January 31, 2015 3:38:56 am
Book: Borders to Boardroom
Author: Habib Rehman
Publisher: Lotus Roli
Price: Rs 395
Any hotelier reading this book will immediately rush to the nearest army headquarters to check out the list of newly-retired officers. Their training and experience seems to be ideally suited to a career in the hotel industry, as was the case with Habib Rehman, one of the many stalwarts who have contributed to making ITC’s hotel division one of the most professionally run, profitable and pioneering institutions in the country’s rapidly-expanding hospitality industry. Rehman joined ITC after taking premature retirement from the army, in 1979, at a time when it was a struggling player in the business, with three hotels — the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, the Chola in Chennai and the Mughal in Agra. By the time he left, ITC Hotels owned and managed over 100 properties in 70 locations worldwide. Much of that expansion happened when Rehman was given charge of running the Mughal, the Maurya, and later, the hotels division, encouraged by two ITC legends, Ajit Haksar and the current chairman of ITC, Yogi Deveshwar. This is as much a personal memoir as it is an insider’s account of the growth of India’s five star hotel industry, mirrored in the performance of ITC Hotels and the many challenges it faced.
Rehman will always be remembered for his passion for food, nurtured in his Hyderabadi roots, and his role in pioneering many restaurants and menus in ITC properties, most notably the Dum Pukht and West View in the Maurya, and upgrading the iconic Bukhara, where he created the now-famous Clinton Platter. This is a story of struggle and challenge, overcome in large part by his army grounding and training in managing men and resources, but it also has plenty of interesting vignettes on people he met, worked with, and took inspiration from, including celebrity hotel guests like the Clintons, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor. These guests’ choice of the Maurya is also part of the story on how ITC changed during Rehman’s tenure, rebranding itself by adding exclusivity and exceptional service, apart from great restaurants, to its original avatar as just another hotel chain with noisy wedding bands on its manicured lawns.
There’s lots to savour, even for those with no interest in the hospitality business, because Rehman has a wonderful memory, a sharp eye for detail, a raconteur’s talent and the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, when the Indian hotel industry was finding its feet. In that sense, he was one of the pioneers, and their journey into the unknown always makes for engrossing reads.
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