Sunday, November 22, 2009
At home with Mother Earth
COLUMN: TURNING POINTS IN LIFE
Getting the permission to run a hotel in the Bangaram Islands was the biggest turning point for CGH Earth Group Managing Director Jose Dominic
By Shevlin Sebastian
Jose Dominic, the managing director of the CGH Earth group is dressed in all white. His office at the Casino Hotel at Willingdon Island, Kochi, is simple. There are no flourishes of luxury. A floor to ceiling bookcase contains coffee table books on various hotel properties around the world, and books on history, yoga, cuisine, management, and films.
Jose talks admiringly about the book he is reading at present: Gurucharan Das’ ‘The Difficulty Of Being Good: The Subtle Art of Dharma’.
Jose is a serious man, with an intense way of talking. And despite interruptions -- a waiter brought a glass of cool papaya juice, while former Indian wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer called from England to book rooms for a vacation in January -- he focused intently on the significant events of his life.
Jose’s father, the late Dominic Joseph Kuruvinakunnel took on lease the Malabar Hotel in 1954. As a result, whenever Jose returned home during the vacations from the Lawrence school at Lovedale, Ooty, he would, sometimes, stay with his father at the Malabar Hotel.
“I would watch the hotel in awe,” he says. Most of the areas were out of bounds for the children. “It was all stiff upper lip,” he says.
But Jose did get an opportunity to meet a group of Americans in an informal setting. They were going from the Malabar Hotel to Thekkady. Since the Dominic ancestral home was mid-way, at Pala, they stopped there.
“They brought a box of fruits, mostly apples and oranges from California,” says Jose. “It was wrapped in perfumed paper, and had a wonderful aroma. The packaging was wonderful.”
In return, the family gave bananas and pineapples. “They looked so delighted and I was amazed,” he says. “They had just given us such a magical gift, and all we did was to pluck some fruits from the backyard.”
It had a lifelong impact. “I subconsciously understood that what is of sustaining value is what we can call our own,” he says.
When Jose finished his B.Com from Loyola College in Chennai and was wondering what to do next, his mother said, “Good boys will not go for hotel management.” At that time, the hotel industry was not considered as a respectable profession. So, Jose qualified as a chartered accountant and joined one of the country’s top accountancy firms, A F. Ferguson and Co. at Mumbai in 1974.
“The job was challenging and I enjoyed myself hugely,” he says. In 1977, he had an arranged marriage with Anita, and things were going well. But his father, who was not keeping good health, pleaded with him to come back and take over the business. Jose is the eldest of six sons.
After much reflection, Jose decided to come back, but for only two years, to fulfill his filial duties. “But the two years turned out to be forever,” he says, with a smile.
Jose’s biggest turning point occurred in 1987 when the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, along with their families went to spend a Christmas vacation in the government-run hotel in the Bangaram Islands in the Lakshwadeep. After Rajiv returned to Delhi it was decided to rent out the island for private hotel chains to develop. Apart from big chains like the Oberois, the Taj, and the Leela, the Casino Hotel also received an invitation to send a proposal.
When Jose saw the island for the first time he was stunned. “It was spectacular,” he says. “My first thought was: ‘It would be such a misfortune if this island is spoiled by a hotel’.”
While the big hotel chains told government officials they were planning to spend between Rs 20-40 crores to build resorts, Jose said, “Whatever is there is enough. We will just clean up the place and make it ecologically friendly.”
Jose’s logic was simple. “If somebody is coming all the way from Europe and America to this island, he will want to experience what is unique,” he says. “And what this island offers is nature at its pristine and spectacular best.”
Amazingly, the government accepted his proposal and the Casino Group went in full blast to refurbish the hotel. “We redid the plumbing, put terracotta mud tiles, replaced the asbestos sheets, and put coconut thatches on the roofs,” he says.
In their advertising brochure, they wrote: ‘There are no telephones, TV, newspapers, air-conditioning, hot water, room services, multi-cuisine restaurants or swimming pools’.
The hotel was commissioned in December, 1988, but it took about two years to establish its reputation. Today it is world famous and has enabled the Casino Group, now renamed the CGH Earth Group, to establish its name internationally.
“It was a huge confident booster for me,” he says. In 1991, the group set up the Spice Village at Thekkady, and like in Bangaram Island, they depended on the local people, architecture, cuisine, and culture. “It was an instant success,” says Jose. In 1993, the Coconut Lagoon was set up at Kumarakom and now they have nine highly successful properties all over Kerala.
Asked the philosophy of his life, Jose says, “God made man in his own likeness. Thus, it is up to man to make something of himself. You cannot blame karma or destiny. You are your own creator.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)