Business – Q&A RK Krishna Kumar,Tata Sons director & Indian Jotels Company Vice Chairman
Vinod Mahanta & Nandini Raghavendra
RK Krishna Kumar, the Tata Sons director and Indian Hotels Company vice-chairman and a close confidant of Mr Tata, not only dreams of an iconic new Taj but harbours even bigger aspirations for Brand Taj.
The man who transformed IHCL into a market leader and a strong emerging global hospitality brand, says 26/11 left Taj with a spirit that will spur the next generation to continuously achieve excellence. In an hour-long chat with ET, the Tata Group veteran talks about the new Taj and IHCL’s journey ahead. Excerpts:
Rebuilding the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers is like a personal mission for you and your team. There seems to be a vision driving, spurring each member on — what is this vision?
In fact, 26/11 was a shattering experience in terms of casualty, loss of people, guests and staff. There is a lingering anger, defiance as well as frustration that this could happen in this world today; it is something that can ever be put to rest. We are trying our best to see if we can do a kind of closure to a tragedy that took place. So, what we do at the Taj today, will be very private.
Having said that, we decided that we did not want to replicate what was there in terms of the heritage structure. What the founder Jamsetji Tata built was a phenomenon, just in the scale of his vision. For those times, it was a great tribute to a man of immeasurable courage.
After 26/11, we had two options before us — one was a very business issue. To repair the damage and bring the hotel back into operation. There was also the issue of revenue, finance as well as the issue of retrenching staff for the time of the reconstruction. But, we recognised that the real strength of the Taj Mahal hotel and the Taj group, was the staff of the Taj. I was outside the hotel all three days and the people of the Taj taught us a couple of new things. They revealed a new bond, a kind of relationship, which is a very, very unique; it’s something that I would treasure as a great asset, discovered in tragedy.
That spirit is the powerhouse for what we do. I saw that there is some process of transmission that takes place — this new spirit that was discovered after the aftermath of this tragedy, seems to be one to resolve, continuously excel in service, pushing towards that magical goal. They have absorbed the drive to reach that magical goal and strangely this has been imbibed even by people who had been in service for years.
There is a streak of idealism I see very strongly present in the Taj. We decided not to retrench and carry them till the hotel was rebuilt. It will take time but we will try and fulfill the vision of the founder to create a hotel enterprise of which the world can be proud of.
What’s the Taj that you are going to hand over to GenNext?
I think in physical terms it will be a great property. I would say we would have gone down 60% of the road to bring what the founder may have had in mind, something which Ratan Tata has in mind. I remember interacting with him on the need for redefining what the Taj should be.
I recall walking up and down the corridors with him. Those were lonely days for me … because I was pitchforked from outside and put in here for specific reasons. I was not an hotelier and still am not one. We had to do a lot of cleaning up of legal issues, compliance issues, bring back standards which had collapsed before we got here… We did it all, cleaned it all up.
So what we are leaving behind is an organisation that has got a start, and the momentum will only increase. One day maybe through acquisitions or by organic growth, the Taj will truly be the number one in the hospitality industry in the world.
By the time we are through with the Palace, the Heritage wing, it will live up to that expectation. I think we will do better than what we done at Rambagh Palace which has been voted the No 1 hotel in the world.
When the Heritage wing comes into operation, we will not be creating just another hotel, we will be creating something which stands on its own as the only one of its kind in the world. Whether it is the people, the service, the standards, the dedication, the facilities; the class, the style, will be classic in my view.
What was group’s view on dealing with the human aspect of the crisis?
We declared that not even a temporary employee would be laid off. Thereafter, we created a public welfare trust. We reached out to every single family that was affected by the loss of life or by injury and said that we will be taking care of them all for life. Mr Tata and I visited all the hospitals and we met the families who had lost their loved ones. I remember an associate, who worked in Wasabi, was shot dead.
And his family talked about the tragedy and the loss with a great sense of pride because he laid down his life in the course of duty. For me, it has reset the fundamentals of how people think and react in times of stress. I am humbled by the thought that people can rise to such great heights of service and sacrifice in an institution like this. And with that act alone they have greatly strengthened the Taj as an institution. We will learn from them. It’s a first step towards a new future for this organisation.
Indian Hotels is a work in process. What new can we see in next 3-5 years?
The brand architecture has been redefined by Raymond, (Bickson, CEO & MD) Abhijit (Mukerji, executive director-operations) and various others. We have the luxury brand, we have the Vivanta by Taj brand, Gateway, and Ginger at the bottom of the pyramid. It will take a little while to get them all stabilised, launched and a well-established practice. What I see in the future is the brand extensions to Taj.
It’s a new experience. Across the world, we are witnessing a lot of movement in the socio-economic ladder, including the emerging economies. People are moving up, there is more disposable income, more people want to do extra things in life. I would imagine Taj would be an edifice from which the hospitality business will be run and the brand will be so shining, so luminous that it could easily be transferred to other experiences in luxury and comfort.
What’s it that you look for in the leaders of tomorrow?
I look for a couple of things in young people. One, strong conviction and character; and there are many ways to test this. I would also look for hard work. Most young people today are already on that road. They lead and are very inspirational in some ways. The young in India is the best insurance for this country. I had lost hope for India. I believed truly that our generation failed the country.
They were giants at the time of Independence but after that there was a sense of hopelessness, till I interacted with the young people throughout the Tata organisation. There is a new India in the making. I feel very hopeful that this generation will deliver on the promise of the founding fathers of our country, something I feel our generation failed to do. That is my strong conviction.
It won’t be long before other regional blocks fall and then it will truly be a global village. That’s the direction in which technology, communications and processes are taking the world. The best hope for mankind is the youth of the world. There are still millions below the poverty line, there’s a job to be done there to lift that up, even if you do it one family by one family. If I do that, I’ve done my job. That’s the way I see it, the way Tata group sees it.
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