The South Star of Plush Hospitality

Sitting at the helm of UDS Group of Hotels, Rajasekharan Nair, Chairman and Managing Director, has proved with his life that determination and vision coupled with unflagging zeal would help one achieve great things in life. After cementing its position in the high-end hospitality sector of southern Kerala, the Group is spreading its wings to other parts of the State. Here we are presenting the ambassador of homegrown hospitality for our readers

Thiruvananthapuram: Rajasekharan Nair, Chairman and MD, UDS Group of Hotels, has a personality which radiates his indomitable spirit. Tall and athletic, his charming and commanding presence has also helped him grow from just another village boy in Chenkal, Thiruvananthapuram to the much-admired ‘Mani’, as he was affectionately called by friends and colleagues while living at Borivali in Mumbai, and finally, to the enterprising business leader at the helm of UDS Group of Hotels, that he is today.

Childhood, as he remembers, was dotted with inadequacies which took a toll on him and his family. However, he did not allow himself to be bogged down by the severity of the problems and instead, displayed boldness in dealing with the difficulties faced not only by him but by those he loved the most as well. In the early 70s’, Rajasekharan Nair travelled to Mumbai in the hope of finding a job to support him and his family.

Switching various jobs there, he finally took up the responsibility of managing a chain of hotels and bars run by a wealthy businessman. After working several years for his employer, he decided to set up his own restaurant business in 1985. What made the man so successful? “Hard work, to start with, and a determination to offer only the best to your customer,” Rajasekharan Nair reveals his success mantra with a chuckle. Within just five years of starting his first venture, he managed to open more restaurants.

Nair, as he affirms, never had any second thoughts about his decision to shift base to Kerala in the hope of making a foray into the State’s tourism industry. “More than that, it was a personal decision. I was yearning to come to the place where I grew up and be with my mother Rugmini Amma. Besides, the confidence that my energy could be used for the benefit of Kerala also played a role in my decision,” Rajasekharan Nair reminisces.

And thus at a time when he had a thriving business in Mumbai, he began scouting for a piece of land near Kovalam to start his venture. Finally, he zeroed in on a stretch of coastal land at Vellar near Kovalam, which he says “was literally stinking and a hub of all kinds of anti-social activities. People detested coming here.” In 1995, Rajasekharan Nair managed to clear the land and when he finally began the operations of Udaya Samudra Leisure Beach Hotel and Spa (UDS), which was named after his spouse Udaya Chandrika, it had only 35 rooms. In the next 19 years, Nair gave his heart and soul to the business. In 2014, an expanded UDS with 225 rooms obtained five star status which was followed by ISO 9001-2000 certification.

Over the years, the hotelier and entrepreneur won several awards and honours, started many more ventures and forayed into other business domains. Out of the love for his native place, Chenkal in Thiruvananthapuram, and with a vision to contribute to society, he acquired a school there and rechristened it as Sai Krishna Public School. He developed it into a school of international standards which could take in 3000 students. In a conversation with Destination Kerala, Rajasekharan Nair retraces the milestones of his journey.

What did life in Mumbai teach you?
I came back to Kerala to visit my mother two years after I left for Mumbai. It was during this trip back home that I realised that my own State was the most beautiful place I had seen till then. Moreover, my long absence had also persuaded me to do something for my State. I had spent valuable time with my mother during that trip and promised her that I would come back to Kerala to do what I had learned in business from Mumbai. Also, my long stay in Mumbai made me realise the depth of my emotional attachment to the village and the places where I grew up.

How was it for you to start afresh in Kerala after your stint in Mumbai?
After I came back to Kerala, a relative of mine vehemently opposed my decision and advised me to go back. But I had a totally different opinion about my State. My wish was to do something to improve the lives of its people. This was the spirit which again guided me when the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and our present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, invited me a few years ago to start a business in Gujarat.

