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BW Businessworld

Leap Of Faith

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Haresh Chawla, former group CEO of Network18 and Viacom18, took the media industry by surprise when he announced in November 2011 that he was quitting the Raghav Bahl-promoted conglomerate. Chawla was then at the pinnacle of his career. He did not take calls and his cellphone was switched off. But he was not sulking at home.

By 15 February 2012, Chawla was out of Network18. The next day, he flew to Buenos Aires and then to Ushuaia, the southern-most tip of Argentina, and the staging point for Antarctic cruises. On a ship with a reinforced hull, he joined a boatload of conservationists to explore the southern continent. “We met small communities of explorers, and saw thousands of penguins. We lived on the ship, venturing out during the endless daylight. It was my first genuine holiday in 10 years,” says Chawla, describing his adventures.

Chawla had left behind a legacy of rapid growth in a clutch of media and entertainment verticals. After short stints between 1996 and 1999 with Amitabh Bachchan’s ABCL and as head of Times Music, he joined Bahl when he was setting up the business news channel CNBC-TV18 in 1999. In the years that followed, he became Bahl’s most trusted lieutenant and partner. “From a small single-channel operation with revenues of just Rs 15 crore, we grew to become a Rs 3,000-crore conglomerate with a presence in almost every branch of media,” says Chawla.

He was there at each milestone. Ahead of TV18’s launch of its general English news channel CNN-IBN in December 2005, Chawla pre-empted NDTV’s bid to bring on board the US news giant CNN. He flew to Atlanta and successfully convinced the CNN brass to go with Network18. Chawla later scripted the 50:50 partnership between Viacom and Network18 in 2007, which brought channels like Nickelodeon and MTV under one roof. “Viacom was a failing company in India with revenues of around Rs 100 crore; today the JV generates a topline of Rs 1,400 crore.”
POINT OF ENTRY: Haresh Chawla joins Raghav Bahl in setting up CNBC-TV18 in 1999
BIG MOMENTS: Draws CNN away from NDTV and towards Network18. CNN-IBN is launched in December 2005. Brings Viacom and Network18 together in 2007
NEW CHAPTER: Leaves Network18 after 12 years to become a partner at India Value Fund Advisors
The firm looks at mid-size businesses, while Chawla invests in start-ups in a personal capacity
When Colors launched in July 2008, it was the last in the queue for the coveted Hindi entertainment market. Few expected it to succeed. But with good programming, and an expensive marketing blitz, Colors was at No.1 in March 2009. “You don’t take a knife to a gunfight. In this industry, there is no second chance. You make it in the first shot, or fall by the wayside,” he recounts.

Where Chawla failed was in his attempt to make Network18 a big publishing house. He convinced Financial Times to snap ties with Business Standard, but FT’s India launch (2008-09) failed after the senior editorial team (largely from the Times Group) backed out of jumping ship.

What was it that ended the Bahl-Chawla dream run? Bahl, announcing Chawla’s departure on 10 November 2011, heaped plaudits on him, acknowledging: “Haresh is the kind of colleague one can only dream about; so utterly honest, committed and focused on delivering excellence.” Behind the shroud of public utterances, speculation was rife that Mukesh Ambani’s buying into Network18, announced on 2 January 2012, was the root cause. Chawla did not speak about his exit then.

Now, for the first time since his resignation, he spoke candidly to BW. “There was a fork in the road; Raghav and I decided to take different paths.” He also acknowledged that it was not a long-thought-out decision. “It was not a very complex decision. It was one of those things you do when you wake up. I just felt I did not want to engage with them… (the Ambanis).”

Did Chawla know what was brewing between Reliance Industries and Network18? “Yes, Raghav laid the full picture on the table. It’s just that I decided to opt out. That is why I thought it better to leave before the announcement rather than after, which would have queered the pitch.”

A New Life
These days, Chawla is a lot more relaxed. As a partner at India Value Fund Advisors (IVFA), Chawla works a 5-day week, gives his family time on weekends and has shaken off the devil-on-my-heels look. As a fund manager, the pace may have slowed but there is variety. “From media and entertainment, it is now many businesses — on some days, it is apparel and food, on others it is logistics. Investments are my forte,” he says, adding, “We believe in entering where we are in a firm majority or at least a significant minority. So, our thinking is long term. Typically, 10-12 years is the lifecycle of our funds.”

Founded in 1999 by Vishal Nevatia, IVFA has $1.3 billion under management, spread over four funds. Using an ‘invest-and-build model’, Chawla and his other partners focus on mid-size businesses — investing in them and building large and profitable, professionally-run enterprises over a 7 to 9-year cycle. IVFA investments straddle a spectrum that includes Radio City, Meru Cabs and InLogistics. In the past, the fund has invested and exited from companies such as Shringar Films and DQ Entertainment.

Chawla has also emerged as a mentor for start-ups spawned by young and energetic entrepreneurs who are looking to become game-changers. “I help them understand what is likely to succeed, and how to raise funds and market themselves.” One such start-up that he mentored and invested in personally is the home rental portal, put together by a group of IIT graduates.

Chawla believes the next wave of large enterprises will emerge from successful start-ups. “There is an entire sub-culture of entrepreneurship among the young who have a pure Silicon Valley start-up mind-set. This is what promises growth.”


(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 22-04-2013)