Text: Ujeena Rana
Photos : Indepth Photography
Into business by choice, not obligation; Earning his place on merit, not name.
CEO, KGH Group
Rajan Sakya has been actively involved with KGH Group since 1995. Within a week of his college graduation, he was back in Nepal and working in the family business. Sakya did his schooling from Darjeeling and completed his undergrad from the US. He is, possibly, one of those rare breed of CEOs who do not seek centrestage. The younger son of Karna Sakya strongly believes that for the wellbeing of KGH Group, the wellbeing of the community is equally important. He currently holds position of CEO with the KGH Group.
Siddhi Bahadur Sakya, a jewelry merchant, hailed as a connoisseur of fine things, especially opulent architecture, bought a Rana Palace in Thamel in the 1950s from the grandson of Kumar Narsingh Rana. In fact, the palace was designed by Kumar Narsingh himself. He, along with his brother Kishore Narsingh Rana, both civil engineers, designed and constructed some of the greatest architectural marvels of their time like Singha Durbar, Keshar Mahal and the building that now houses Hotel Shankar. Kumar Narsingh Rana was the son of Badri Narsingh Rana, brother of Jung Bahadur Rana.
After the purchase, what was earlier a Rana mansion became the dwelling of the Sakyas. At that time Thamel was not the hip city centre. It was home to ghost stories and hippies in search of shangrila. In the 1960s, Karna Sakya and his elder brother Basanta Bahadur Sakya, the sons of Siddhi Bahadur Sakya, took a decision to transform the family home into a guest house. The Sakya brothers opened it as the Kathmandu Guest House in 1968 targeted at trekkers. What started with 13 rooms back then is a historic tourism landmark property with 133 rooms, and guests on long waiting list.
Karna Sakya took a leap of faith in transforming an aristocratic palace into a commercial entity open to guests from across the globe. In India, palaces turned into hotels as early as 1955 such as the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur.
In Thamel through Time, a book written to commemorate 50 years of Kathmandu Guest House and Thamel, it’s written—“Adventure starts from the Himalayas, the Himalayas start from Nepal, Nepal starts from Kathmandu, Kathmandu starts from the Kathmandu Guest House.” Possibly, there could be no better tribute to the significance of Kathmandu Guest House. Today, that one venture has spread its wings and Karna Sakya, founder of KGH Group is credited for making Thamel, the tourist hub that it is today.
KGH Group is celebrating 50 years of its establishment. The name KGH Group can be interpreted in two ways shares Rajan Sakya, CEO of KGH Group. One is the Kathmandu Guest House Group of Hotels, and the other is Karna Group of Hotels. Kathmandu Guest House is the flagship hotel of the group. “Kathmandu Guest House is important to the branding of who we are. It defines us. The foundation of our company started from this hotel. It gives the group its identity,” emphasises Sakya.
Hotels come and go but KGH Group has maintained its presence in the tourism industry. What worked for KGH Group is the passion and forethought behind each hotel. According to Sakya, it is not just about running a hotel, “it was always about how we can help the community.” He says, “Kathmandu Guest House, the flagship hotel of my company is in Thamel, I cannot ignore my community. If I ignore Thamel, and only pour money and attention and focus on the hotel, it does not work.” He says that the Sakyas have earned the respect of the community because “they see us as unbiased. We work together with the community in our drive for progress”. When Sakya travels to promote his hotels overseas, his persuasion is not only centered on his hotels. The country and the area in which the hotel is situated are given equal emphasis.
The group is also dedicated to its CSR efforts. Unlike many business entities, Sakya claims that their CSR activities are not a branding gimmick. He suggests that it was his father who initiated the CSR aspect in the country when he was involved in building a cancer hospital in Nepal. “Through his ideas, the first cancer hospital was built in 86/87 after my mom passed away of cancer,” he remembers.
KGH Group have also been collaborating with Maiti Nepal to help rehabilitate girls and women rescued from trafficking through training and jobs with a focus to reintegrate them into the society and become financially independent. “We started this initiative back in 2006. And it’s going strong. Many of the women have been reintegrated into society. Some of them are now married and have kids. To see this gives me a lot of pride and satisfaction,” elaborates Sakya.
The KGH group today owns and operates seven hotels: Kathmandu Guest House, Park Village Resort and Maya Manor Boutique Hotel in Kathmandu; Waterfront Resort and Himalayan Front Resort in Pokhara; Maruni Sanctuary Lodge in Chitwan; and Buddha Maya Garden Hotel in Lumbini.