He assured me land and all other help to start operations there. Though I acknowledged the prospects of a flourishing business there, I politely declined the offer saying that I wanted to be here and the State wanted my service as a businessman more than ever. Later, when Modi came to Kerala as part of the election campaign as the Prime Ministerial candidate, he happened to stay at one of my properties, Udaya Suites, in Thiruvananthapuram. When I met him, he instantly recognised me. I told him that I could develop such a property at Shanghumugham, near the airport, only because I chose to stay back.

The State was doing poorly on the ease-of-doing-business yardstick 25 years ago. How did you cope with the situation?

When I decided to purchase land for building the hotel, it was lying unutilised. The place was attracting all kinds of anti-social elements and there was no road connectivity. But, over the years, I managed to develop my property and make it one of the most reputed hotels in Kerala. I was not prepared enough to do all this. In fact, even today I consider myself a learner. Whenever I get a chance to visit places, I try to learn more about new things happening in my field.

Once, people dreaded taking this road but today it has evolved into a model road in the city. Some years ago, one could see women and children engaged in stone-cutting and grinding on both sides of the road as quarrying activities were going on in the surrounding areas. I have tried my best and rehabilitated them by giving them better rewarding and less strenuous jobs.

Kovalam is one of the most preferred beaches by tourists. What has been your contribution in making it a much-loved destination?

I played a key role in developing this road to our property and UDS, in turn, played a big role in winning Kovalam a prominent place on the global tourism map. Before we came, business was dull during off-season. Even during tourist season, there were only limited activities in areas near Eve’s Beach.

Only Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) and India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) were operating large hotel facilities and they were not inclined to market off-season packages. It was after our arrival here that the off-season market began to flourish. Then large groups like Taj and others showed interest in coming here. In a way, it was our marketing activities which helped Kovalam to become a major tourist spot. In the following years, we received demand for flight kitchen services from Air India and Air Maldives.

How do you want the future generation of businessmen to be groomed?

One should be ready to work on the ground. I have more than 1500 people working under me and I often tell them to think ‘What can I do?’ rather than ‘What will I get?’ I tell the same thing to the teachers who work at the school. Sincerity in work will definitely be rewarded.

What students these days need are not certificates. Students passing out of Sai Krishna School, run by the Trust headed by me, know that they are not going out with just a certificate. They know that it was not my educational qualifications which helped me come up in life but hard work, health and vision.

As a businessman leading a hectic life do you feel you have sacrificed a lot?

I really miss my family sometimes as they are settled in Mumbai while I am based in Thiruvananthapuram for the convenience of involving in the day-to-day running of the business. I began to work at the age of 16 and even now I work for about 16 hours a day. So far I have never lived for myself. I live for my family and the UDS team, which is again my extended family. I want my employees to lead a stress-free life.

Speaking about my family, they have had everything in life and it is all because of the Almighty’s grace. Both my daughters, Karthika and Thulasi, after making their mark in the film industry as actors, are now planning to do their postgraduation this year. My son Vignesh is also planning to pursue higher studies and is leaving for Switzerland this year.

I always make it a point to guide them in their affairs and have never shirked my responsibilities as the head of the family. But yes, often we won’t be able to gather as a family even during festivals like Onam. But you know, that is how things work. God will not give everything together and if you have to gain something you will have to forgo something.

What is your biggest strength?

As I said, I have been on my own from the beginning of my career. I never involve anyone much in my work. I would say it is my perseverance and sincerity to work which helped me scale great heights in business. When I am at work I remain focussed on the objective. I think I am more solution-oriented and not the one who gets easily affected by my problems.

You seem to have a penchant for dealing with difficult situations?

No problem or crisis really bothers me. Once, my employees here wanted to make a 50-feet tall sandwich. It was being prepared with an eye on the Guinness Book of Records. UDS had invited the media also to witness the making of the sandwich.

However, the chef who led the team involved in the making of the sandwich was not able to take it beyond a certain height. While all of my employees started panicking, I intervened and helped them put up a wooden frame to support the giant sandwich which, in turn, helped ward off a possible discomfiture. And it saved the day for us.

What made you enter welding rod manufacturing, an unrelated field?

