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Construction : Women in Construction | August 2015 | Source : CW-India

The focus should be on one´s job, not gender

- Nirupa Shankar, Director, Brigade Hospitality

Her mission is clear: Creating the perfect red carpet for the country´s guests. With five years of experience in the hospitality sector, Nirupa Shankar, Director, Brigade Hospitality, is firmly committed to the Indian tradition of Atithi Devo Bhava. Before joining the family business in 2009, she was involved in various activities as a consultant, focusing on business operations improvement and strategy. A certified Six Sigma Black Belt, she has applied her analytical mind to several situations and has introduced a data-oriented culture in the organisation as well. When asked about the key business qualities she would like to imbibe from her father, real-estate leader MR Jaishankar, Chairman & Managing Director, Brigade Group, she responds, ¨I would love to have his business acumen. Also, no matter Zhow challenging the situation, he is able to take it in his stride and with a sense of humour, which is what you need in a business where many things can go wrong. I have never seen anyone so committed and hardworking; it´s made me work harder.¨ That appears evident, considering her ambitious plans to take the Indian hospitality arena to the next level. She shares more on her experiences in conversation with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN.

Did you always aim to join the family business?
Growing up, there was no pressure to join the family business. I went to the US for my undergraduate studies at the age of 18. I wanted to work there and get the required exposure even before thinking about joining the family business. While studying, I explored different industries such as mergers and acquisitions, hospitality and advertising. Once I graduated, I did consulting for three years, during which time I worked on a couple of hospitality projects. I found it extremely interesting. Hence, I pursued my masters in hospitality - during which time our company launched its first hotel, the Grand Mercure in Bengaluru - it was time for me to decide between pursuing hospitality with another brand or joining the family business. I decided it was time for me to step in as we were just beginning to expand our hospitality division and I had just completed my masters in hospitality. I had been away for eight years and this seemed like the right moment to come back.

In your current position, what does your scope of work involve?
I have primarily been focusing on hospitality projects for the past five years; we have convention centres, lifestyle membership clubs, service apartments and hotels. We have also launched a catering and event management company called ¨Celebrations¨ and more recently a baking initiative under the brand ¨The Baking Company¨. In addition to all this has been the creation of my pet project: High Ultra Lounge, India´s highest point for food and beverage outside of Mumbai. More recently, I have been getting involved in business development aspects of the real estate business.

How has it been to work with your father and learn from him?
We have a quick 10-minute lunch together at work where I pick his brains on a few things I have questions about. Apart from this, most of my mentoring really happens when he is more relaxed at home. Whatever I have seen about his decisions or the way he handles situations, he has been right almost every time. So I am constantly evaluating how he handles different situations.

Did you face any challenges when you first joined the group?
When I look back, this was my first job in India and I think it was helpful that I had worked abroad. I had got jobs on my own merit and that helped me come in with a bit of confidence. Also, rather than starting with a fancy designation, I started as a management trainee, and every year I took on more responsibility. So I have always tried to work in the best interest of the company and do my job well. I was in no hurry to prove anything to people. I just took on things I was comfortable with, and every year I try to expand my role. Five years, and I have managed to do a lot of things that I had set out to do.

What are your plans to grow the hospitality business?
We have two hotels in operation at present and plan to launch two more hotels this fiscal. Apart from that, we have about six more hotels under various stages of design and development. There are expansion plans in all segments of our business. But despite the several launches lined up, hospitality will continue to constitute around 10-15 per cent of our overall top-line.

How do you view the current hospitality market and the opportunities for Brigade in this business?
The current market is competitive. Much is being read about the huge supply of new hotel rooms in the market. The good thing is that the Indian economy has been able to absorb the new supply. The supply might have quadrupled in the past 10 years but the occupancy percentage of the hotels has stayed around the same. However, owing to the industry´s competitive nature, people are trying to compete on rates. Ideally, one should try to provide more value-added services rather than offer discounted rates. But this is certainly a good time to grow and build hotels because I foresee a big boom in the tourism industry four to five years from now. Building five-star deluxe products might not see the right returns on investment in the current market. Hence, we are trying to build smart five-star hotels or smart midmarket business hotels.

What are the smart aspects in these hotels?
The value of smart lies in design and planning. Most people go wrong when they overspend on the hotel, and then, it is really hard to get the desired returns. We try to ensure operations efficiency in the planning of our hotel and the use of quality materials that last for a long time. Location is crucial because there has to be enough demand generators for hotel rooms in the chosen area. So we do a lot of market study prior to building the hotel.

In the kind of profession you operate in, what would you determine as your strengths?
Understanding the pulse of the customer is important because this is a people-oriented industry. It is important to have one´s ear to the ground to know what the customer wants. Once this is achieved, it is easy to make operational decisions. Also, reading is an important skill that is underestimated. In the role of business development, reading is important because you are constantly reading contracts and there are a lot of legal implications and fine print one has to go through before taking decisions.

In this business, how would you define achievement?
This is a return-oriented business. From the financial angle, it is important that projects get the required rate of return.

That´s probably the most important criterion and being a public limited company, this is what the analysts rate you on every quarter. But from a more long-term view, we want our employees to be happy working with us, customers to be happy that they bought an apartment with us, and stakeholders to be happy with the investment they have made with us.

What is your life like beyond business? How do you maintain a work-life balance?
For me, relaxing is either going for a run, workout or swim. After a long and intensive day of work, where so much is packed in, I need an hour for myself to unwind. I also have two dogs that bring me a lot of joy. Almost every person in hospitality loves food and travel. So travelling and getting out of the mundane routine helps me rejuvenate and energise myself.

The building and construction sector is considered to be more male-dominated. Do you agree?
It is just the nature of the industry. There is a lot of physical labour required for the construction industry. However, in real estate development, the current average number of women employees is around 15 to 18 per cent of the work force. At Brigade, about 25 per cent of our work force is female. We have a good number of women engineers as well.

What would you say to women who´d like to be a part of this industry?
If it´s your passion, follow it. For instance, I enjoyed business development and being part of large deals. So the focus should be on your job, not gender. Today, there is nothing to stop a woman from pursuing her passion unless safety issues are involved. I would always put safety first. But apart from that, if it´s your passion, go ahead and carpe diem (seize the day)!

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