At the presidential suite of the Leela Kempinski Gurgaon, I interrupt a family meeting. Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair, chairman of Hotel Leela Venture Ltd, is in Delhi to receive his Padma Bhushan and the whole Nair family and some close friends are here with him. The rehearsals for the 31 March awards ceremony are over and they have the evening to celebrate before heading out to Rashtrapati Bhavan the following day. Nair, 89, dapper in a creamy beige suit with a lime green paisley tie and matching handkerchief, leaves the conversation to greet me. On my request, he calls over Leela, his wife, after whom his businesses are named.
How does it feel to be one of the most famous wives in Indian business, I ask her. “It’s my husband,” she says in Malayalam, “everything he touches turns into gold.” Nair jumps in to disagree. “She is the one who is behind all these businesses,” he says, and then tells her, “You started the handloom business, encouraged me to set up the hotel.”
Optimistic octogenarian: Nair believes he wouldn’t have been a businessman for so long if he felt frustrated by problems. Things have a way of working out, he says. Jayachandran/Mint
Then I witness the strangest form of marital bickering where each insists the other take the credit.
Earlier in the day, when I was reading up on Nair, I realized that every other news story is about him winning some award or the other. “But the Padma Bhushan is special. If you are a patriot, then this is the most important award,” he says. The award is perhaps the culmination of his journey from communism to luxury capitalism. While Nair’s businesses may have been built on sagacious opportunism, their beginning was a fortuitous impulse.
Nair comes from a family of “poor means”. When he was in school, the king of the province, Chirakkal Thirunal, came on a visit. On a whim, he penned a poem about the ruler and went up to the stage and read it. “He was so moved by it that he offered me a scholarship for life. As long as I wanted to study, he said he would support it,” he says.
When he was a little older, Nair met A.K. Gopalan, the legendary Communist activist. Under his influence, Nair formed the first students’ union in Kerala. When he finished school, he decided to go to Madras (now Chennai) for his intermediate. He went to the Thirunal to seek money. “He didn’t have much cash on him, so he took his ring off his finger and gave it to me and asked me to go to a specific jeweller in Madras and sell it. I got Rs4,400 for the ring, I returned Rs400 and paid my fees with the remaining (amount),” he says.
Nair finished college and then joined the army. “I really loved the army life,” he says. In 1950, he married Leela, whose father owned 2,000 handlooms and was a successful businessman. “After a while, Leela said, what is this career that involves constant saluting? Why don’t you get out so we can start a business?” he says.
Though it was a difficult decision, he left the army the following year. His first thought was to join his father-in-law’s business. But his wife suggested they start a handloom marketing company and sell the products of a variety of manufacturers, including her father’s. So that’s what they did. “A bunch of us formed the All India Handloom Board and tried to reform the handloom sector. We met Pandit Nehru (in 1952) and suggested that a levy of 1 paisa cess be made to develop handloom. In one year, the government accumulated over Rs300 crore. This was used to make working conditions better for the weavers,” he says.
In 1958, he set up Leela Scottish Lace, a lace manufacturing unit in Mumbai.
Even though Nair is famous as a hotelier, he spent the largest chunk of his working life in the textile and apparel businesses. It was only when he was 64, an age when most Keralites retire to their quiet family homes and start their kitchen gardens, that Nair set up Leela Hotels. The family had bought land in Andheri (East) in Mumbai and built a bungalow to live in. Soon, the international airport came up on that road. “One of my friends, K.K. Unni, came visiting and he said that if you build a hotel here, there is no way you can go wrong. I was apprehensive—hotels are capital-intensive—but Leela jumped at the idea. She motivated me and we decided to set up the hotel,” he says. That was in 1986.
Nair went to State Bank of India to seek a loan. He had only Rs5,000 in his account, everything else was invested in the export business. The bank refused on the ground that he would not be able to raise capital. So he went to the US, where he had a wide network of friends and associates in the textile and export business. “Two hundred of them contributed $5,000 (around Rs2.23 lakh now) each. A lot of them still hold shares in (the) company,” he says. Kempinski, the big German hospitality company, soon came on board. With the success of one hotel, Nair started looking out for other locations: “When I was in the army, I had visited Goa with K.M. Cariappa (who later became commander-in-chief of the Indian Army). We went incognito, as Goa was then still a part of Portugal. But I remembered how beautiful it was and we thought we should put up a hotel there.”
The Nairs and their partners from Kempinski booked themselves into a hotel there for three nights. “The second morning, the hotel asked us to vacate the rooms. When we asked why, they gave some vague responses. Leela argued with them, but they just threw our things out. It was an embarrassment in front of our partners. The hotel had discovered that we were potential competitors,” he says. The incident enraged his wife so much that she was determined that not only would they set up the hotel, they would find the location for it right then. So they walked to different locations and came upon a beautiful beachfront property in south Goa. “The sea in the front, the river at the back and the view of the mountains beyond. We found the perfect Goa spot.”
Today, Leela Hotels has six properties and an annual turnover of Rs127 crore. The company, which already has two IT parks in Kerala, is planning to build more. Real estate is another business that Nair is eyeing keenly. The next Leela is coming up in Delhi, where the iconic Chanakya cinema was, in time for the Commonwealth Games.
So at 89, what keeps him going, I ask him. “Just the joy of it,” he says.