Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair, or simply Captain, as he preferred to be called, passed away in his sleep at the Hinduja hospital here on Saturday. He was 92.
His last rites will be held on Sunday, at a Juhu crematorium.
The oldest serving hotelier, who stepped down from chairmanship of Leela Palace Hotels and Resorts in February last year and handed over the baton to his two sons, had been unwell since several months, with intermittent visits to hospitals.
He leaves behind his wife Leela and sons Vivek, chairman and managing director of Leela Hotels; and Dinesh, co-chairman and managing director.
During interactions, Nair always had “stories” to share. On one such occasion, he remembered a day in the early 80s when his helper Leela prepared a special prawn dish for then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, who was staying at the hotel’s Maharajah suite. “Jyoti babu wanted to know who made the dish because it tasted exactly like the one his mother prepared. I told him it was a special recipe from Dhaka, where Basu’s mother hailed from. I could see how emotional even a stern-looking Jyoti babu could become,” Nair said. The prawn dish was enough to make the veteran communist, famed for his taciturnity, shed his reluctance to meet Dhirubhai Ambani, a request Nair made after the lunch. Basu kept his promise and met the entire Ambani clan for dinner the same night. That, Nair claimed, was instrumental in breaking the ice between the two.
Mourning Nair’s demise will not only be his family members and thousands of well-wishers and employees of Leela Palace Hotels and Resorts, which he founded at the ripe age of 67; the silver-plated elephants at all his hotel properties would also shed a tear for him. One of Nair’s favourite stories was during his childhood, his mother allowed him to play with the elephants that regularly came to his compound from nearby jungles. Before leaving, they bid goodbye with their trunks wrapped around him. Many years later, Nair paid tribute to his childhood friends – each of his hotel properties had given pride of place to sculpted elephants.
Born in Kannur, Kerala, in pre-independent India, Nair was one of the eight children of Madhaviamma and Appa Nair, a civil servant. Nurtured by communist leaders A K Gopalan and P Krishna Pillai, he joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during the Freedom struggle. The admiration for Bose was evident from Nair’s round-framed glasses.
In 1942, he was commissioned into the Indian Army as a wireless officer, initially stationed in Abbottabad. Five years later, he joined the Army’s oldest regiment, the Maratha Light Infantry. In 1951, he resigned and entered the handloom business run by his father-in-law and founded Leela Lace.
Success, however, came only five years later, when ‘Bleeding Madras’, a colour-losing and changing fabric, was contrived.
This became a hit in the US. Years later, the textiles ministry awarded Nair the Golden Globe for the highest clothing exports from India.
Nair, a Padma Bhusan recipient, decided to switch professions again. At the age of 65, when most retire to the countryside, Nair decided to venture into the hospitality sector. Having been exposed to luxury stay during his business trips to Europe and the US, he decided to set up an opulent property over a vacant four-acre plot in the backyard of his house in Andheri here.
Named after his wife, the luxurious property, opened in 1987, became the only worthy rival to the legendary Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, Colaba, in the south of this city. This property was branded Leela-Kempinski, following a branding and marketing tie-up with Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels.
About 27 years later, the Leela Group expanded to seven more locations – Delhi, Goa, Bangalore, Chennai, Kovalam, Udaipur and Gurgaon – without comprising on its brand equity and service quality. The group plans to add three more hotels in Jaipur, Agra and Lake Ashtamudi (Kerala).
Leela’s princely properties attracted cigarette major ITC, which bought about 15 per cent stake in the company, fuelling speculation the Kolkata-based conglomerate was looking at a hostile takeover. In a famous statement, Nair said in case if a hostile takeover bid by ITC, he could turn to Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani for help. “Mukesh is a kind young man and will always help his ‘uncle’, should the need arise,” he had said.
Nair, however, didn’t actually approach Ambani.
Subsequently, Nair began to ring-fence the company. According to the plan, neither of his sons would sell shares to an outsider. Also, promoters began to scale up stakes to prevent any chances of a hostile bid.
His fondness for the Ambanis was well-known. For example, during an interaction with Business Standard a couple of years ago, he had said the table he was at was the same where Anil Ambani, Reliance Group chief, spent hours with Tina before they were married. He took great pride in the fact that he was among those who had convinced his dear friend Dhirubhai the Anil-Tina Ambani match was one made in heaven.
Leelaventure’s freewheeling expansion, most of which were funded by the company through loans, however, also brought with it a crushing financial burden. The Nairs paid Rs 2,000 crore for the 260-room Chanakyapuri property in south Delhi, making the cost incurred per room the highest in India. This was followed by the opening of a Rs 1,500-crore, sea-facing, 326-room property in Chennai last year.
Hotel Leelaventure has not posted profits since March 2012, as the company is making hefty interest payments on loans outstanding. For instance, interest of Rs 126 crore was paid on debt during the December 2013 quarter alone; this led to a net loss of Rs 100 crore for that period.
To pare its debt of about Rs 4,500 crore, the Nairs sold the Kovalam (Kerala) property in 2011, raising Rs 500 crore. Lat year, they also sold their Chennai IT Park to Reliance Industries for Rs 170 crore. Sources say all further expansion, including the setting up of a new property in Agra, has been put on hold. Land banks such as that in Hyderabad are up for sale.
Market watchers say the company is desperate to off-load the Delhi and Chennai properties, as required under the corporate debt restructuring scheme it had applied for. However, due to high valuations, the deal has failed to fetch serious buyers.
Raymond Bickson, managing director, Indian Hotels Company, said, “I have known Capt. Nair for about 30 years. I first met him in Chicago when I was a manager. He has been a visionary for such a long time. According to his vision, it’s not important to have too many, but it’s important to have the right ones. This is a great loss for the industry. The legacy he has left behind will last for a long time.”