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BW Businessworld

‘Running A Media Empire Is Like Running A Government’

On the eve of the 90th anniversary celebrations of the Group, its Chairman Subhash Chandra speaks to BW Businessworld on the Group’s initiatives towards nation-building and how values inculcated right at the beginning of the journey always stay the same

Photo Credit : Umesh Goswami

The Essel Group spans several sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, media, education, housing and has a presence in 172 countries. From humble beginnings to a $4.1 billion company (in Group revenues), the Essel Group has really come a long way. On the eve of the 90th anniversary celebrations of the Group, its Chairman Subhash Chandra (66) speaks to BW Businessworld’s Suman K. Jha on the Group’s initiatives towards nation-building and how values inculcated right at the beginning of the journey always stay the same.

Edited Excerpts:

What are the values that your family and the Essel Group have inculcated in the journey in the last nine decades?

One, the ‘shake hand’ agreement is far solid than the written agreement, so keep your commitment. Two, be honest. When you are dealing for a client, and you are trading on their behalf, temptations can come in; don’t give in. Finally, since ours has been a joint family, respecting an individual is very important. We are very proud that these values have stayed with us even today.

Essel Group is a family-run business with corporate ethos. How have you kept the families together, and what have been the challenges in the long run?
There have been times when we have had stress, particularly after we entered the media business. The stress came because every friend or relative wanted to make a programme for the channel. Everyone had an opinion on the programming. Every person wanted to see and comment on the news delivery. Every other person at times wanted to stop a negative story, so, they used to reach out to a family member. And every time something could not be accommodated, it would create some stress.

So, even before we divided the businesses, we had made distinction in the media business. News was handed over to Laxmi Goel, the distribution business was given to Jawahar Goel. Laxmiji’s son was running the multiplexes. We had tried to involve everyone some way or the other in the media business. That helped but media families also have politicians. Running a media empire is nothing less than running a government.

But again I have to say, I wanted to divide the business equally in five including a share for my father. But my family did not allow it to happen in that fashion — my father said he would only take what was from the ancestral business and my brothers said that I should take the maximum since I did the most. So, they wanted me to take 40 per cent and each of them took 20 per cent. It took three months to decide this.

All four of us believe in karma — nothing more or nothing less will come so why fight over it. Also, we all believe ‘poot sapoot, toh kyun dhan sanchein, poot kapoot so kyun dhan sanchein’ (if the children are able, they will generate wealth; if they are not, what is the point in creating wealth for them).

How did you keep the family together?

By listening to each other and being understanding. What makes me happy is that not only have we four brothers stayed through thick and thin, but also that the next generation is similar.

Sons of the family are leading various businesses. Is it by design or by default?

Not all businesses are run by sons, some are run professionally.

After agriculture, media, education, you entered the affordable housing sector. What was the rationale behind it?

In 2010, we had changed our thinking to do things with some social benefit. Affordable Shelter and Housing for All (ASHA) was a subsequent step in that direction.

The end of 2012-13 was a tough period for us due to harassment we saw politically. There was an FIR booked against me on 2 October midnight to arrest my editors and me. My editors were arrested, and that was, in a way, me getting arrested. I had to take it lying low. I took my friend’s advice and let the storm pass.

In 2014, the new government came. We had been in discussions with the now PM and earlier CM of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, on the various things that can be done. Houses for weaker sections was one of his pet dreams. And when we were working on some real estate projects, we wanted to contribute. We thus came up with ASHA.

We have still not succeeded in it due to a few issues. We feel that this cannot really take off unless their livelihood problems close to the housing are sorted. Housing per se is a problem but that is not the complete problem. Take for example Shahadra in Delhi — wherever people are living, they have work happening there itself. Same for Dharavi. We are doing some R&D on this and we hope we will crack it.

These are exciting ideas. How can you partner the government in doing more, and what role can the government play in it?

