View from the top: Dillip Rajakarier

The man Bill Heinecke promoted as the very first CEO of his hotel division is a mirror of Heinecke in drive and passion to grow the business. A difference is he has boyish, impish looks – but don’t be fooled. Raini Hamdi finds out why Rajakarier is the real deal

Dillip Rajakarier
CEO, Minor Hotel Group

So what made you join Bill Heinecke (chairman, Minor International) five years ago?
I did a deal for my previous company, Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises (where he was deputy CFO). We acquired an Asian portfolio involving seven hotels in the region. Minor was also interested in that deal, but we were able to move fast, structured the deal and completed it before anyone got wind of it.

I got approached by Bill. I never contemplated moving, as I was happy where I was. But when you sit with Bill and talk to him, you end up changing your mind. He’s persuasive and passionate. I thought, this company is small and just about to take off. I would love to come in and help expand it. I’ve always liked to create value.

You rose from chief finance & investment officer to COO in just a year, then CEO in September last year. What strengths do you have that Bill does not have?
(Laughs, long pause). We both have a good grasp of numbers. What do I have that he doesn’t? Well, I’m much younger (laughs).

I do balance Bill in a lot of ways. A true entrepreneur will throw 100 different ideas at any one time and it’s up to you to pick up what’s best for the company and formulate something which people can focus on for the benefit of the company. So he might say, ‘we need to do this, and this, and this’, but you don’t want people running in 50 different directions and end up with a total mess.

I really admire Bill’s passion and drive in growing the company, not just hotels but retail and food, and at his age, that’s huge. If you don’t have the passion and drive, you’ll fall off to the wayside. If you have, you’ll be running much faster, as his passion and drive carries you through like a tsunami – well it feels like it (laughs).

I do have the passion and drive. That’s why we’ve worked well together and I’ve learnt a lot from Bill.

Say he suggests something that you see is detrimental. Can you say no?
Yes, and he listens. With Bill, I realise he does not want to be surrounded with yes men. He wants someone who can challenge him, but for the right reasons. As long as you can have a proper discussion about it, he will listen. It’s one of my success factors in surviving this company for five years.

Was the Oaks Hotels & Resorts your biggest acquisition (TTG Asia e-Daily, March 22, 2011) at Minor?
Yes. And it was well worth it. In this company, we always talk about unlocking the impossible. Oaks was a good example. It was a public company and a public war. There was complete madness in the board of Oaks and we got pushed back all the time but we didn’t give up. We were able to angle ourselves as the strongest contender to unlock the value which has actually created value for Minor today.

Why was Oaks strategic?
It’s a new brand in a niche market in Australia and one which is highly profitable. We believe there is big demand for serviced apartments from families with kids in that market, especially in areas where we want to expand, and in Asia-Pacific.

Not only the Australians know the brand well, as it is the third largest in Australia (38 serviced apartments across Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East currently), but markets such as Japan, Bali, Vietnam and the Middle East also recognise the brand.

We figure if we can tap that brand value, the loyalty factor will help us grow it.

Right now, we’re focusing on Australia, especially the mining sectors, where it’s tough to get accommodation.

Is buying and selling your first love?
We don’t sell (laughs). Yes, I love it. What I really love is adding value, ie, growing a company in numbers and profit, because at the end of the day, we are in business to make money and we’re a public company as well.

In the five years I’ve been with Minor, our profit grew 150 per cent. That’s a huge jump in spite of the floods last year. This year, we will grow another 60 to 70 per cent in profit. We say to our shareholders, based on our history, we’re growing 20-25 per cent on a compounded basis. Our targets are much higher.

Is that because of Oaks?
Oaks, Anantara Vacation Club, which we launched, performance within the hotels and the residences – those were the major contributing factors.

Our company is diversified and opportunistic when we look at deals. When I joined, we had three Anantara’s. Now we have 17 opened and four coming on board by end of this year. The Anantara product also grew, with trophy assets such as the properties in Abu Dhabi. When it started, Anantara was seen as a Thai and resort brand. It is now seen as an international brand with both resorts and city properties.

Our portfolio doubled to 80 hotels last year because of Oaks and we also launched Avani Hotels & Resorts in August last year, with the first Avani in Sri Lanka in December.

So we’re the biggest Asian hospitality company now, in terms of number of hotels.

And you’re tasked to grow it further to 150 hotels within five years. Is Bill reasonable?
In my view, the target is reasonable and easily achievable. We have three main pillars of growth: through Anantara and Avani, acquisitions, and mixed-use developments and vacation club.

We’re different from an investment fund. They always look for an exit while we always look to add value and sweat the asset. If we have a hotel, we may add residences, mixed-use retail or Anantara Vacation Club.

Hence, we can offer owners the whole infrastructure under mixed-use – Anantara, which is five star; Avani, slight lower; Oaks and residences. It’s much more efficient and cost-effective.

Owners today want to release value through mixed-use (developments).

The hotel investment climate is great right now.
Yes. And we look at which economies are growing and which ones are shrinking. For those that are shrinking, we might be able to buy assets below book sometimes and take a longterm view. For those that are growing, we want to be there. Asia and the BRICS – now they’ve added South Africa – are where the growth is and it’s also because of their domestic markets.

What is it about doing deals that you like the most?
It’s a hobby. When I was in the UK, the way I relaxed during weekends was to buy and sell houses. I would buy something no one would buy, then refurbish it as I could straightaway ‘see’ (the deal) and it would get sold before the refurbishment was completed. I really enjoyed the buzz. Through that, I was also able to create a portfolio of assets. It was not about the money; it was the satisfaction of getting the deal done.

Bill wrote the book, The Entrepreneur. If you were to write one, what would it be – The Deal?
I would say, Kill the Enemy. That’s what the book will be about. I thrive in a competitive environment. I never get stressed. People say I’m killing myself, working weekdays, weekends, travelling too much, but that’s me.

You sound just like Bill!
Yes. That’s why I enjoy Minor. The day someone pulls a stop on its growth track, that’s the day I will leave.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, May 18 issue, on page 6. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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