It takes the instincts of a trained cook, coupled with the sharp mind of a businessman, to create a diversified Rs 300 crore business group with an investment of just Rs 1,400. Meghraj Singh Shekhawat, 54, had just these traits. His MRS Group of Companies today has stakes in infrastructure, mining, and hospitality. In the next few years, he wants to add a 600 acre township on the outskirts of Jaipur to his business empire; at least two more hotels; as well as a number of infrastructure contracts. Not bad going for a man who was once on the verge of pawning his wife’s jewellery to chase his dreams.

I was a cook for 10 years, working at several places including the Ram Bagh Palace and the Governor’s House in Jaipur, and, earlier, the Greek embassy in Bahrain.

I wasn’t always supposed to be a chef. If my father had his way, I’d be a teacher today! In 1977, when I passed the Class 10 exam, my father sent me for a teacher’s training test, but I couldn’t reach on time. Instead, I saw an advertisement asking for students to take a hotel management course. So I did. While training at the Ram Bagh Palace (a Taj property), I got the opportunity to go to Dusseldorf, Germany, but missed the deadline to send my application. I was determined to go abroad. Bahrain happened in 1981, on a salary of Rs 1,800. But within two years, I returned to India, married. My father was unhappy because he saw me as an unstable person who had left a good job. I wanted to prove him wrong.

During my stint at the Governor’s House someone suggested that I start a hotel in Jaisalmer. The desert town was emerging as a top-dollar tourist destination, and there were no big hotels there in the 1980s. In 1992, the 67-room Gorbandh Palace was the first five-star hotel there, built and operated by me, with some partners and my brother-in-law Dilip Singh.

With Rs 1,400 in my pocket, I started looking for a place to open a restaurant. The number of foreigners flocking to Jaisalmer, about 600 km from Ganganagar where I was born, was increasing. But the place didn’t have a decent hotel. Narayan Vilas, a camel stable of the Bikaner royal palace, was up on rent for Rs 80,000 a year. My father refused to give me money, saying that I could not be trusted with business. I left home to pawn my wife’s jewellery, when a family friend stopped me. He lent me Rs 35,000, from which I paid Rs 25,000 as rent for the stable and bought utensils and upholstery with the rest to start a venture.

My first customers were a group of Germans, who did not like the property because it was still a stable. But the food and service earned me a Cartier watch as tip. It encouraged me to start a restaurant called Trio in 1986.

I must admit it is more fun doing business not with your own money, but when you are running to pay back your lenders. It reduces the chances of making mistakes as they can be ruthless in their recovery.

Later, I expanded my horizon, when I diversified into liquor, sand, and marble businesses. By 1998, when I had piled up a debt of Rs 7 crore, I was pressured to put a hotel on the block and exit the liquor business to turn solvent. All the ventures I entered are perceived to have different shades of grey and black money in them, with an unholy nexus between politicians, strongmen, and corrupt middlemen.
In the late 80s, the government was fighting against illegal breweries and the liquor mafia. I hired locals, made them partners in the business, and worked with the excise department to join the fight.

I have followed some management principles from the beginning, improvising on them as I have gone along. I made people—from lenders to grassroots-level workers—stakeholders in my businesses. And shared the profits with them. That helped. I earned the loyalty of my employees; they helped curb illegal practices and solved day-to-day issues proactively. So much so that when I exited the liquor business, some of my employees acquired it.

Today I am into many businesses, such as road-building and toll collection, but my heart beats for hospitality. I look to my sons Manvendra and Raghvendra to carry my dreams forward. Suryagarh in Jaisalmer is the big leap. It is a desert life experience, starting with a stay in an opulent palace, enjoying the Rajasthani Kalbalia dance on the sand dunes in the dead of night, and going on a desert trail to look for dinosaur fossils.

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