Datuk R Doraisingam built The Lotus Group and its restaurants, cinemas, hotels and resorts from scratch. Now, the time has come for his son Karthiik to join him and write a new chapter together.
Family businesses are big and challenging.
Just ask Karthiik Doraisingam, son of Datuk R Doraisingam Pillai, the founder of the ubiquitous Lotus Group in Malaysia. Yes, that’s the same Lotus Group behind the iconic chain of Indian restaurants, cinemas and movie distribution, five-star resorts as well as business hotels, plantation, real estate and more recently, construction, nursing and aged care services. Lotus Group is a big and challenging family-owned business and it is now part of Karthiik’s life since he stepped into the Group as Chief Financial Officer in 2016.
“My father told me he’ll buy me a car if I came back to work for him,” Karthiik tells us with a chuckle. “I wanted a sports car, but he didn’t get me a sports car. Knowing my protective father, I am sure it was due to safety reasons.”
Sports car or not, Karthiik recognises now that returning home from years in the US and a job that had been lined up for him in London is now “a decision for the best” – even if he came back to work at the front desk and occasionally do dishes at the Lotus Desaru Beach Resort & Spa in Johor.
“That was his training ground,” Datuk Doraisingam said matter-of-factly. “He’s not going to come back and be sitting in the boss’s office. He has to start from the ground up to learn how the business operates.”
Karthiik just smiles next to the man he’s looked up to his whole life, as much as he is the same person who is harder on him than anyone.
“I knew eventually that I will be joining the Group, but I didn’t think it will be that soon,” Karthiik admits. “I had the pressure to live up to his expectations, but I can’t think of anyone else to learn from. He’s the personification of the hard life and making your way up through sheer hard work and determination.”
A self-made man
In 1987, a young and driven R Doraisingam made the bold decision to take everything he had and moved to Kuala Lumpur from Penang. Immediately he picked up on how there were not any home-style Indian restaurants in his new city and started The Lotus Family Restaurant in Jalan Gasing that would become the icon that PJ dwellers know today.
“There was no competition back then,” Datuk Doraisingam recalls proudly. “We were the first banana leaf restaurant in KL with the bowtie waiters and full service.”
Over the next ten years, 22 more restaurants would be added to the repertoire, all made possible with insider help of his wife and three siblings. Concurrently, the F&B group was also the sole corporate caterer to the Sony TV and Video factory in Shah Alam, feeding up to 13,000 people a day at its 24-hour cafeteria.
Seeing potential in other fields, The Lotus Group started distributing first Tamil and then English and Chinese movies before expanding with its own brand of cinemas, Lotus Five Star (LFS) Cinemas. Building life-long connections with Hong Kong producers like Raymond Wong led to friendships with superstars like Donnie Yen and an unbroken trust to distribute all of Raymond Wong’s films in Malaysia.
Never one to get complacent, Datuk Doraisingam subsequently spearheaded the Group into the tourism, plantation and real estate industries over the course of the next 20 years.
It hasn’t been an easy journey and it was only made possible through hard work by his own two hands.
“I used to work 20 hours a day,” Datuk Doraisingam shares. “I take care of the purchasing role for the restaurants at 4 am everyday. When I was running the industrial catering business, I made bulk purchases from my suppliers as well as the negotiating for the best pricing. I’ll go and scrutinise the goods personally to choose the best and most fresh produce of the day.”
That personal touch equated to exponential savings for the F&B group. On a monthly basis, he was able to save the Group up to half a million ringgit on choice produce and more.
Knowing your business like the back of your own hand is key to success for Datuk Doraisingam. Knowing it well allows him to take the right risks, which is what he likes best about it. “No risk means no fun, I tell you,” he quips.
He also counts being in an abundant country like Malaysia as one of the factors for the Group’s success. “There’s a lot of potential for business in Malaysia. Everything you do, there’s a lot of opportunity for success if you work hard. I’ve travelled all over the world, but our opportunities and resources here are unrivalled. You can survive and make something for yourself so long as you are willing to put in the hard work.”
Which was why when it came time, he was adamant that his son Karthiik joined him in the business here in their home, Malaysia.
The passing of the torch
As the second child and only son of Datuk Doraisingam, Karthiik always knew the day would come when he would have to join his father in the family business. He’s spent enough weekends and school holidays in his father’s office to know it was exposure for an eventual official welcome.
“I always enjoyed spending time with my dad in the office,” Karthiik lets on. “On Saturdays and Sundays, or after school, I’ll be in the office with him. I knew his style of working, his team and his mode of operations from a very young age. He wanted to expose me to it.”
