Aman Nath, Co-founder and Chairman of the Neemrana Hotels chain who has notably restored ruins and turned them into heritage hotels with the simple philosophy - “see assets in the waste”. Not just a restorer of vintage fortresses, Nath is an author, historian, art curator and, above all, a visionary who sees beyond the usual in everything.
Nath’s passion for restoring age-old ruins started at the young age of 27 when he was passing by the ruins of the Neemrana Fort while co-authoring a book with Francis Wacziarg. From that day in 1977, they have successfully restored some 30 heritage properties, turning many into heritage hotels.
Having spent over 35 years rebuilding, resuscitating and revitalizing India’s heritage, the latest in his passion being the Tijara Fort-Palace en route to Alwar, this has become an innate talent in him. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Nath is someone without a past who has infused life into the past!
Born and brought up in New Delhi, Aman Nath's family arrived as refugees from Lahore, now Pakistan, during the partition of India. For him, starting his journey was everything from scratch and starting from a clean state. And today after 68 years, he has pioneered a different kind of heritage hotels’ movement in India.
Restoring old fortresses is not an easy job! It takes huge investments, patience, an unexplainable amount of energy, passion and madness to get the work done, finding the people who would help you live this dream, fighting with the authorities, and so much more. But if you ask Nath, the rewards are simply extraordinary! And he has no regrets!
Nath viewed ruins (waste) as opportunities which can be transformed (reused) into properties that not only restore our rich Indian heritage, but also drive employment and revenue. And the same mindset is helping Neemrana Hotels build a workforce of committed and loyal employees
Nath’s simple philosophy behind starting his journey of restorations was - ‘against waste’. He shares a story of why he never buys a box of pins and why he feels it is absolutely necessary to reuse things. He says, “While I was in school, I learnt that there are 19 processes before a pin is made. I feel why do you need to buy a box of pins when you can reuse them?” He further says, “You go to eat ice-cream, you take one cone and 5 napkins. We have only one mouth, how many times are you going to use and throw the napkin for one ice cream? Waste is rampant, but I see and create consciousness of it all the time.”
Nath viewed these ruins (waste) as opportunities which can be transformed (reused) into properties that not only restore our rich Indian heritage, but also drive employment and revenue. And the same mindset is helping Neemrana Hotels build a workforce of committed and loyal employees.
Here are some excerpts from the exclusive interview with the legend who pioneered the heritage hotels movement in India where he shares what makes him see the good in people and how this is helping him build a collaborative and inclusive work culture.
It is evident that your workforce is highly engaged and works with you like a family. What does talent mean to you? How do you attract talent and keep them motivated and engaged?
People have notions of unequal human beings, but I very deeply and sincerely believe we are all equal. Forget caste, religion and all that, in a company, what is a chairman without a guard, and what is a guard without a chairman? The balance between humans is very crucial for the company. And I personally try to imbibe this balance at our place by respecting everyone. Then one has to be intuitive about the aptitude of each person. Make them do what they enjoy willingly.
Sometime back, an employee who has been working here for three years had left in between to join some other place. However, he came back because he felt a familiar belongingness to this place. Respect, trust and a personal connect with your people is as important as everything else in the business and that is what gets you the best people on board. At Neemrana Hotels, our people break all bounds when they are having fun and when they are working, they are working hard. The respect is in the eyes and not in touching feet. That is how we feel equal. And this is our work culture.
"Everyone has a personal touch with everyone. If we work somewhere else, people don't know us, but Sir remembers us and knows everything about us and everyone else. He also knows about our families and if we are dealing with any issue, he will somehow manage to find out and help us resolve it."- An employee
The balance between humans is very crucial for the company. And I personally try to imbibe this balance at our place by respecting everyone. Then one has to be intuitive about the aptitude of each person. Make them do what they enjoy willingly
How do you trust people as you tend to hire raw talent? You don't know whether they will perform. Is it instinctive?
I actually only see the good in people. And it is all about sending and receiving the right vibrations. Aren't we all raw, illiterate and nothing when we begin and then we can become something? I think all of us are raw and can be made into something special if you look at them with sympathy. There is this discriminative saying for animals which we happily use for humans: “How can you make a donkey into a horse?” But actually, ignorant and untrained, we all begin as donkeys!
I’ll tell you something. I watched a movie where the person in the movie who used to make tyres for his business wanted to shoot an ad film for his product. So, he meets a fresher from a film institute and asks him if he had ever shot an ad film on tyres before. The student counter questioned him and said, “Can I ask you a question Sir, if you don’t mind? Had you made tyres before making tyres?”
That’s such a good question. Similarly, it is a stupid question to ask, “Have you cooked before cooking or can you keep this place clean, when you come from a village home with very different standards? Learning, exposure and correct teaching matters. If a person has no knowledge but the willingness to learn, he or she can do anything in the world.
Let’s say if someone comes in for an interview, people look at their resume and ask questions like why have you done this course or why have you scored so little in mathematics? Who is interested in all that? I’m not. I look at it diagonally; I like to look at the person, and understand the personal journey. He may have come for the interview from a far-off city, on a bus and through a lot of struggle. So, you have to be sympathetic towards that person. He’s probably wearing his brother's suit because you know the condition of an average Indian. He’s down here; his hair is all wrong, half-educated, half urban, half rural. The idea is not to look at them with these lenses but with total sympathy and see what they can become tomorrow. When I see someone walk in, I see what they can be in one year from now. Many of the boys who joined Neemrana as labour are HODs, managers – and some even are refined enough to decide our aesthetic.