“I don’t like the sound of the word ‘lead’. Because it was never about me leading. It was always in confidence with my father and brother,” states Sakya. He does not want people to misconstrue and form conjectures about the dynamics of the family business. Even though Rajan Sakya’s business card introduces him as the CEO of KGH Group, it is simply a title. So much so that he showed reluctance to appear on the cover of the magazine. He argues that he is not the face of KGH Group and that he is not the company. He chooses not to distinguish himself. The KGH Group comes first! His father and brother, Sunil Sakya are equal decision makers. “I think, there was no such thing as taking a leadership role in our family business. It was always combined effort. Although my father is 77, he is still very active and so is my brother,” Sakya states emphatically.
He reiterates that KGH Group was never about a single personality. “If you look at all the properties of KGH Group or if you look at what we do, it is never dedicated to one single person. So, whenever we make a decision with regard to the vision or extension or any major aspect of the business, it has always been a family effort.” And that is the very approach, Sakya says, that has catapulted KGH Group to success.
The CEO’s Role
Even though, Rajan Sakya claims that every decision is a combined decision, sometimes, he cheats. “In decision making, as the CEO, it is very difficult to come to a common platform. So, sometimes, I make certain decisions without even asking. And I share it once it is ready.” He credits it to luck because so far his decisions have proven to be good decisions and worked out well for the company.
“There may be certain mistakes that I have made, but that is when love overtakes. In the sense that my family takes it as a learning curve for me,” he says. He underlines a personality trait and states, “I am an egoist.” According to him, ego seeps in because he has confidence. “I won’t say that I am a humble person. But, of course, there are issues that need humility and I am humble on them. Nevertheless, when it comes to business, I am an egoist because I am successful. Because the things I have done have been good so far.” And adds, “And my family has always supported it.”
One of the signature elements of Sakya is his ability to make decisions. Whoever comes to his office with an issue does not go back with a pending decision.“That is why,” he says, “people like to work with me. They know that I don’t linger on decisions. I always find a way out.”
He further shares, “Recently, I read an article in Harvard Business Review about what makes a good CEO. A good CEO is never about making a right decision. It is about making a decision at the right time. If you can’t make the decision, work is pending and everyone on the team is affected and lags behind. So, a decision sometimes is not about being right or wrong, it is about making it at the right time.”
During the Maoist insurgency, he used to make a lot of decisions on his own because he didn’t want problems to escalate. “Besides, I didn’t want to give my brother or father the added tension to deal with those issues. Those were difficult times getting threat calls. I would just make my decisions,” he asserts.
All About Family
At the core of it, it is still a family business maintains Rajan Sakya. He, however, is honest about the feuds, disagreements that the family often partakes in. Nepali culture does not nurture discourse, disagreements, dialogues. We still promote that family should sing the same song in the same pitch. Sameness is promoted. However, given that individuals don’t think alike, and that they have minds of their own, they have the liberty to voice their thoughts without reservations and therefore, Sakyas frequently practice rejections and disapprove of ideas presented by one another.
At a time when family businesses are losing ground because of disintegration, disassociation, disbandment and going their separate ways, Karna Sakya’s household is championing the #wearefamily movement. “When family is removed, all that remains is business, and when family and business are interlinked, the health of one is irrevocably joined with the health of the other,” says Sakya.
“I would not say that we are a perfect family; we are not. However, people may perceive from outside as being “the family” but we have our differences in a lot of ways.”Apparently, it is not all about harmony, peace and togetherness at Karna Sakya’s household. However, adds Sakya, “One of our ideologies is that you cannot grow in solitude. Although, we have individualistic values, and there are egos, but when it comes to work we keep our egos aside and business takes center stage. We always believed that we don’t grow in solitude, we have to build partnerships. What better than being partners with your father, brother, sisters and nieces. The family bonding keeps us together,” he adds, “We know it is for the good for the business so we do not disrupt the business development.”
Apparently, the business is functioning as a glue to keep the family together. “This is the basic reality of life. That is what it is. Love is there because money is there and money is there because love is there. That is the harsh reality of life.”
The foundation on which the tourism industry in Nepal stands is its culture, wildlife, pristine mountains, Lumbini – Lord Buddha’s birthplace and the fact that the country has an elephantine number of temples. Inarguably, it is the duty of the government to find ways to protect, sustain and flourish what we have. Having said that, those involved in the tourism industry are equally responsible. And, principally concerns over the cultural heritage and sustainability of natural beauty should be their priority.
“Now, people don’t want to go to a dirty city. We are already getting feedback from tourists that they don’t want to stay in Kathmandu. They want to get out as soon as they reach here.” Kathmandu, seems to have lost its charm. Earlier it was different.
