CEO interview: Minor Hotel Group

Dillip Rajakarier reveals why winning is not an option, but a habit

Despite operating a group of safari properties in Africa, Rajakarier admits he is scared of animals, something he?s not previously admitted to his team.
Despite operating a group of safari properties in Africa, Rajakarier admits he is scared of animals, something he?s not previously admitted to his team.

For someone that “fell into the hotel industry”, Sri Lankan Dillip Rajakarier has certainly carved out an impressive career path for himself.

As the CEO of Thailand’s Minor Hotel Group, which operates the Anantara, Avani, Elewana and Oaks hotel brands, he oversees a portfolio of 93 properties in 12 countries that generated US $680mn system sales in 2012.

Promoted earlier this year to COO of MHG’s parent company Minor International (MINT), which includes Minor Retail Group and Minor Food Group and a host of hotel assets as well as the hotel management business, Rajakarier is responsible for leading a team of 22,500, including 7000 colleagues at MHG.

Over the years, he has made his name playing a pivotal role in some major industry acquisitions and even now, says he is a “deal maker” by nature and trade.

“My early career was spent as a systems analyst and then I moved into finance — I was a deal maker and loved to create something which adds value,” recalls Rajakarier.

Notable achievements include several purchases with Orient Express Hotels, namely the $40mn acquisition of Le Manoir (UK) and La Residencia (Spain) from Virgin Hotels; the $100mn scoop of the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg and the purchase of The Ritz in Madrid, “another great deal in terms of earnings and asset value”.

More recently with MHG, Rajakarier has led the JV partnership with Elewana Collection in Africa, the recent $4mn Per Aquum deal, which equates to MHG owning a 50% stake in the boutique hotel brand, and in 2011, the acquisition of Oaks Hotels & Resorts.

This passion for a great deal infiltrates all aspects of his life, including his main hobby of “buying and selling real estate”. So what motivates Rajakarier to keep seeking out expansion in an ever-competitive marketplace?

“My personal motto is ‘winning is not an option, it’s a habit!’” he claims. “I am very transparent, driven, lead by example and strive for success. For me it’s also very important that I surround myself with specialists — people who can help me achieve all the company’s ambitious targets.”

These objectives are set high, as MHG continues to transform itself into an international brand with operations in Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australia.

“I have been tasked with several company goals — growing the hotel group to 150 properties and growing Anantara to 50 properties, both by the end of 2017,” reveals Rajakarier. “Right now, my target is reaching the magic 100 properties in operation. We are currently on 93 and for sure will reach 100 by the end of this year, which will be a really significant achievement for MHG.”

New Openings
The next property to open is right on Hotelier’s doorstep. On September 15, MHG will debut in Dubai with Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort and Spa, a long-awaited resort owned by Dubai’s Seven Tides.

“We have been working on that project for a long time; our contact with Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem (chairman of Dubai World) has been really important for us. We were involved going back a few years where we talked about the brand and how we can get involved in the Middle East. When you look at the hotel, it’s a true Anantara — it looks like an Anantara and feels like an Anantara and everything speaks for the brand,” says Rajakarier.

By this, he refers to Anantara’s promise to offer guests a complete and unique experience.

“We are transforming Anantara, our core Asian brand, into a global one. Recognising the growing traveller demand for luxury resorts and hotels that offer experience-based holidays — and the growing number of owners seeking to capture this market — Minor conceived the Anantara brand as a truly story-filled experience, bringing our unique brand of effortless luxury, intuitive service and harmonious design to more breathtaking destinations around the globe so that our guests have more places at which they can discover their own epic story,” he says.

The Palm resort comprises 293 guest rooms and suites in units of four to eight, with 130 rooms featuring direct access to 11,000m² of lagoon pools, 12 beach villas, 18 over-water villas — the first of their kind in the Middle East — and three Royal Beach Villas.

Facilities include a private beach, an infinity pool, and Anantara Spa, while the F&B concepts include Bushman’s Australian Grill, Mekong, featuring Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes and Beach House, a beachfront Mediterranean restaurant. What’s exciting though are the little Thai touches Rajakarier hints will be introduced at the resort.

