Sunday, May 18, 2014

Captain Cool - Remembering Captain CP Krishnan Nair of The Leela Hotels

Captain CP Krishnan Nair, Founder, The Leela Hotels

17th May 2014, Saturday one of the greatest hoteliers of our times Captain CP Krishnan Nair left for his heavenly abode. Captain Sir ( as many youngsters use to address him) was 92. I remember meeting him just when he was gearing up for his 90th birthday- enthusiastically and eagerly. This man, who gave luxury hospitality a whole new spin with launch of the Leela Hotels, will be missed for his style, smile and success. Here is a profile piece I wrote for The Financial Express just before he turned 90. RIP.

(Published in The Financial Express on January 13, 2012)

It’s rare to see a nonagenarian exhibit the zeal of a young entrepreneur. But then Captain CP Krishnan Nair, chairman and founder of the Leela Hotels and Resorts, is one of a kind. And while age is just a number, in Captain Nair’s case, it’s a reason to celebrate. His sons are busy organising a birthday bash for the big daddy of luxury hotels, when he turns 90 next month. Considering that his first birthday party was at the age of 80 years, the enthusiasm is still high. “Though my sons are keeping it under the wraps, I know they are inviting my friends from all over the world,” he says. 
After all, there’s enough in his life worth celebrating, be it his enterprise to start a handloom business after quitting the army in 1952, defying age to start his first hotel in Bombay when he was 65, or courageously building one of the most expensive hotels of the country and launching it last year. Even today he is at the helm of his business and shares a work-play relationship with his three granddaughters, each of whom are inducted into the family business with clearly defined roles.
That’s pretty much the gist, but stories of the business of life abound in between. Born in Kannur district of Kerala, Captain Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair, or Captain Nair, as he is known in the hospitality circles, did not harbour any dreams of being a businessman, and a successful one at that, during his early days. At 13 years, he became part of the freedom movement, forming a union in his school. He went on to join the Army in 1942 in Abbottabad, the same place where Osama Bin Laden was shot dead last year. The place is still fresh in his memory and he even digs out a picture of when he was posted there. He married Leela Nair at the age of 27 and even though it was an arranged match, the fact that he named his first business— Leela Lace—after his wife speaks volume of the love that was to blossom later. Decades later, when he launched his hotel business, there was no contest on what it would be named. “She has been a guiding force. Even my grandchildren take career advice from her,” he smiles, as we walk through his first hotel, The Leela Palace in Mumbai, which will celebrate its silver jubilee this year.
From Dalai Lama to Margaret Thatcher, from Dev Anand to Kokilaben Ambani, Captain’s hotels have had many a distinguished guest. “Kokilaben stayed at our Udaipur property recently. She quite liked the experience and later sent thepla and dhokla for me as a thank you gesture,” chuckles Nair. There is more history to it. It was at Leela Mumbai’s restaurant where Anil Ambani and Tina Munim spent time before they were married. ‘Chairman uncle’, as he is fondly addressed by the Ambani brothers, knew about it. He remembers the day he got a call from elder brother Mukesh, who said, “Uncle you know they are dating and are regulars at your hotel. You never told us!” He adds, “That’s when Anil confessed to me that he is not just ‘dating’, but loves Tina.”
Fellow hoteliers are also not untouched by the Leela luxury. Bob Burns of the Regent Hotels and PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi have stayed at his hotels. “Biki has stayed quite a few times at our Bombay hotel as it is close to the airport. In fact it was during one of his stays that I said we should start a hotel association and he should lead the pack. That’s how the Hotels Association of India (HAI) was formed (in 1996),” he reminiscences.
The Delhi hotel is replicating the Mumbai story, as he points out, “Our Delhi property is doing well. And it better do; after all, it cost us a bomb!” Any regrets, as the huge expenses incurred on the hotel that made headlines, was a financial setback for the group? “Not at all! It’s just a matter of time. In about next three years we will be able to retire our debt,” says Captain Nair.
The company might be reeling under debt, but Nair’s clearly still upbeat. He tells us that while the Delhi property was built at an expense of Rs 2,000 crore, the upcoming Chennai hotel has also been developed at a whopping Rs 1,000 crore. “There are about 1,800 people working on that hotel. Like Delhi, this will be a marquee property. We wanted to complete the hotel by early February, but it will be ready only by March. In fact, I wanted to celebrate my birthday there,” he says.
The Leela Hotels and Resorts, which has about seven hotels in its portfolio, will be signing only management contracts and not owning hotels till it retires its debt. Besides Chennai, the group’s upcoming projects are in Agra and Ashtamudi. That the hotel business is capital intensive, this entrepreneur had realised long back, and that’s why in August 2007, he sold his lace business. “Though my elder son Vivek was involved with the hotels from the very beginning, the younger one, Dinesh, was handling the lace business. It was only after we sold Leela Lace that Dinesh became involved with the hotels full time,” he says. Sell-offs have become a part of Leela’s story. In August last year, it sold its Kovalam property for Rs 500 crore to NRI Ravi Pillai.
He also knows it isn’t the best of times for the hotel industry either. “For our Mumbai property we were earlier doing an average room rate (ARR) of Rs 14,000, which went down to R8,000 during the recession of 2009. It’s picking up now and is about Rs 10,000. In Delhi, the ARR is around Rs18,000. In Bangalore, it is about R13,000-14,000. At one point (before slowdown hit) we were charging Rs 25,000 a night at our Bangalore property! The rates were one of the highest in the world and not just India. But the IT hub is not the most lucrative hotel markets anymore. Arrivals from the US have dipped. You must have heard about Obama’s mantra: ‘Say no to Bangalore, yes to Buffalo’.”
When not working, he likes to travel, watch Malayalam serials with his wife and enjoys his food and the wine (though according to his dietary plan). And then he has his grandchildren to keep him busy, be it enjoying a Chinese meal with them or planning other treats. Captain Nair is also a shutterbug’s delight, as he poses gracefully, smiles throughout and leads us to the best spots for clicking him.

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