Subhash Chandra, the promoter of Essel Group and ZEE, is an unlikely mogul. Hailing from a small town in Haryana, where his family ran grain mills, Chandra has been a perennial outsider, repeatedly aiming high and breaking into businesses where he was considered an interloper.
Starting work as a teen to pay off family debts, Chandra had to rely on bluff, gumption and sheer hard toil to turn things around. A little bit of luck and political patronage saw him make a fortune in rice exports to the erstwhile USSR.
Always a risk-taker, Chandra then had the vision of getting into broadcasting early, even as established media players failed to see its potential. His Zee TV, India’s first private Indian TV channel, changed the rules of the game and tickled the fancy of a public starved of entertainment.
Several gutsy initiatives followed, though not all of them were successful. Chandra’s attempts to launch satellite telephony and a cricket league came a cropper. But the man continues to reinvent himself; he is now also focusing on infrastructure and smart cities.
This is an unusually candid memoir of a truly desi self-made businessman who came to Delhi at age twenty with seventeen rupees in his pocket. Today, he has a net worth of $6.3 billion and annual group revenues of in excess of $3 billion.
From the book:
IT WAS 14 DECEMBER 1991 when Ashok Kurien of Ambience ad agency and I reached Star TV’s office in Hong Kong. There were ten to twelve senior and junior executives in the room. Richard Li, head of Star TV, was not there. So we waited awhile. It was like waiting for the king to come in and give his blessings.
Richard walked in suddenly and sat opposite me. ‘OK, Indian channel … Hindi channel. Where is the money in India? ’ Richard was very dismissive. ‘I am not interested in a joint venture.’
Most of us in the room, including his executives, were shocked. It appeared that Richard had already made up his mind about the futility of the project.
So I addressed him directly. ‘Mr Li, if you are not interested in the joint venture, can you consider leasing the [satellite] transponder to us?’
‘There is no transponder available for less than $5 million per year,’ Richard said. It was a haughty statement to put me off.
‘That is fine. I will pay $5 million!’ It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I did not realize the implication of what I had said …
Subhash Chandra is the promoter of ZEE and Essel Group of companies, which is a major player in the fields of media and entertainment, packaging, technology, infrastructure and education.
Twitter handle: @_SubhashChandra
Pranjal Sharma has been in print, digital and TV media for twenty-five years. He has led teams at India Today Group and CNBC Network 18, and was founding executive editor of Bloomberg TV in India. He currently writes for Businessworld and hosts a show for Zee Business.
Twitter handle: @pranjalsharma