Shiraz Gidwani is the chief executive of Iktara World, a Dubai-based conglomerate with interests in various industries around the world. A man of many hats, he hails from a lineage of successful business, and has headed a project for the United Nations Youth Development Programme and served as ‘Chief Nandoca’ at Nando’s before founding the Iktara Group in 2009. Breaking regular norms, Shiraz built a global business empire under various entities, the newest being Iktara Health. Its focus initially is to roll out a series of luxury fitness retreats, with the first being at the Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. A celebrated speaker, he has spoken around the world and was invited to lead a delegation of Indian business leaders to Pakistan as well as the deliver a keynote address at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. This month, You & I spoke to Shiraz about life, work and family.
Tell us about the Iktara Fitness Retreat at the Taj Falaknuma Palace.
It is an alternative vacation that combines health and luxury. Usually on holiday, you tend to put on some weight. At this retreat, you check into the palace, are treated to gourmet fine dining cuisine prepared by palace chefs, stay active for eight hours a day, and come away feeling healthier and having shed considerable weight. The activities can be a combination of yoga, meditation, swimming, weight training and cardio, or even just walk in the palace lawns. We have taken a wonderful patented program from the US, which should yield results of about 10 kg of weight loss in two weeks. The minimum stay is seven days, but we have had a guests stay with us for over three months and lose about 40 kg. While some guests are looking to lose weight, others may want a vacation and return home healthy and refreshed. I won’t call it a detox, but rather an alternative vacation. And the most exciting part about setting it up at the Falaknuma is that it changes perceptions.
How is that?
When you traditionally think of such programs, you think of a spa destination, not a major city like Hyderabad. But the Taj Falaknuma Palace is so unique in many ways. It is in Hyderabad yet not in Hyderabad. If you want to experience the culture, you have a major Indian city rich in heritage at your doorstep. However, if you want to be disconnected, you can easily spend weeks here and still never run out of things to do. We are excited about partnering with the Falaknuma to add a new dimension to the city of Hyderabad.
How did you conceive the idea of a luxury fitness retreat?
It all began in America, where I attended a similar program. A friend of mine pushed me to try it as an alternative vacation. The program itself was very effective but where it lacked were the hospitality experience and the luxury component. I was eating from a plastic container and staying in a standard room, even though the program charges were exorbitant. When you are active for eight hours a day, you want to be pampered; you want someone to think about adding special touches to your stay. I knew instantly that we had before us an exciting opportunity. We did countless hours of research, looking at other properties that run similar programs. We noticed a common thread: none of them offered a luxury product. It created a unique segment for us, while still retaining a price point competitive with those around the world.
How did you come to partner the Taj?
Our partnership with the Taj has been exceptional from the beginning. You see, our DNA and theirs match. Both of us believe in delivering a hospitality experience that is second to none. Adding to that, the Jiva Spa at the Falaknuma is among the best in the world. Many hotels we looked at didn’t offer a world-class spa experience, and there is nothing like unwinding with some pampering at the spa after eight hours of being active.
What plans do you have for the future?
The retreat at the Falaknuma is the first of many to come. This is a ten-year plan, and we hope to grow our partnership with the Taj Group. Among other things, Jiva is a strong brand with tested products, and therefore the perfect marriage between what we are trying to create and what they already offer at their Taj hotels. Growing together makes business sense. Our partnership is so special that we often do not feel like we are two separate entities at all.
If we are talking luxury, surely personal touches are involved.
A hotelier myself, I have taken a keen personal interest in this product and the delivery of the highest standards of excellence. Every aspect of the stay, from carefully selected healthy meals to the exceptional warmth and hospitality, has been personally addressed and implemented by our handpicked team. To give you an example, prior to a guest’s arrival, we will ask for a list of movies they would wish to watch during their stay. When they step onto a treadmill, their list of movies will be available on their personal screen. When they return to the treadmill the next day, the movie will play from where they left off. We call it ‘cardio cinema’. These are the touches and attention to detail that we are confident will deliver an unparalleled experience to every guest.
