The five stars

Bangalore’s best general managers of star hotels about their work ethic

First, you have the VVIPs. Then you have the other hotel guests. And both are as important. The challenge for the general manager of a hotel is not to inconvenience either. And that demands a control on the uncontrollables: the infrastructure – ensure the engineering department does not err anywhere, anytime (you cannot leave the premier stranded at the elevator).

And convenience can come in various forms, like employing special lady butlers to service single women staying at the hotel. Or monitoring the guests continuously and making sure their every single wish is fulfilled – be it their favourite soap or their regular newspaper.

Not to mention, handling ‘challenging’ guests. Some are paranoid about the food – they believe it should be cooked in a certain way, at a particular temperature. Sometimes, a wrong order might reach the guest’s table.

The keyword? Flexibility, with decision-making at the lowest level. For example, if a guest, who has run up a bill of Rs 60,000, says he did not drink a bottle of beer reflected in the bill, the cashier should believe him. The rationale? A person who has spent Rs 60,000 cannot be nit-picking about a bottle of beer.

And what’s challenging about a GM’s job? When they ought to know something they needn’t. For example, a guest asking for a cloth banner in under 20 minutes. The unwritten rule: get your manager to go to the market, buy cloth, get a shop opened (for the painting work) and in four hours, get the banner ready, when it would normally take atleast a day.

Welcome to the world of star hotel GMs, who are running a city within a city, and constantly making things happen.

DEVENDRA BHARMA, 39 years
GM, The Oberoi (157 rooms, staff strength of 303)
PG diploma in hotel management
19 years in the industry

He joined The Oberoi when he was 20 as a management trainee (and has been with the hotel chain ever since). Today, he’s the father of two daughters and the GM of the city’s fourth largest hotel after The Leela (254 rooms), Windsor Sheraton (240 rooms) and Le Meridien (195 rooms).

His first milestone was when he was declared the ‘student of the year’ by the management of the Air Force Bal Bharati School in Delhi. His second milestone was when he became the general manager of The Trident, a 140-room resort hotel in Agra. Boosting employee morale, enhancing revenues, controlling expenses, menu re-engineering and enhancing non-resident food and beverage business, he did it all in Agra. As manager of The Oberoi Towers, a 575-room hotel in Mumbai, he handled five restaurants and bars, besides managing the largest banqueting facilities (peaked to 1,500 guests).

“Most times, the customer is right and you’ve erred,” says Bharma. “And that means many things. Could be that the waiter is not firing on all cylinders, the food is not ok, the service is delayed or the staff is not showing humility and warmth with their ‘couldn’t care less’ interaction and making the entire transaction very mechanical.”

And since his first posting as assistant manager at The Oberoi in Kolkata in 1986 and until now, he has met several busybodies, from then US president Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama, Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems, and many more. And when he is not swimming or yachting, Bharma dreams of playing golf on weekends and living life king size 10 years from now. And maybe also own a small hotel in Bangalore at a time when ‘stress is less and time is more available’.

But right now, time is something he’s fighting against all the time. And his greatest stress buster? Says he: “My wife (Swapan). She peps me up when I am down in the dumps.”

SURESH BADLANEY, 50 years
GM, Le Meridien (195 rooms; staff strength of 415)
Bachelor’s in commerce
32 years in the industry

From Craig Barret, CEO, Intel to Russian ambassador AK Kadakim to sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan to Bollywood princess Aishwarya Rai, Suresh Badlaney has pampered them all. And he’s also the senior-most star hotel GM in the city, who turned around the fortunes of the then Holiday Inn (and now Le Meridien) – the hotel made a record profit of Rs 8 crore in 2000-01. And he has been part of many hotel chains. The Delhi-born began with The Oberoi in 1969.

“My uncle was in the hotel business and I thought of joining him after looking at the glamorous side of the hotel… you get to meet all the upmarket people,” he confesses. “After two years of working in various departments from food and beverage to front office to accounts, I enrolled for the management training programme of the Oberoi for 18 months, braved Delhi’s extreme weather, saw the good and bad times and finally decided that the job was far from glamorous. But my flair was in front office and I stuck on.”

From an accounts assistant with The Oberoi in Delhi with a pay packet of Rs 250 to becoming the general manager of the then Holiday Inn in Bangalore, it took Badlaney 23 years. “A GM’s job is thankless and yet I am passionate about it,” he says. “If you go by the guest, you are great, otherwise you are useless.”
What refreshes him is a walk in the park. “I walk and run for an hour every morning for about six kilometers,” says Badlaney. “If I don’t go for it, I get tired very easily.”

While his daughter Monisha (23) is happy working for a call centre, his son Sameer (19) plans to step into his shoes much to his dislike. And why? “Because it’s a thankless job, demands long hours and commitment.”

Not to mention, he’s a collector of good liquor (Swing is his favourite) and Swarovski crystals. Badlaney loves wining and dining people and lending his ear to Jagjit Singh and Chitra. Favourite number? ‘Main nashe mein hun…’

PRADHAN GANAPATHY, 40 years
GM, Royal Orchid Park Plaza (113 rooms; staff strength of 147)
Certificate by the American Hotel and Motel Association
16 years in the industry

“I was here to do business management, but someone asked me to give hotel management a shot and here I am,” says Pradhan Ganapathy, the GM of Royal Orchid Park Plaza since August 2002. “I joined the Taj Residency in Bangalore as a management trainee after my bachelor’s in science and later did a certificate course by the American Hotel and Motel Association.”