After three years in the US completing his undergraduate studies, the time had arrived. His father asked for him to return despite Karthiik already having a job offer waiting in London. When Karthiik agreed, it wasn’t a smooth walk in the park either.
He was shipped immediately off to Johor to learn the ropes in the Lotus Desaru Beach Resort there, beginning from the bottom and moved to every department across the duration of a year before he could earn his place as group CFO.
“The first thing that he made me do was to shave off my beard,” Karthiik reveals humorously. “I was in the front office dealing with the hotel guests, hence a proper presentable appearance is required. Now I know the whole system from check-in, pushing the buggy, everything.”
Once he found his spot at the head office back in Kuala Lumpur, Karthiik wasted no time in implementing changes to rejuvenate his father’s brand. He saw to a total rebranding for a fresher image that will reflect the many areas of businesses, changed the logo for a more updated look and transformed the company from a traditional F&B business into a diversified group.
Internally, Karthiik also computerized and streamlined a lot of the processes to facilitate the day-to-day business operations. This includes implementing more efficient cost elimination in the purchasing activities utilizing his background in Finance and growing the cinemas arm more efficiently in terms of business development.
When his father brought up the idea of building retirement homes, Karthiik was ready.
“My dad has always wanted to go into it because there is a rising demand for aged care,” Karthiik reveals. “He always said that we should go into this industry so I said I’ll execute it for him.”
With a budget from his father, Karthiik drew up the plan and paperwork, picked the team, scouted for locations, engaged with the contractors and skilled workers and came up with Lotus Care Premium Assisted Living, the group’s first facility located in Petaling Jaya city centre. Three more are in the pipelines, spread across Penang, Melaka and Johor offering up to 2,000 beds at any time.
“I did everything A-Z. Working with the budget that he gave, I had complete freedom to build it as how I envisioned it,” he recalls with enthusiasm.
Karthiik now looks forward to working hand in hand with his father to bring the Group forward in more instances like this, which he counts as among the most rewarding life experiences.
“Coming back was the best choice, in hindsight. I would never have gotten this opportunity to build something new from a conception of an idea otherwise,” he says.
Father, mentor, confidante
Father and son were never close when Karthiik was growing up. He remembers his father as a strict figure who was out of the house early in the morning and wasn’t home till late. In recent years, being in business together has developed a bond between them.
Karthiik is getting a lot of insight into his old man and why he is the way he is and treasures this prized relationship he has nurtured with his father.
“He’s all about hard work as he is a very hardworking and diligent man,” Karthiik reveals. “RM10 means a lot to him since he started everything from scratch.”
Working side by side with his dad has also presented him with the chance to learn priceless lessons that no book or an top business school can teach, particularly the people aspect of the business. Karthiik elaborates: “The F&B business is very labour intensive. We somehow manage to keep a very high retention rate among our staff. He’s taught me how to manage them well.”
Most of all, Karthiik is grateful that his father has always allowed him creative freedom to test out any ideas that he has in mind. “I always had the liberty to try out something I want to do. If it works, it’s a new way of doing things. If it doesn’t, we go back to his style. That’s how we learned from each other,” Karthiik shares. “While he lets me try out my ideas, I’ve come to realise that experience makes a lot of difference in saving us from costly mistakes. My dad has been in this line for the longest time so naturally he knows what works and what doesn’t really. But he’ll still give me the chance to try out something I have in mind, which I appreciate.”
Datuk Doraisingam smiles quietly next to his son as he says this. “When I saw him upon his return from his studies overseas, I had the faith in him that he will do well,” he says. “He was a completely different man after returning from the US. I am confident that he will take the Group and make it ten times more of what it is now.”
Hearing this must mean a lot for Karthiik who names his father as “the person he looks up to the most”. He confirms it when asked: “The reason that I wanted to join the business is because of him. I like how he runs things. He can manage stress in any situation. I hope that I can pick up some of his patience in making vital decisions and his hardworking style. We both are quite alike in terms of our thinking and how we approach the business. He has a thing where he looks at one business idea and knows if it can potentially work or not. My role is to do the due diligence part which is the back-of-the-house work.”
His father nods in agreement next to him. “As a father, I’m very proud of all my three children. That’s what my dream was, to be a father who can teach my children something valuable and leave them a legacy. I’m so happy to see them all involved in the Group’s businesses, being educated and on the right path to life. Karthiik has changed the entire business with his innovative new ideas. He knows exactly what I want, he sees my direction and we share the same vision for the continued growth and success of The Lotus Group.”
Photography: Edmund Lee of Vinca Photography
Art direction and styling: Anson Siau
Hair and grooming: Jacquelyn Tan