Astute Alchemist: An Interview with Puneet Chhatwal

Puneet Chhatwal, MD & CEO, IHCL, has raised the bar for successful leadership with his performance-driven skills and innovative concepts

Though the Hospitality Industry has always had a significant impact on world economy, today, it faces challenges resulting from a complex and ever-changing global business environment. When Today’s Traveller Coffee Table Book 2019 spoke to Puneet Chhatwal, MD & CEO, IHCL, the first impression was that of a man confident of leading India’s oldest hospitality brand to new heights. Chhatwal is known as the alchemist in the Hospitality Industry and ever since he took over the reins of the celebrated Tata Group Company, he has been on a relentless quest for higher revenue and profit growth.

Speaking of his modest beginnings, Chhatwal shares how, as a typical Delhi boy, he attended Delhi Public School and graduated from Delhi University. His parents wanted him to join medicine or engineering, but he decided to pursue a degree in Hotel Management, a choice that they did not appreciate initially. Nevertheless, right from his first job at ITDC, where he even had to clean the lobby floor, to an assignment overseas and his journey back to his homeland, he has never regretted any decision.

He says, “I learnt my most important lessons in the school of life! My early days taught me the value of humility and gave me invaluable exposure in handling tough situations that have remained with me ever since.” Chhatwal reflects on how it was not the 4Ps of marketing that taught him life lessons, but rather the 3Ps - Patna, the city of his first posting; Pune, the city where he learnt the power of language; and Paris, which exposed him to a whole new world. Enrolling for German classes at the Max Mueller Bhavan was a turning point. He attributes his financial acumen to his MBA in Hospitality, at the Essec Business School in Paris, and INSEAD, where he did his Advanced Management Program, which transformed his outlook towards business and numbers.

Today, Chhatwal heads a company that is over 120 years old and an amalgamation of brands and businesses that offers a fusion of warm Indian hospitality and world-class service. It operates over 190 hotels, including 38 under development, globally across 4 continents, 12 countries and across over 80 locations. Shares Chhatwal, “My first assignment overseas gave me the confidence to move out of my comfort zone.” Though he intended to return home, fate ordained otherwise.

He landed a job in a consulting company in Germany and ended up spending 28 years abroad. The multi-lingual hotelier, Chhatwal got his initial break from a German friend’s family, who wanted to restart their hotel business. He grabbed this exciting opportunity to rebuild the group, known as the Feuring Group before moving to The Rezidor Hotel Group-Carlson Hotels Worldwide. Carlson exposed him to the American way of doing things, a lethal combination of German discipline and quality with American packaging and marketing. Thereafter, Chhatwal shifted to Steigenberger Hotels AG Deutsche Hospitality, as CEO and board member, until he moved back to India in his current role.

Coming home provided Chhatwal the binary advantage of being within close proximity of his mother, as well as the privilege of heading IHCL, one of South Asia’s most iconic hospitality companies. Under his aegis, the company was re-invented with a comprehensive five-year business strategy, ‘Aspiration 2022,’ announced in February 2018, enhancement of guest experiences, transformation of brand image, with an eye on profitability and market leadership. The rebranding strategy paid off rich dividends in terms of the establishment of iconic Taj hotels; SeleQtions, a new brand which is a collection of named hotels; the upscale Vivanta hotels; and the lean luxe Ginger hotels. The company’s service retail brands are under the ‘Expressions’ brand umbrella. The market leader in airline catering in India, TajSATS, further strengthens IHCL’s brand portfolio.

Compassionate and supportive, Chhatwal believes in harnessing the under-developed potential of the people in his team. His firm conviction is that a performance focussed organisation needs to constantly cultivate new mind sets and skill sets.

Inspirational and astute, Chhatwal is in sync with the new world order, in which the fast will beat the slow, and the big need to be as nimble as the small – a perspective that is sure to bring the winning edge to a truly iconic brand.