Borders to Boardroom
Any hotelier reading this book would immediately rush to the nearest army headquarters to check out the list of newly retired officers. Their training and experience seem 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, as 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 also plenty of interesting vignettes on people he met, worked with and took inspiration from. The ones he met included hotel guests like the Clintons, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor, among other celebs, but their choice of the Maurya is also part of the story, as to how ITC changed during Rehman’s tenure, rebranding itself by adding exclusivity and exceptional service apart from great restaurants to its original avatar—that of just another hotel chain, which allowed 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, adapting to varied customer needs and tastes, establishing an international presence, as well as unique brands and properties in India. In that sense, he was one of the pioneers, and the journey of pioneers into the unknown always makes for engrossing reading.