“We will bring Thai culture as well with tuk tuks and longtail boats and they are some of the indigenous touches we bring in. Thai hospitality is the best in the world and bringing that sort of hospitality into the Middle East is important to us to position this hotel as a true luxury five-star hotel,” he asserts.

Also opening this year are Anantara Phuket Layan Resort & Spa in Thailand, Anantara Emei Resort & Spa, Sichuan Province, China and Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Sahel Villa Resort — another addition to the group’s Abu Dhabi island destination.

In January 2014, Anantara will debut in Doha, with a Maldives-style resort in partnership with Al Rayyan Hospitality.

“The good thing about Doha is it takes Anantara to the next stage,” says Rajakarier. “This hotel is focused around spa and wellness and that’s going to be another key focus area for Doha.

They have built a huge wellness facility ... we would offer the range [of spa services] starting from pampering to true wellness ... there is also a marina, diving centre, a reef conservation centre.

In terms of guest experience, we would offer from spa to diving to everything. So again it differentiates our brand within the region and its going to be another trophy asset for us from a management perspective.”

There are also plans for the first Anantara in Africa — a major milestone for the group, which already has experience in the continent thanks to the acquisition of the Elewana Collection safari properties in Tanzania and Kenya.

“MHG has entered into a strategic partnership with a Dubai-based company with the intention to rebrand a resort in Mozambique to Anantara later this year, with the potential for more properties in Africa going forward,” says Rajakarier, with Hotelier having to remain tight-lipped on the partner company until it is formally announced later this month.

But it’s not just the Anantara brand growing; there are six Avani hotels in the pipeline and two Elewana properties planned for Kenya, as well as plans to expand Oaks, currently at 43 properties, and the recently acquired Per Aquum, for which there is a hotel underway in Abu Dhabi.

With regard to Middle Eastern growth, Rajakarier says the group is establishing the GCC as one of its core regions. “We started with Abu Dhabi, then Dubai, we are going to Oman, and looking at KSA, Sharjah. We would like to establish ourselves in the UAE like we have in Asia,” he says.

He adds that one route to expansion could be complexed properties, combining brands and offering owners maximum benefit. Indeed, as an owner itself, MHG approaches its projects from this perspective, with deal maker Rajakarier adamant that this is a critical factor in the group’s success.

He says he gets involved with owners early, with himself or William Heinecke, CEO and chairman of MINT, donning the hat of the guest and walking their sites “quite a few times during the construction period”.

“From a brand perspective there is a lot of scope for Oaks as a serviced apartment brand,” asserts Rajakarier, “It’s a limited service brand so the profit margins are high and also from an ownership perspective, you can have a hotel, a serviced apartment, a five-star hotel, a four-star hotel, but the whole back engine will be driven by one team, which works very well, especially in this region where some of your overheads can be very high.

“We understand the owners because our interests are aligned. Owners want to maximise profit, they want to grow their asset value, they want to establish their asset within the marketplace as high-end, therefore, not only having profits every year but growing the asset year-on-year is important and that is one thing we do quite well.

We have to be the best in class and that’s one of our key strengths, we say wherever we go, we want to have the best Thai restaurant, the best spa, these are some of the values we bring to the hotels,” he says.

There is one issue, that challenges MHG’s growth plans, and perhaps is Rajakarier’s greatest concern for the industry generally. “If you ask me where I lose sleep, [it’s over] what we call the war on talent.

Today, because there are so many hotels opening, and so few people, everyone is fighting for talent. People make the brand special and “what gets measured gets managed” – I always state this. Today there is a war on talent, therefore we have to attract, develop and sustain talent for the future success of the company,” he says.

So, what’s his advice for aspiring hoteliers looking to join MHG on its journey? Having passion, commitment, ownership and the drive to “make the impossible possible” are attributes he says anyone looking to succeed in the business of hotels needs to have.

Where making deals is concerned, Rajakarier is blunt: “Always have a solution to any problem and have a clear vision of how to kill the enemy!”

As this CEO says, if winning is not an option, neither is losing.

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