Sakya amplifies his concerns, “There are many shops and restaurants in Thamel. They do the daily business in the daytime and when they have to throw out their garbage at night, they can’t just leave it out on the streets. Most often than not, the garbage is not picked up and tourists walking that path the next morning see piles of garbage in front of the shops and restaurants. It is high time tourism entrepreneurs understand what it takes for a tourism destination to sustain; otherwise, their bread and butter will be under threat.”
Work takes Sakya to far-off places. One of the outcomes of travelling is that it exposes us to new and different cultures. Travelers go to places, see and come back transformed. And travelers when they return home compare. “The monasteries in China and Japan are spotlessly clean. As soon as you reach these places, you feel a moment of peace and spirituality. But here, we have flowers, colours and grains sprinkled onto the idols, and the floors of the temple are bloody red because of animal sacrifice or vermillion. Our temples are dirty. We have bhoj here, dogs also litter the same spot. If you look at the whole spirituality movement, it actually started from Nepal. More than that it actually started from Kathmandu. Kathmandu is one of the holiest cities in the world. But we lack education. How to retain and sustain visitors to our country should be a good part of our national drive and our country should really educate its citizens,” he suggests.
When quizzed about the landmark events of KGH Group, building Park Village at Buddhanilkantha in 2001 tops Sakya’s list. During that time, outsiders were apprehensive of the decision. The naysayers raised issues about the distance and infrastructure, and claimed if people wanted to go all the way to Buddhanilkanta to visit Park Village, they would rather go to Pokhara or Kurintar. “However today Park Village is one of the most popular conference hotels, not only in Nepal but in South East Asia,” asserts Sakya. “The building of each one of our hotels was, definitely, a landmark point for us,” he narrates.
KGH Group went on a rampage mood for expansion from 2001 to 2006—the time when the country was most affected by civil war. Understandably, it was not an ideal time for investment or expansion for any kind of industry, least of all tourism. But the Sakyas chose to open five hotels within that period. What many would have written-off as a foolish act, later proved to be a smart move on part of the company.
It has been also globally found that while family businesses do not earn as much money as companies with more dispersed ownership structures, when an economy slumps, it is the family business model that outshines.
“We opened Park Village, another hotel in Lumbini, one in Pokhara and one in Chitwan during this time. When most businesses were apprehensive about losing their property, gnawed with fear that the state would nationalise businesses, when people were transferring their money overseas, we said this is the time for expansion. We took risks. We had the balls to do it.” Rajan Sakya would travel within the country to scout for prospective places that they could develop into tourism properties as land prices were cheap at that time. “Whatever money we had, we invested in the country. We did not close down, we stuck around even when the tides were rough.” Giving continuity to their expansion plans, the other destinations the Sakyas have set their eyes on are Bhaktapur and Hetauda.
Word of Advice
Echoing the sentiments of many, Sakya asserts that it is not going to get easy for newcomers in the business. First of all, there are heavyweights in the industry already in addition to the growing interest of international hotels coming into the market. Competition is definitely going to be fiercer in the coming days, believes Sakya.
“Put your heart to it. Don’t make a hotel for the sake of making a hotel. I got into this industry when Kathmandu Guest House was the only hotel we had back in 1999. We have altogether seven now and a couple more in the pipeline. It is not difficult, it is not rocket science, you just need to make guests happy, and you need patience. No matter how beautiful a hotel you build today, tomorrow it’s going to get old. It requires highly intensive capital as you need to invest in the land and the building. You need to do good marketing; you need to make yourself a good brand. You need to put a lot of effort into branding. Branding does not only mean— ‘I have good hotel, beautiful rooms and garden’, you have to be involved beyond business so that you are recognised not only for business but also for the people person you are, and you need to give back to the society,” he shares from experince.
For Sakya, competition is an important aspect of success. It is an important aspect of evolution. With increasing international and domestic investments in hotels in Nepal, he believes this is an opportunity to perfect oneself.
“When I was young, I knew that I would be part of the family business. I used to follow my dad to his offices when I was very young. Even then I knew this is something I want to do. I always believed that there is no use reinventing the wheel. When your father has already set-up a good business, there is no use trying to be individualistic and trying to do something else,” he says of his inherited passion.
Kathmandu Guest House is set to enlist its name as the first zero waste hotel in Nepal by 2019. “We are keeping our fingers crossed. I won’t be surprised if it is the first hotel in Asia to literally have zero waste,” stresses Sakya.
One thing you have to give to the Sakyas is their vision and the ability to take risks. It was the same trait that made Siddhi Bahadur buy a Rana mansion, and it was the same trait that made Karna Sakya take a colossal bait on his vision to transform a Rana mansion into a hotel. Taking risks and dreaming big seems to run in this family, and for the larger good!