The Wizard of Free Kick ; VA Ajmal
By Ranjit L. Morris
In the annals of world soccer, yesteryear Dutch footballer Ruud Gullit is always remembered as an accurate free-kick taker. Halfway around the world in the Indian state of Kerala, a die-hard fan of this versatile player is employing the same skills in the entrepreneurial arena. VA Ajmal, who climbed unconquered heights in the retail industry in Kerala and blazed a bright trail, has now set the ball rolling on an altogether new turf. In an exclusive interview with Unique Times, this Kochi-based business magnate opens up on his new voyage into the unexplored realms of the hospitality industry armed with his proverbial Midas touch.
An astute businessman and a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Netherlands team in world soccer, VA Ajmal is all set to take the shot with confidence in the altogether new field of boutique resorts, a novel concept that is yet to become a fad in God’s Own Country. Zealously clinging to the adage that fortune favours the brave, he has taken the leap of faith by launching Alpz Properties to tap the vast unmeasured potential of the new vistas and trends in the hospitality industry.
Unlocking the Potential of Boutique Resorts
Speaking to Unique Times, VA Ajmal said that his group is going to set up boutique resorts in major tourist destinations of south India to make the most of this trend that is bourgeoning elsewhere in India and abroad. They comprise small resorts that provide personalized, exclusive hospitality to a close-knit group of guests with all trappings of luxury. “Instead of going for big resorts, we go for a villa-style property with all top-notch amenities for one small group at a time—be it families, friends, or corporate gatherings,” he explained.
According to the veteran businessman, who began his innings as the uncrowned czar of the white goods and food retail segment at the dawn of the millennium, his Alpz Properties is investing Rs 250 crore in hospitality. His boutique resorts are slated to come up in picture-postcard locations such as Kuttikkanam, Vagamon, Munnar, Bekal, Alappuzha, Panangad, Varkala, Muthalamada and Wayanad in Kerala. He is planning to roll out six properties by the end of next year as part of Phase 1. Plans are also afoot to open the remaining within the next couple of years.
VA Ajmal said in the interview that boutique resorts are ideal for birthday bashes, office parties, and friends and family get-togethers. “They are even ideal for a destination wedding,” he quipped, adding that clients will be pampered with a spa facility and Ayurvedic relaxation therapy.
As far as special amenities are concerned, Alpz Properties’ properties will have temperature-controlled pools for the comfort of the guests. Replying to the question as to why he chose the name Alpz, VA Ajmal said the Alps mountain range in Europe stands for pristineness and purity. The same qualities will be imbibed by each property once it is completed, he added.
“We are going to directly create around 250 to 300 jobs in the 10 properties that are coming up. At least 20 staff in each property. Several people stand to benefit indirectly from each boutique resort,” said VA Ajmal about the job opportunities on the anvil. A visionary par excellence, he is also eying properties in Goa, Ooty and Kodagu and planning is underway to set up boutique resorts in these places too.
When asked about the hallmarks of his dream properties, he said each resort will have a pool and a king-size hall for entertainment and socializing. “This provides that exclusive, private feel to the guests who come from within Kerala, other states and abroad,” said VA Ajmal. He added that there will be provisions for indoor games in the hall to ensure that the group renting the entire facility spends much time together socializing.
A connoisseur of haute cuisine and ethnic delicacies, VA Ajmal explained how the culinary sensibilities and sensitivities of each visiting group are respected. Each resort will have an exclusive chef to finetune the culinary spread to suit the fancies of each group. The chef and assistant will be arranged based on the visiting group’s dining preferences. The multi-cuisine spread is sure to pamper and seduce one’s taste buds.
Eco-Friendly to the Hilt
Be it in the hills or by the seashore, each property of Alpz is unique in terms of eco-friendliness and design. “We have a team of architects to design each resort in such a way that it does not stand out like a sore thumb. It gels with the terrain and the ecosystem. Each property will be no more than two storeys in height to minimize the impact on the environment,” said Ajmal who is very conscious of preserving the eco-system. Mediterranean, Swiss chalet and Kerala are some of the architectural styles being implemented in the properties.
His environmental concern and farsightedness have resulted in a unique project to cater to the power needs of his upcoming ventures. The group has sufficient land in Kasaragod district to set up a solar panel field for Alpz Properties. The energy production will be utilized in all properties of the group.
His penchant for farms and plantations inherited from his role model and maternal grandfather M.K. Kochumakkar has made Ajmal promote farm tourism in each boutique resort. There will be organic farming and livestock on all properties. Provisions will be made to make the guests experience farm and plantation tours, said VA Ajmal, who also owns Alpz Gourmet, which brings out a whole range of top-quality dairy products.