You have started so many ventures in such a short time period. What was your inspiration?
My greatest strength comes from my mentor, Dr. Shashi Tharoor. He taught me so much of what I know today. His family has been my family, as well as a tremendous source of inspiration. The greatest boss one could ever have, he is today one of my dearest and most trusted friends. In addition to him, my grandfather and father have given a direction to my life that I am blessed to have received.
Tell us more about the Iktara Group.
At Iktara, we have always prided ourselves on doing things differently. When the world goes one way, we go the other. Even when we talk about the retreat, we are not afraid to recognise the likes of Ananda and Jindal. That said, we know that we are creating a unique segment. If you are willing to do what no one is willing to and go where no one else has, you will achieve what no one else has been able to. We have very successfully embodied those values throughout the Iktara Group. We have wide-ranging interests in everything from media to hospitality to financial services to corporate travel. We have just acquired a coffee plantation in Panama and a sugar plantation in Mauritius, and we entered the plastics industry in India last year.
You must have some interesting stories to share!
Until not very long ago, one of my assistants handled all my travel. Catherine’s job was to keep me moving, a tough task considering I am on the move 22 days a month! And when I travel, I move with a small army of people, so the logistics of coordinating all our travel plans is a colossal job. I asked her to move beyond my office and handle group-wide travel.
One day when I was heading back home to Dubai, I was surprised to see the president of one of America’s largest corporations in the lounge. I had been with him the previous day at a board meeting, and he was scheduled to fly through Dubai that same night. He had missed his flight, and as it was a Sunday and his office in Atlanta was closed, he had to go through the tortuous task of rebooking his own seats on connecting flights, something he hadn’t done himself in over ten years!
It made me realise that many corporations handle their travel through a centralised head office, and if that is not functioning in the middle of the night or over a weekend, it could be a cause of great anxiety for people like him. We have offices across the world, so we moved Catherine to Chicago – a great central hub – and created a boutique travel agency for corporate travel, with representatives in many of our global offices. At any time of any day, there is always someone to answer a call and address a travel request.
Cathy was thrilled to have gone from being one of my assistants to being the profit-sharing CEO of a travel hub. We spent about $160,000 creating Iktara Banjara and in one year, she has generated revenues of close to $2 million. It was simply a gap that needed to be filled. Similarly, we find interesting opportunities and get cracking on them. I have a fantastic special projects team in place that can move on an opportunity with no lead time. This is one of many things that make us uniquely Iktara.
How do you know if an idea will work?
When we look at a seed, we the beautiful tree it can grow into. We nurture it, and that it has given us fruit time and again is testament to the growth of the Iktara Group.
What are your own work processes like?
I’m always at work! But I enjoy what I do, and my people are like my family. I know all about them: birthdays, special occasions, a child that is unwell; and I don’t think of them as just staff. Go to any major corporation, and you will find the boss sitting all the way at the back in an office guarded by gatekeepers. Come to Iktara headquarters, and mine is the first office you will see, complete with glass walls. You don’t have to go through a bank of assistants to reach me. Everyone is always welcome.
You have so many ventures. How do you keep track of it all?
Relationships matter more to us than money. The way we do business is different. I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of our companies. Each entity has its own CEO, all of whom report to me twice a year, and I in turn report to the board. They only call me when something is seriously wrong and requires my intervention. This allows me to focus on new projects, ventures and expansions. Eventually, ten years from now, I hope to retire, drop my children off at school and play a round of golf before picking them up, spending the rest of the day doing homework and with cuddle time!
What about family time now?
Mum and dad live in Dubai. We moved there from Kuwait after the Gulf War. I was born in Kuwait, as was my father, so the Middle East is very much home for us. My brother Aaryan is a singer and musician, and the little one Chavez is studying in the UK, but every Friday we make it a point to have lunch together. Even if I’m in New York, I will fly home to be with the family. Family always comes first.
– as told to Rahul