soon”.
Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair, pioneering hotelier,
passed away at his home in Mumbai in the early
hours of May 17, 2014.
The 91-year-old hotel mogul sees the chain going global within the next five years, after eight new hotels carrying The Leela flag will be up and running across the country. Potential international partners from places such as Abu Dhabi and Doha have already evinced interest in tying up with The Leela.
Impeccably attired, with flawless skin, sharp eyes and sharper mind, oozing energy thanks to his daily morning walk and 20 minutes of basketball, the sunny patriarch let the gently paced conversation flit across a gamut of topics over lunch in the line of vision of the optical glass Buddha at The Leela Palace New Delhi’s signature restaurant, Megu. I wondered at that time what the secret of his wrinkle-less skin was, as I watched him savour his sake and sashimi, occasionally turning to Rajesh Namby, the hotel's resident manager who was then the F&B manager, giving him instructions about what to serve me next.
The patriarch shared his vision for the hotel chain, which he launched after earning his initial millions from the international textiles business, where he's famous as one of the pioneers of the internationally renowned hand-spun Bleeding Madras yarn and as an initiator of the All-India Handloom Board. As a member of the Handloom Board, Capt. Nair got to travel across Europe in the latter half of the 1950s, and it was then that he was overcome by the desire to launch a chain of luxury hotels on the lines of the fine addresses he had checked in at during his travels.
He realised his dream when he opened his first hotel, named after his wife like all his business ventures, in 1986, in the neighbourhood of Mumbai's Sahar International Airport, which was inaugurated in the 1981. That was a visionary move, at a time when land values in that part of Mumbai hadn't touched astronomical heights, and for Capt. Nair, it was his third major career move after the Indian Army, which he quit in 1951, and his entry into the textile business, culminating in the founding of Leela Lace in 1957.
Capt. Nair clearly was a man who could see the road ahead. “The future of Delhi is on the road to the Yamuna Expressway,” he said. At the other end of the Expressway, bang opposite the Taj Mahal, another luxury hotel carrying The Leela banner is coming up on a seven-acre plot. “I see it becoming the venue of dream weddings facing the Taj,” Capt. Nair said.
Agra, he added, was on its way to be dramatically transformed by the proposed international airport. “In future, international tourists will first go to Agra and then come to Delhi,” he added, pointing to the airport’s likely dramatic impact.
Will the airport ever take off? Capt. Nair was confident it would. “The young and dynamic civil aviation minister with his eye on the interests of his home state will ensure it happens,” he said. Capt. Nair was referring to the then minister, Ajit Singh, who has just lost his Lok Sabha seat, adding that he was very close to Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former minister’s father and a former prime minister.
The pioneering hotelier and the group’s top management had been facing questions about the humongous cost of building The Leela New Delhi. For Capt. Nair, coming to Delhi was a dream that was tripped the first time when his Rs 200-crore bid for Hudco Place in the early 1990s led to a protracted legal dispute that dragged on for 14 years and went up to the Supreme Court. The group, however, sailed through the bidding for the Chanakyapuri plot, despite stiff competition from a Dubai sheikh and a Singapore company.
“It was the making of the hotel that turned out to be more expensive because I wanted it to be more beautiful than anything ever built in India,” Capt. Nair said and went on to talk about The Leela Palace, Chennai, “the city’s grandest and only sea-facing palace hotel” on the southern stretch of the Adyar Beach on the arterial Mount Road. “You can literally have a wedding on the sea at this stunning hotel,” said the patriarch, his eyes lighting up as he spoke.
Capt. Nair may have cleared the way for his sons, but his vision, without doubt, will continue to steer The Leela as it looks beyond the country’s borders for its future growth. And it will continue to do so, despite his physical absence from this mortal world.