But Why Hospitality?
When asked why he chose to tread differently and choose hospitality, pat came Ajmal’s reply that he observed the post-COVID trends in travel and sensed a vast potential waiting to be tapped. “The pandemic changed the perception of people towards traveling for leisure to new destinations. It has gained momentum,” he said, adding that an exceptionally high number of visitors can be seen during the tourist season in Kerala.
When asked about long-term goals spanning the next 10 years, VA Ajmal said Alpz Properties is planning to expand on a pan-India basis across various tourist hotspots. “We wish to convert it into a brand something like the Taj Group’s Ama Stays and Trails,” he quipped with a smile of confidence.
Inspiration and Success Mantra
Ajmal’s entrepreneurial journey was spurned by his maternal grandfather M.K. Kochumakkar who was a government forest contractor and planter. Entrepreneurship is therefore in my genes and he was an inspiration indeed, said the trailblazing entrepreneur. “Being a planter, he infused in me the love for nature, farms and activities related to it. He was actively involved in social causes in his hometown of Erattupetta, especially education, in those days. I am following in his footsteps,” he said, adding that he began his entrepreneurial journey along with his father-in-law V.A. Yousuf. Ajmal also recollected the encouragement and blessings of his father V.A. Abdul Hameed, Retd Chief Engineer, PWD, when he started his career after completing his engineering studies.
When he was asked about the success mantra that keeps him charged, Ajmal pointed to hard work and loyalty, which go hand in hand. For any business to succeed, hard work is the main factor. One also needs to be loyal. Loyalty has more value than money in business,” he said with the tone of a savant. “This enterprise is a fellowship of sorts. The staff and the suppliers should have trust in the owner and the outcome is good quality paving the way for success. It is the same in the retail industry. Quality is what builds a brand and not marketing gimmicks such as offers.”
He added that he spared no effort in keeping the workforce and suppliers happy. When both of them are happy, then it reflects in our customers too. It is the quality of service that fetches new customers by word of mouth, he explained.
In the interview, Ajmal was asked how he juggled work and family finding time for both. With a smile, he said business was something that he enjoyed like a passion. “However, I never bring home stress from my business life. I am basically a family man,” he said. His pillars of support are his wife, Shabani, daughter, Asheekha, and son, Mohamed Yousuf. While his daughter is based in the UAE with her husband, Mohamed Ijaz V.K., a businessman, and son Taimur Ozil, Yousuf is a Class XII student.
In spite of his busy schedule, Ajmal pampers the soccer fan within him by watching matches on TV. After a childhood watching the awesome trio Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard of Holland in action, he became a staunch fan of the Netherlands Team. Ever since the World Cup was hosted in Japan and South Korea in 2002, he has made it a point to fly to the host nation and watch some matches.
If not watching soccer on television, Ajmal will be busy engrossed in a movie or a historical series on Netflix. In fact, he finds time to watch movies, especially Malayalam flicks.
The Tryst with the Toque and Wok
While not in the company of his laptop poring over balance sheets or relaxing in front of the smart TV, one can be assured that he is in the kitchen whipping up gastronomic delights for his loved ones. “I love cooking. It is a good way to relax,” explained Ajmal. An avid foodie who indulges in restaurant hopping to try various exotic dishes, this food lover tries to replicate those dishes in his kitchen. He loves treating his family to his signature biryanis and fried chicken. Ajmal also exercises his sweet creativity by baking cakes, biscuits and bread. Well, ask him about comfort food and promptly comes the reply: warm n’ crispy uzhunnu vada (fried savoury south Indian doughnut) and a piping-hot glass of tea.
Travel Fuels Innovation
VA Ajmal is the master of innovation and that is one of the key ingredients of success in the brands he has created. He credits his globetrotting for his treasure trove of innovative ideas. “I keenly observe good practices wherever I go. If it is a store, I observe the facilities on offer, the neatness, spaciousness and get inspired to implement them back home,” he said with pride.
Although VA Ajmal has travelled to almost all major countries, Dubai still remains his favourite destination. “Why because it is the ‘capital of Kerala’,” he said jokingly. “Because at the end of the day, you are a Malayali. In Dubai, when you step out early in the morning, you can spot Malayali tea kiosks at every nook and cranny serving you top-quality chai better than the ones you get in Kerala. You can sit there and sip your chai while conversing in Malayalam with fellow customers. It was because of Dubai and other Emirates that we flourished,” he added. New Zealand, which is halfway around the world, is also his favourite destination for the simple reason that it is picturesque, calm and alluring.
As he remains at the helm of his Group with the wind in his sail, VA Ajmal’s eyes are never off the horizon as they are constantly on the search for new shores!