"This feels like a family. I have only worked here; this is my first job and I have worked and learned everything here."- An employee
It is certainly a great deal to hire talent based on what you feel they can become. How about training them for the job? Do you have specific programs where you train them? Or do you make it natural?
They learn! We have had people come from other countries too – to train our raw staff.
You know, monkeys and dolphins can get trained. However, when we speak about human beings, we are can only be that much better. People have brains, language, imitative skills. They can be trained easily. Normal staff at Neemrana are very skilled, and sometimes – too smart!
I find that the people are smart, attentive, and they learn fast. There were ten chefs in Neemrana and one little boy who used to do the dishes named Babulal. This young boy learned to make chocolate mousse so well that once there was a French delegation that was amazed by the talent he had. And this was a boy from the village and the delegates said that this was the best chocolate mousse they had ever had. That boy was very smart; he could pick up the recipe from any chef and make it.
So, you need to understand how people would want to learn and provide them with the apt resources. The results of the such kind of a learning will astound you, because it is natural and you train people in the way they want to be trained, which in our case is mostly on the job.
Being in the hospitality industry that puts a huge emphasis on the attribute of serving, how do you ensure a culture that is transparent and follows no hierarchy?
I don’t want our people to feel any form of hierarchy. The hidden hierarchy is always there. Look, if a boss walks in, you will stand up to wish him. But, if you did that all the time, it should make the boss uneasy. So, he would also like the idea that you relax and work normally. And we are at our best when we work like that. If you’re the kind of employer who demands the best behavior when you're there, they will be on their worst behavior when you're gone. I expect consistency. I like transparency in people. So, if an employee has a problem, he should be able to tell me because if he can’t tell me, then who will he tell? Everyone has my cell number, and you know, I sleep in my hotels and never lock my door. Anybody can come at any time, knock on my door and tell me their problems. It’s not as if people only need money, they have all kinds of issues and they should be able to share them with you.
How do you manage 18 hotels? We are sure you have a great team but what about Aman Nath as the leader?
We have a great team. But for that, you need to love your work. I really love my work. I actually work 20 hours a day but people get the impression that I don’t work at all. Because if you love it so much it doesn’t look like you’re working. In France, people work 35 hours a week, and I said to the then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, “You French are lazy. In India, we work 35 hours a day!”
So, what keeps you going?
People, dreams and the passion to keep doing things differently. New ideas, new solutions to suit our weather, our pocket.
So, you listen to your inner voice? How important is it for people to dream?
Always. Even for PM Modi, it was a far-fetched dream to become the Prime Minister of India, but he did. The journey is what you make of it. And you have to live in the present; you can't live in the past. It is better to be totally alive in the present moment and in action. If you have a dream in the night, wake up the next morning, brush your teeth and then go where you have to go routinely, then it's not a powerful dream. A passionate dream is something you dream, wake up to and keep acting with eyes open till it actually becomes real. It pulls you by the magnetism that your actions will give it. People say they can’t believe I have done all this. I have always walked towards the dream, I don’t know at which point it was not there, which point it happened, which point I made it happen, or wasn’t it always there?
When we took over the Tijara Fort-Palace, there was nothing but a tree on this hill. It was terribly hot and there wasn’t even a road all the way up to the property. I used to walk uphill and carry my lunch along. People didn’t know why I was doing it but I knew. Today when I’m sitting here with all of you in Kaanch Mahal, eating in air conditioning, I want you to know that I was very happy then, and I’m equally happy now. My pursuit has changed to perfecting Tijara’s details. I don’t see the difference as it’s all karma.
How about regrets in life? Do you have any?
No. You shouldn’t have regrets. If you didn’t do it, you either didn't have the money or inclination. If you forgot to say ‘I love you’ to somebody, either you didn't have the guts or you didn't deserve the person! Some valid reason must have been there and today you can’t hold it against yourself or somebody else. We must take full blame for everything that goes wrong under our leadership but always remember to share the credit. If I say, I did it all, then what were all the dedicated Neemrana family members doing? No one can say, even with the greatest immodesty and arrogance, that they did it all.
You need to understand how people would want to learn and provide them with the apt resources. The results of the such kind of a learning will astound you, because it is natural and you train people in the way they want to be trained, which in our case is mostly on the job
Do you have any out-of-the-box dream for tourism for developing India?
My dream is to make a vocational training institute called APDF. Official as it sounds, this will stand for ‘Aathvin Pass Dasvin Fail’! There is a huge, semi-literate force (who have either passed their 8th class but failed in the 10th) waiting out there in the vast rural countryside of India to become mainstream with the benefits of India’s progress. For their Bharat to become India! Using a trained manpower advantage will be a quantum leap for our economy and our social re-structuring. The heritage, destinations, mountains, beaches and sunshine are all waiting there and will do the rest. But our Government must recognise this fully and let go of the reins. Tourism will gallop and so will India.