THE most unusual aspect of Ajit Kerkar's quite amazing career is that hardly anyone knows anything about it. Obsessive about maintaining a low profile, the man who has single-handedly built the Taj group of hotels remains a shadowy and intriguing figure.
Unfortunately, his achievements too are, as a result, little-known. For this is the man who, among other things, has conjured up some of the classiest hotels in the world, like the Lake Palace at Udaipur, built up a 50-hotel global chain from one Mumbai property, and virtually created Goa as an international tourist destination.
Dropped smack at the centre of the badly-run Bombay Taj at the age of 28, Kerkar whipped it into shape and then started building a chain. When the Tatas refused to finance his expansion plans, he just went ahead by setting up different companies with different partners. In the early '70s, when he decided to set up a beach resort at Goa and the Tatas again refused to cough up the money, he, stunningly, convinced wealthy customers of the Bombay Taj to come in as partners in the project. The Fort Aguada resort, the first five-star property in Goa, opened in 1974 and put the state on the international tourism map, something we take as a given today. By the '80s, when the Taj group owned several hotels in Europe and the US, Kerkar had achieved demigod status within his empire, commanding intense loyalty among his juniors, from senior managers to the menial help.
Things soured for this favourite manager of JRD's when Ratan Tata took over. Kerkar could see no reason why he should listen to Ratan when the Tatas had contributed nothing at all to the Taj group, while Ratan Tata reportedly suspected that Kerkar was corrupt. When Tata asked the Taj group to pay a fee to Tata Sons for the use of the Tata brand name (which the Taj group, in fact, does not use), relations hit a new low. In recent months, say top insiders, Tata and Kerkar have not even been on talking terms.