His first salary was Rs 900. And the year was 1986. Two years later, he became an assistant restaurant manager at Southern Comfort and later at the Jockey Club, both at the Taj Residency. “I worked for Memories of China for about eight months and then moved to Oman for a year to work for Sohar Beach Hotel,” says Ganapathy. “In 1994, I was made unit manager at the Taj property in Coonoor. That’s when I got married to Vijaya who also worked for the Taj (she quit three years ago). It was sort of an extended honeymoon because I was there for five years.”

The honeymoon continued as his next postings took him to the Taj Garden Retreat in Chikmagalur where he stayed for a year and the Taj Holiday Village in Goa where he stayed for two years. “I joined as an executive manager and quit as the GM in July 2002,” says Ganapathy. “That’s where I used to go on long walks and breathe fresh air, which is not possible now because Park Plaza is a busy hotel and there’s activity all the time.”

A collector of antique clocks, knick-knacks and old furniture, Ganapathy’s major expense is on clothes, food and photography. “I love to shoot landscapes and portraits,” he says about his hobby of ten years. And his retirement plans? “Maybe go back to Coorg, my hometown, and open a boutique resort.”

LEMUEL HERBERT, 42 years
GM, The Park.hotel (109 rooms; staff strength of 224)
PG Diploma in Hotel management; Certified Hospitality Educator; Certified Hospitality Administrator

21 years in the industry

The year was 1981. With a salary of Rs 1,000, Lemuel Herbert lived the middle class dream: paying Rs 450 as rent and spending the rest on food, travel and entertainment in Delhi. Today, he finds himself in the top bracket – entertains the crème de la crème of Bangalore society as the general manager of a boutique hotel that he set up two years ago.

If not a hotelier, he would have been a musician (he won many inter-college contests in western music) and zoologist (he’s a bachelor’s in science). Not to mention his culinary stint in Iraq. He was the senior lobby manager of Al Rashid, Saddam Hussein’s pet hotel, in 1989. “The occupancy levels were always about 80 per cent and the average check-ins on weekends would be around 160 people,” he says. “But in 1991 when the Gulf War began, I saw an Israeli plane being shot down and the night Kuwait was taken over by Iraq, I heard gunshots all around me. Before I could panic, somebody told me, it was in celebration.”
But that didn’t mean he was safe. “I escorted the first lot of American prisoners taken from oil rigs,” he recalls. “And I also had a dramatic escape. I was chartered in a bus two days before the war started. We had to stay in a refugee camp for two nights in Jordan. After much pushing, the Indian embassy put us on Royal Jordanian Airlines.”

His next stop was The Leela in Goa as front office manager. “I was there only for four months though it was a very glamorous property because my kid was growing up and the place was too far out and remote,” he says. “So I joined the Welcum Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal and was there for seven and a half years. The last two and a half years as principal and general manager.”

When he is not singing along and strumming the guitar with his wife and children, he is reading aloud Pocahontas to his six-year-old son and playing pranks on just about anybody – his family, friends and colleagues. Says he: “My personal best was placing fake human excreta in the centre of the banquet hall at a staff party and watching people walking around it with wrinkled noses.”

PEP KUMAR, 45 years
GM, The Taj West End (129 rooms; staff strength of 400)
Bachelor’s in arts
25 years in the industry

“Innovation and creativity is the key to success of most GMs,” says Pep Kumar. “And innovation happens on a daily basis.” Her immediate plans are to re-do the staff restroom and start yoga sessions and a grocery store for them. “HR is a very important function of the GM,” she says. “We also have food festivals for the staff. Every second month, we have a town hall meeting where all the employees get to know how the hotel is doing.”

Kumar says her single most success story is managing the oldest hotel in the city (The Taj, earlier called The Bronson’s Inn, opened in 1887) spread over 19-and-a-half acres. “We are now totally upgrading it to global standards,” says the only woman star hotel GM in the city and the mother of a six-year-old. “My husband was the deputy general manager of the West End from 1978-83 (she knew him since the day she joined The Taj in 1977, but married him in 1996).”

Having been with the Taj for 25 years, she’s never felt the urge to leave. “We were very well looked after and respected,” she justifies. “We were given an opportunity to grow and made to feel that we are running our own family business.”

Her first job was in 1977 with The Taj in Mumbai. “I started as a front office cashier with a salary of Rs 400,” she recalls. “We were overbooked by 100 rooms every day and that was very challenging because guests would wait for three hours and we used to entertain them with drinks on the house.”

Later, she became the front office manager of the Taj Residency in Bangalore and later the resident manager and finally the general manager. In December 2000, she was made the GM of the West End.

Putting in almost 12 hours a day has its disadvantages. She cannot watch movies or attend plays. But when she has the time, she either cooks for her family (‘I am a fairly good cook’) or spends time with her daughter. Says Kumar: “Sometimes, I pick her up from school and treat her friends on Sundays, and she loves these little moments.”

THE STATS
Gross salary of a five star hotel GM: Rs 50,000-Rs 2 lakh
Perks: Accommodation and chauffeur-driven car
Takes 8-10 years to become a GM (earlier took 10-12 years)
Starting salary: Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000 (management trainee)
Eligibility: Degree or diploma in hotel management
Demands: Long hours, commitment, innovation and passion
Average turnover of a five star hotel: Rs 10-20 lakh a day

(Published in City Reporter, 2003)