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The rags to riches story of Leela Hotels founder

Last updated on: November 12, 2012 14:47 IST

The rags to riches story of Leela Hotels founder

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai

Captain C P Krishnan Nair may be 90 but his energy and passion for work has not diminished a bit even now.

In fact, the Chairman of the Leela Group of Hotels and Resorts, won the 'Hotelier of the Century' award by the International Hotel and Restaurant Association in 2010.

Even today, his day start at 6 in the morning with a game of volleyball followed by a walk inside Hotel Leela, Mumbai and work out in the gymnasium, which includes 7 minutes of cycling.

He works from 10 a.m. till 5.30 in the evening. From 6 p.m., it is time to unwind watching with Malayalam television serials his wife Leela. And his day ends at 10.30 p.m.

Interestingly, if work is worship for him even at 90, there was a time in his early twenties when he wanted to be a sanyasi!

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Image: Captain C P Krishnan Nair.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj.

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But after a few months with his guru in Rishikesh, his Guru told him that his path was that of a karmayogi and not a sanyasi. And, from then on, it has only been karma for this Padma Bhushan awardee. He has donned the role of an army officer, textile exporter and finally a world-renowned hotelier.

It was at 65, a retirement age for many that he became a hotelier by starting the Leela Group of Hotels and Resorts. Today, 20,000 employees work in his clothing business and 5000 people work in the hotel business.

That's Captain Nair, a man with indefatigable energy and enthusiasm. Before we started our almost 2-hour long conversation, he told me not to ask any questions about investments, revenue, money, etc. "Let us talk about what I did," he said, and that was what he did. 

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Photographs of Captain Nair: Sreeram Selvaraj



Image: Captain C P Krishnan Nair.


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The rags-to-riches story of Leela Hotels founder

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Childhood in a small village in Kerala

I was born in a village in Kannur in Kerala in 1922 as the fifth of nine children, and we were quite poor.

What I still remember about my early childhood was spending time in the village library. I was one of the voracious readers there. It was there that I read about Swami Vivekanada and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and got influenced by their teachings, especially the philosophies of Vedanta.

From then on, I stopped believing in idol worship. Recently when I spent Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) to renovate the temple in my father's village, many people asked me why I did that. I said that it was for the memory of my father that I renovated the temple.

Even at the age of five, I got influenced by what my school head master taught us; the teachings of Sri Narayana Guru - that there was only 'One caste, one religion and one God for mankind'.

He was against Chaturvarnya but I saw untouchability and inhuman behaviour in Kerala society then.  I understood why Swami Vivekanada had called Kerala, a lunatic asylum. If I got influenced by books, philosophy and ideology, it was all because of my school master.

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Image: Captain C P Krishnan Nair with his wife.


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Scholarship from the Maharaja

When I was in the first standard, the Maharaja of that region visited our school. In that function, I recited a poem I had composed about him. So impressed was the Maharaja that I was given a scholarship so that all my needs were taken care of till I finished my studies.

That was how I started my school education. It was the first turning point in my life.

Participating in the freedom struggle

I was the first secretary of the students' union of my school at the age of 13, and it was also India's first students' union too. That makes me the first students' union leader in India.

Many of us attended the study class conducted by the Communist leader A K Gopalan (AKG), and later we marched behind him in a rally against the British and we were all kicked and arrested, but later released as we were all youngsters.

Once, all of us marched with AKG to attend a meeting of Subhash Chandra Bose. I still remember how Netaji fell ill when he was there and I suggested a home remedy to get instant relief. And, it worked!

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Image: Captain C P Krishnan Nair with Dalai Lama.


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Off to Madras to study in College

I did my college education at the Madras Government Arts College. It was possible only because of the Maharaja again.
He gave me his diamond ring and asked me to sell it and fund my trip to Madras and studies, and that was how I did my pre-university.

First job at Abbottabad

In 1942, I got was the job of a civilian wireless officer and my first posting was at Abbottabad, which is in Pakistan now.

It was a very long journey from Madras traveling in several trains to reach the North West Frontier Province.

I had a remarkable experience in the train. I didn't have any money to buy food and was very hungry and tired. Seeing this, a co-passenger Karunakaran Nair, offered me both lunch and dinner. When he got down at Peshavar, he gave Rs 10 and said, this will help you complete the journey.

When I asked for his address to send the money back, he said, you need not send it back to me. Whenever you meet someone who needs money like you do today, give it to him.

I have never met that gentleman after that in my life but he taught me a big lesson in my life.

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Image: Captain C P Krishnan Nair with US president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.


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The rags to riches story of Leela Hotels founder

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Decoding the messages of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose

It was while working at Abbottabad that I got to decode Netaji's messages. Freedom struggle was at its peak then. I remember going to meet Frontier Gandhi when I was there.

Sheikh Abdullah was also there to meet him at that time. My relationship with the Frontier Gandhi's family started then and continues even today.

As a young man, it was Netaji who influenced many like me more than Gandhiji.

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Image: The Leela Hotel at Udaipur.


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Wanted to be an Army Officer

I used to watch the Army officers walking around in uniform and my desire to be an Army officer intensified but I wanted to be in the Indian army and not the British Army.

I remember riding a white horse to the Military Academy which was almost near the Afghanistan border every weekend to see the Army men parading.

Desire to be a sanyasi

At the age of 20 or 21, I went to Rishikesh to see Swami Sivananda who was actually a good doctor but had stopped practising and turned a sanyasi.

