There’s never a dull moment with 54-year-old Vithal Kamat, executive chairman and managing director of Kamat Hotels India, the Rs 112 crore, Mumbai-based, hospitality group that has brands such as the Orchid Hotel and Lotus Suites among others.
He’s full of stories—about life, experiences, people. He’s put it all down, in fact, in a book—a management book—Idli, Orchid and Will Power! But this is just one side of him. There are many more facets.
Like, he is a motivational speaker, trainer, environmentalist apart from being a successful entrepreneur. Above all, he’s an ardent student of life, willing to partake of himself as easily as a child would.
Indeed, he has absolutely no qualms of being put under the scanner, not at all. Sample this: “I was born into a middle-class family, living in a one-room apartment in Grant Road, Mumbai. There were eight of us: three brothers, three sisters and parents. It was a common room, which would double up as a bedroom at night. The balcony outside was my punishment room. Anybody who played mischief was put there. That included me too.”
This early-life taming though, did nothing much to quell the fiery spirit in him. Years later he would put it to good use to chart his own course—of setting up hotels. “My father Venkatesh was already into the restaurant business when I was born. He was an industrious man, who began working in a restaurant at the age of eight.” Satkar, a popular restaurant in Mumbai, was started by Venkatesh Kamat way back in 1950. But this was not the first. The senior Kamat began his journey as a restaurateur with a small property in Mazgaon, Mumbai. This was followed by the Krishna Bhavan in the predominantly Muslim area of Null Bazaar in Mumbai. Samrat, Suvidha, Suruchi, Senate, the list of restaurants kept growing by the day.
A self-made man, Venkatesh Kamat’s children, especially, his restless middle son Vithal imbibed his qualities of hard work and dedication. “The most precious gift that our parents could give us were good values,” says Kamat.
“My father’s commitment to his work, his discipline, determination and self-regulation were a source of inspiration for me and my siblings. My mother’s ability to manage a large family, her sacrificing nature, for instance, she pawned her jewellery when my father needed money to start Satkar, were not lost on us.”
An engineer by qualification, Kamat’s initiation into the family business happened by accident. His father’s trusted aide, his brother-in-law, had betrayed him. There was no one to assist him in his business. That’s when Kamat and his elder brother stepped in to help their father. The dream of a blissful professional life was set aside forever. Life had indeed come a full circle for the young Kamat.
Once into the restaurant business, something Kamat’s father wished his kids hadn’t got into—the road to success wasn’t easy. Kamat had new ideas, new ways of doing business—some of which did not find favour with his conservative father. “Do business with anyone in the world but never on the basis of bogus newspaper ads,” the older Kamat would exhort his young charge.
But Kamat did manage to introduce some new features nevertheless, like serving beer at Samrat, one of the restaurants he was running alongwith his father. “I had already obtained the permit to serve liquor and father wouldn’t allow it. It took me four years to convince him. Finally, he relented on one condition: that there would be no unruly scenes by beer drinkers in the restaurant,” says Kamat.
This combination, of good food and chilled beer, augmented the customer base at Samrat. Numbers soared by the day. Even a hard-nosed restaurateur like Venkatesh Kamat admitted: “Vithal, you were right.” This was a personal victory for the young Kamat, of finally getting the approval of a man, who was, frankly, difficult to please.
“Our father was tough on us. But today, when I look back, I think it helped us in pushing ourselves. He wanted us to be achievers. And I resolved I would be one,” he says.
Kamat’s innate ability of having a way with people has helped him in no small measure in his drive to the top. As a child, when locked in the balcony of his one-room apartment for a playing a prank, it was his friends, young as they were, who would come to his rescue with whatever food they could. Kamat was able to work his charm on the legendary Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi too—the doyen of the Indian hotel industry—who he met as a gawky youngster in the 1970s.
Oberoi was in Mumbai during those days in connection with the construction of his hotel Oberoi Sheraton. Kamat, still assisting his father, landed at the construction site of the hotel in Nariman Point, South Mumbai, on the tip-off from a friend. “I have come to meet the Big Boss,” he told the security guard on duty. Once in the presence of the man he idolised, it was hard for Kamat to contain his excitement, “I want to be a greater hotelier than you,” he told the rather dumbfounded Oberoi.
But Oberoi was kind enough to pardon the young man no older than his son. Years later when the Orchid Hotel was launched, Kamat extended his first invitation to Oberoi. Unable to make it to the inauguration, Oberoi responded with a tender letter, “I have forgotten many people in my life, but I could never forget you. You expressed a desire to become greater than I was. I had never met a person like you in my entire life.”
Kamat’s desire to excel has compelled him to try out new things. The Orchid Hotel, for instance, is a five-star ecotel, consistently rated as one of the best in the world. Lotus Suites, on the other hand, is a four-star budget hotel in Mumbai, which will be extended to tier II and III cities such as Nagpur, Raipur (located in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh), Amboli and Aronde (both are located in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra).
Orchid itself will be taken to places such as Raipur, even as the group contemplates getting into the luxury heritage and resort segments. None of this would have been possible if Kamat did not take those first tentative steps in that direction in the 1980s.
He began by acquiring loss-making properties in places such as Vapi in Gujarat and Khandala in Maharashtra. This gave him the confidence to go for larger acquisitions such as the Plaza
Hotel in Mumbai. With Orchid coming on board in 1997, however, there has been no looking back for the group. Kamat Hotels India was publicly listed in 1996 and has just completed an $18-million foreign currency convertible bond
In the midst of all this, though, Kamat never fails to thank a few people who came into his life and made that crucial difference. If Oberoi was the man, Kamat looked up to professionally, the late Behram Contractor, a renowned journalist and columnist, was a personal friend and guide to him. “He was amazing. The grip on language he had was too good. I learnt to appreciate the finer things in life from him,” says Kamat.
This appreciation for the finer things in life can be found in his varied interests, be it writing, collecting antiques, books or running a museum. “I am not finished yet,” he says. “For me, this is only the beginning.”