There was a factory in Kowdiar which used to produce welding rods. But it had to down shutters due to many issues. No one was ready to take over it mainly because of the complexities of problems riddling it. But I came forward and acquired it. All pending issues, including financial ones, were settled. I shifted the machinery to KINFRA Park at Kazhakkoottam and retained many of the workers. I rechristened the company as KVT Electrodes and it is doing well.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

When I look back, I want to see what I have done for my land all these years. My intention was never to amass wealth and, in fact, whenever I come to the city I stay at UDS. I believe tomorrow does not belong to me. Hence, my objective is to utilise today to the maximum and do all that I possibly can.

What are your future business plans?

I often tell my employees at UDS not to imitate others in the hospitality sector. I ask them to think about the ‘hospitality of the future.’ Keeping ‘tomorrow’s hospitality’ in mind, I have three five-star resort projects in the pipeline.
I have plans to develop my village, Chenkal, by including it in UDS’ projects. My plan is to develop village tourism there so that tourists will get to watch organic farming and other rural activities.

We are also planning a similar project in Alappuzha. Many people discouraged me from starting a venture there. However, I am thinking of ways to bring about a positive change in Alappuzha through our project. Our plan for farm and village tourism in both these areas is conceived by keeping nature at its core. The local population will immensely benefit from these projects.

A tea estate project is also coming up at Wagamon. We have already planted about 1000 orange trees there. It will showcase dairy and organic farming. I chose Wagamon as a destination over Munnar mainly because of two reasons. One, Wagamon is also an equally beautiful destination and second, some people feel Munnar is a bit far away. I hope that our project will help improve the tourism prospects of Wagamon. We have envisaged all three projects as part of our Kerala packages which cover three main segments; beach, backwater and hill station.
Our resort project in Alappuzha is already complete. The Wagamon project will be ready in one year.

I am also building an 18-storey hotel and convention centre at Kowdiar in Thiruvananthapuram opposite the Golf Club. The convention centre will be completed first. The idea of a convention centre and hotel has been evolved based on the concept of Golf Tourism. Besides all these, I plan to start a catering college from next year. Students with degrees are finding it difficult to land stable jobs these days. So I am doing things in my capacity to offer job-oriented courses to the younger generation.

What is your advice to new generation businessmen?

Success awaits those who are willing to think practically. A clear vision for the future is always an important prerequisite. Also, that vision should be sincere and aiming for the good of all. One should avoid negative thoughts. There should not be even an iota of fear in one’s mind. Entrepreneurs should know how to make use of their inborn talents to develop a business. These are times when we need to change first by understanding what our people and the state need.

What changes would you like to see in Kerala?

My policy is simple. If changes are not happening, transform yourself into agents of change. The temple at Shanghumugham is a major case in point. Earlier, it used to be a very prosperous temple. But over the years it began wearing an unkempt look. Seeing the state of affairs, I approached the authorities, requesting them to undertake a revamp of the temple. But I learned that there were some legal issues involved which stopped the authorities from going for it. Subsequently, I volunteered to do the job. After more than one-and-a-half years, we were able to complete the revamp this February.

RAJASEKHARAN NAIR

Age: 63
Born at: Thiruvananthapuram
Based in: Thiruvananthapuram
Family: Udaya Chandrika Nair (Spouse), Karthika Nair and Thulasi Nair (Daughters), and Vignesh Nair (Son)
Loves (when not working):
Workouts in the gym
Drives: Toyota Fortuner
Favourite Holiday Destination: European countries
Favourite Cuisine: Rice and dishes made by his mother
Music: Enjoys all genres
A leader you admire: Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India
As someone who has known Rajasekharan Nair for 11 years, there are many aspects of his personality that I admire. He is a man of few words, letting his actions speak instead. It is very inspiring to work with a leader who sets the bar high, knows what he is doing, is enthusiastic about it, remains unfazed when confronted with a problem, and most importantly, works harder than everyone else. Rajasekharan Nair is a man of great foresight. There’s no stopping him. He is also a humanitarian, making sure that the people he shares his ecosystem with are also empowered in the process.”
Raja Gopaal Iyer, CEO, UDS Group of Hotels