At that time, I had a good job and I was intensely patriotic but the desire to be a sanyasi pulled me to Rishikesh. 

I tried meditating with my Guru, Swami Sivananda on the banks of Ganga early in the morning. After a couple of months, my Guru told me, Krishna, you are not destined to be a sanyasi; you are destined to be a karmayogi. Go out into the world and do your karma.

My friend at Abbottabad at that time was Balakrishna Menon, the man who later became Swami Chinmayananda. He also went to the same Guru and he became a sanyasi and I became a businessman. This is destiny.

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Image: Capt. Krishnan Nair.


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The rags to riches story of Leela Hotels founder

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Joining the Indian Army

After independence, I joined the army, in the Maratha Light Infantry. After four years, in 1951, I took voluntary retirement from Army as a Captain, to become an entrepreneur.

Starting the handloom business

I decided to leave the army and be a businessman in the handloom industry because of my wife. She asked me to do something for the people, especially the handloom weavers.

My father-in-law had a successful handloom business of 2000 looms and I was asked to take charge of one mill in Mumbai.

My ambition was not to do handloom business in one region; I wanted to spread it to the whole of India, and also to the world. I started a producers' and consumers' co-operative society, the first one in India. My mission was to improve the lives of millions of handloom weavers across India.

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Image: Capt C P Krishnan Nair and his Rolls Royce Phantom.


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The rags to riches story of Leela Hotels founder

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Starting the first Handloom Board in India

Captain V Nanchappa was the Textile Commissioner at that time. I told him about my desire to start a Handloom Board in India which can look after the industry and the weavers.

Later, I was asked to meet Jawaharlal Nehru by Lal Bahadur Shastri. He also warned that Nehru favoured power looms. So, I convinced Nehru by using the jargons modernisation and industrialisation, and they did the trick.

Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to start the first Handloom Board in the country, and to help the industry, he agreed to impose a cess of one paisa on all the material made in mills so that the money would go to the fund.

Pandit Nehru had no objection as I asked for only one paisa but this way, we got a funding of Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) a year!

Eminent people like Pupul Jayakar, Kamaladevi, etc were there in the Board. When I see what is happening today to the handloom industry and the way it is dying, my heart bleeds.  

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Image: Captain Krishnan Nair (2nd from left) with Jawaharlal Nehru.


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Exporting fabrics to the world

It was V P Menon whom I fondly called Uncle VP (appointed as Reforms Commissioner by the British government in 1946), who introduced me to Lord Mountbatten.

And, it was through him that I could strike a business agreement with Laurence Mitchel, the managing director of a Scottish lace firm.

The agreement was that we would make lace for the international market. That was the beginning of Leela Scottish Lace and our window to the world.

In 1972, Leela Scottish Ltd became India's biggest garment factory. From my factory, we could export 'Bleeding Madras fabric' made of natural vegetable dyes.

I used to export millions of yards to America; such was the rage for the fabric there.

After exporting the material, I moved to supplying garments. I started India's first garment factory with 200 machines in Mumbai. We became the largest exporter of readymade garments from India and started winning awards for that for 15-20 years.

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Image: The Leela Palace, New Delhi.


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Meet the 90-year-old founder of Leela Hotels

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Entering the hotel industry at 65

I became a hotelier at the age of 65.  There is a story behind this.

After I started my handloom business and the handloom board in 1957, I was asked by the government of India to head a trade delegation from India to Germany.

Germany had just recovered from the destruction of World War II but what I saw there amazed me. Nobody would believe that a World War had destroyed the country. That was my experience with luxurious hotels.

I was so impressed with them that I wondered why don't have such luxurious hotels in India. Then, I used to go to America in connection with the export of garments and I used to stay in Hotel Hilton in New York.

From then on, I was thinking of starting such hotels in India. But it took me several years.

Our garment manufacturing unit was close to the airport and taxis used to line up in front of our place. So, one day my wife suggested that starting a hotel in our factory land near the airport, would be easier for travellers. She said it would be an instant sucess.

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Image: The Leela Kempinski, New Delhi.


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So, I finally became a hotelier because of my wife, Leela. I decided that I would build only luxurious hotels. But everybody dissuaded me from starting a 5-star hotel at the age of 65 but I was confident that it would be successful.

In 1986, the first Hotel Leela with marketing alliance with Kempinski opened. It was an instant success.

We went on to have a chain of Leela Palaces in Goa, Bangalore, Udaipur, Gurgaon-Delhi NCR and Kovalam. Now, we are opening one in Chennai. We will soon have one in Agra, Jaipur and near Lake Ashtamudi in Kerala.

The motto of Leela Palaces is Atithi Devo Bhava, and that is why Leela Palace hotels are located at places where foreigners flock and corporates meet.

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Image: The Leela, Bangalore.


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Preserving the environment

I grew up in a village amidst lush green surroundings. I would say I was born in a jungle! That could be the reason why I am passionate about the environment.

I make sure that there are many, many trees around all our hotels. Trees are my lifeline. Because of the work I do for preserving our environment, I was awarded Global 500 Laureate Roll of Honour by the United Nations Environment Program in 1999.

Karmayogi

Even today I am fully involved in the day-to-day activities of all my hotels. Everybody asks me from where I get the energy at the age of 90.

I tell them, when you have a job to do, you get the energy to work. There is no question of me ever retiring from work.

How can a karmayogi not work?


Image: The Leela, Mumbai.


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