It is dependent more on the developer. For affordable housing, we have to choose locations accordingly, we have to tweak the plan in a way so that around the house, there are options for livelihood. We have not sorted this yet but we will.

We also started working on Swachh Bharat issue. People have tried and failed in converting municipal solid waste into something productive that can be used as a fertiliser or for mixing with cement or energy. We could crack this in one-and-a-half years with Hitachi as our tech partner. The plant is running well. There is no pollution. We have signed up 18 cities to convert their municipal solid waste into power.

Water is another area where we want to contribute. We see this being a significant issue in the future. We are experimenting with Aurangabad city to give 24x7 water supply. We are working on sewage treatment plants.

Then, there are a lot of reforms required in the power sector, particularly on the distribution side. There is discrepancy between distribution and metering despite keeping genuine transmission losses in the picture. We are doing some work in Bihar and a city in Maharashtra; and we are looking at doing more. Particularly in Bihar, where some cities don’t have power for more than a couple of hours in a day. We have made some strides there.

We give people good service. We give same day connection. We try to reach a fault within three hours. These are all businesses that will be profitable for us.

For corporate responsibility, we have a lot more that is happening. We have an announcement coming up on that.

In any case, we earmarked 10 per cent of our profits for various causes but now, we will shift part of our wealth to a foundation, which we are launching. This foundation will not simply donate money to others. It will build capacity in India to face the challenges, whether it is education, health and livelihood.

For example, I feel that if you mould a person in the 7-14 years age period, they will become an asset. If we do something that can have a multiplier effect, that would make a difference.

A couple of years ago, you had Board re-organisation. What had led to that?

One of my brothers felt at the time that we should separate our businesses in 2010. It did not take us much time — we took a couple of hours, amicably made the changes and we are very happy with the decision. Each of us own some small percentage in each other’s company, but everyone owns their businesses now — they know it, their families know it — there is no anxiety. Earlier, I was the decision maker and my brothers were supportive of my decision. Even if they did not agree, they would respect it.

That being said, after the reorganisation, they listen to me even more, if I have a suggestion for their businesses.

There have been testing times in the journey which have reshaped your philosophy and vision in life. What are these instances?

Many challenges have come our way. For instance, sometime in 1981, cheques worth of Rs 2 crore were on the verge of bouncing. Had they bounced, a calamity would have befallen us. In such a situation, everyone pounces on you and not let you do anything. It can become ugly. My courage forced me to go the higher-ups in the bank hierarchy. I convinced them to pass the cheques.

Not taking a no for an answer has been my learning and strength. If something is not happening, then why not, I tend to ask.

You are known to speak your mind. How do you navigate in the corporate world? Does it create problems?

It certainly does somewhat. If I walk into a party where 50 corporate honchos are attending, for a moment they will stop talking and then reconvene. I have noticed sometimes that they are hesitant but that is all right.

How has life changed after the Rajya Sabha happened?

Not much has changed except I do feel that I end up wasting time sometimes. There are unproductive hours of the day, which never was the case with me. Other than that, I don’t see much change in me. People may look at you differently but then again, that is all right.

You are seen as being very close to the PM and to the Centre. Can this create a clash of interest for the group in the future?

People perceive me as being close to the current dispensation but I don’t think people perceive me to be very close to the PM and I don’t treat myself such. However, I have friends across parties, and I maintain my relationship with everyone — be it the Left, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar or Mulayam Singh Yadav.

It is only with Mr Rahul Gandhi, where I don’t have any relationship. Even if something changes, I hope it doesn’t create problems for the group.

Do you have any regrets in life?

I have no regrets. At times, thoughts do come but because Vipassana teaches you to be in the present, I can say, no regrets. If you think too much about the past, there will always be regrets. Future brings anxiety. That teaching has helped me a great deal.

What else is left to achieve now?

I don’t look at life this way. I always say that I have to continuously learn and evolve myself. What it achieves for me is a by-product. I will keep doing well for myself.