I am intrinsically ingrained in the culture and philosophy at The Oberoi: Kapil Chopra

Kapil Chopra opened up about his formative years, his decision to take up the President’s job and on being labelled a hard taskmaster. He talked about a plethora of issues including his retirement plan. He was interviewed by Manav Thadani, Chairman, HVS as Hard Talk Session in the conclave.

kapil-chopraMT: What inspired you to get into the hospitality industry in the first place? Were you a bad student? That is a question that comes up to me every time?
KC: Life comes to a full circle, I guess. If you look at it, and I will answer this question in reverse. Today, everybody is coming from IITs and IIMs and starting a food-delivery startup. I think people who did hotel management twenty years back were smarter guys. There was no point in going to IIM Kolkata and then starting a food business in Gurgaon. Look at all the startups that have been started and shut down, these are all IIT and IIM guys and I do not understand why they went and studied engineering.
Coming back to me, I only realised I wanted to be a hotelier when I actually entered the first day of my hotel management at IHM Bangalore. Till that time, I remember my father was a doctor and I always wanted to be a doctor. I realised that if you wanted to be a doctor, it takes you ten years to get anywhere. So, I thought let me try hotel management. On my first day in Bangalore, I realised I was always going to be in hotels.

MT: First from the family in the hotel business?
KC: Yes, I was the first from my family in the hotel business. My father at home was a phenomenal cook, so even when I was growing up… you know, today I always lament the fact that Indians have actually started eating out now. When you look at global statistics, Indonesians eat out 15 times a month while Indians only eat out twice a month. I remember as a family 20-30 years back, we used to eat out in restaurants 2 to 3 times a month.

MT: And would you be the last? May be, your children will follow you?
KC: I think the choice is there. I love the way things evolve. We had a manger with us who quit and then joined us back again. Why I am telling you this is that he was a gold medallist from OCLD (Oberoi centre for learning and development) and he quit to start a food truck. When I was in the hotel management college, it was a dream to get into OCLD. This guy went to OCLD, passed out from there and started a food truck, and came back to the Oberoi hotels six months back. Why I am giving you this example is very clear. I think trends are changing. It is about entrepreneurship and I do not know what they decide to choose. Maybe, they will be entrepreneurs, but I do think there will an element of hotels. I cannot be sure.

MT: From there on, you have always worked with the upscale segment like the Hyatt, Taj and Oberoi. Have you ever worked with budget or mid-market hotels?
KC: No, I have never worked with budget or mid-market hotels, but I have a lot of respect for the real budget. I have a lot of respect for what Ibis is doing globally. I can tell you that I stay at, because I have a lot of love for art, Art hotel. Art hotel is a brand, I think, owned by the Park Plaza group in Berlin and it is fantastic. It is priced around 70 Euros or something like that. So I think I have a lot of respect for real budget, but from my perspective, I personally do not see a career in the budget market. If that is the question.

MT: Tell me a one time when you failed as a young employee
KC: Failed as a young employee? Oh, that is easy and it comes to me now. I remember, I was a management trainee at OCLD and a lot of my people in the audience would recall this. We were management trainees and were all posted at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. Oberoi Grand had very strong unions at that time. It was Eid – and a lot of people celebrated Eid there, there was nobody at the hotel. So it was pretty much the managers and management trainees there. It was a very tough breakfast and then a member said to me that as you have been up since six in the morning, working so hard, why do not you take a 30-minute break, go have lunch, rest for 15 minutes and come, because we are going to be on till mid-night. I said, no I am ok. I remember the name of the manager very well, Jai Deep Singh. I took a break and after eating my lunch, I slept off. OK. And when I woke up it was 2.30. I had gone for the lunch at somewhere around 12.30. That thing sometime still comes back to me. It has been over two and a half decades and I just cannot get it out of my system that I over slept.

MT: I had to research a lot, right. So, I started talking to your existing employers, of course I will not name them. But you have a reputation of being pretty curt, crude in the way you run organisations. You can get very colourful with your words, behind the scene. And it all a fair game. What do you have to say to that?
KC: I think it is not about being curt or colourful. I think something is very clear. I believe a lot in competency and a higher level of delivery. I think when people have a higher level of competency and a higher level of delivery, they are able to bring around exceptional results. That is way I have worked in the hotels I have worked in and that is the way today I operate the Oberoi Hotels. I remember when I was taking over as the President of the group, there was a lot of apprehension. I was 39 years old and there was a lot of apprehension. There were a lot of senior people in the team. I remember Mr. Oberoi speaking to me that I hope everybody can come along. It has been four years now and not one senior General Manager in the company has left. Performance has been exceptional. So at the end of the day it is important to be very fair, transparent and growth driven. Because age was never held against me as a criteria. I always tell people that the only way to become successful is to building a Pie factor: passion, intensity and enthusiasm. People who have the pie factor will never fail.
I learn from what Mr. K P Singh from DLF says. He says that the problem with India is that people do not demand – and if you come to Mr. Oberoi, it is the search for perfection. And when you are aiming for excellence, it can sometimes turn out to be tough.

MT: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the hospitality industry in India?
KC: I think the biggest challenge from the hospitality industry perspective… you know I wrote a quote to my General Managers about raising rates across the spectrum and the last line of the quote was very clear. Despite all the noises that I see around demand improving, there is no substantial uptick in demand, while a see a lot of supply coming on board in a lot of areas. I interviewed a candidate, recently, from a competing hotel and I was surprised, rather concerned about the rack rates there; it is a good hotel in Aerocity. The hotel will never make money at those prices. Not today, not in the next year and certainly not in the next ten years.
I think somewhere along the line, as an industry, we need to unite on two facts. First, what do we do to stimulate demand and I think it is the biggest challenge – which is very important. We need to look at exponential things that increase business rather than taking away business from each other – and we need that across the board. The current demand is not enough to fill up luxury hotels.  The need for coming together and taking a strategic cause where will all can collaborate is big.

MT: If you leave the Oberoi Group, where will you go and why?
KC: It is a tough question really. At one level…I have never really thought about it. I have never really thought about leaving the group from that perspective, because I think I am intrinsically ingrained with the culture and philosophy that is there in the Oberoi hotels today. I am very passionate about certain things in life. If I am in this group, then I am very passionate about how do we get the industry together to create demand in this country. Why cannot we get 20-25 million tourists? What can I do to do that? I am very passionate about EasyDiner. Why cannot we revolutionise dinning in this country? Why cannot we have a culture of cafes and restaurants?
I am very passionate about healthcare. I am very critical of the government on healthcare. So, I would most certainly not be in the commercial space after this. I may be an entrepreneur; I may try to reform healthcare in this country.

MT: What about BITB?
KC: Love it! It is because of the fact that Navin has been able to get the entire industry together. For that we must give him a big hand. I think it is fantastic. He is trying to do his small contribution to the industry. We will be here next year; we will be here the year after and the year after. Because all of us need to come together, and if we are all together in trying to grow tourism, I think it would be a great plan.

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