I met Captain Nair for the first time in 1982, when I was handling project finance at the State Bank of India; he wanted to discuss loans before setting up his first hotel in Mumbai. By late 1983, when I was transferred from the credit finance division to another branch, he asked me to join him. Around the time (November), the foundation stone of The Leela was set up by then Chief Minister, late Vasantdada Patil. I joined on January 2, 1984 as Commercial Director; it became a learning journey for the next 11 years.
RS Nair with Captain Nair at an event in Mumbai in 2005
Despite being 62-63 years then, Captain Nair’s incredible energy to work for 15-16 hours, every day, was inspirational. He enjoyed travelling. It was an honour to accompany him to Europe, the Middle and Far East, to study advances in the hotel industry. Whenever a new hotel of world standards would open, he made it a point to stay at the property. On one such trip with him, at London’s Hilton, he liked their magnetic door keys; soon, we were the first to introduce the same in India.
He admired Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, his humble upbringing and rise to become a giant of India’s hotel industry. As an individual, he led a disciplined life, never missed his morning walks, and had an impeccable dress sense. He was always in sync with the latest industry trends. He would say, “My hotels must stand out on the international map.” His eye for aesthetics was terrific; his capacity to visualise was unparalleled.
In 1989, when I was Director of Finance and Projects, he wanted to create a seven-acre man made lagoon for Leela, Goa. It cost a bomb, and I remember arguing about its merits. But his mind was set, and eventually, it became an outstanding feature of a world-class hotel.
He was clear that keeping abreast with the latest was the way forward. Today, his daughter-in-law, Madhu Nair,
ably handles this element of his vision.
Whenever celebrities such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nawaz Sharif, late Jyoti Basu, Farooq Abdullah and the Aga Khan would stay at The Leela, or even during the marriage of Kumaramangalam Birla with Neerja, he would supervise arrangements, personally. Captain Nair signed off every detail.
In hindsight, his biggest contribution was his eye for international-standard properties. His business acumen and management logic was exceptional. When competition got hostile, Captain Nair felt it was useless to waste time in taking revenge, and preferred to focus on his own work. Such was his greatness. And to imagine he didn’t even possess a management degree.