Chandra's New Growth Recipe

No one seems to be knowing this piece of wisdom better than Zee Telefilms chairman Subhash Chandra. The doughty businessman is fighting back. And how. Over the past six months, the goateed entrepreneur who brought Hindi satellite entertainment television to India, has unveiled a new strategy: growth through alliances, acquisitions and mergers.

First, he did a distribution deal with Turner Broadcasting late last year, wherein he brought in the Turner channels - HBO, CNN, and Cartoon Network - adding tremendously to the Zee Network subscription bouquet pushed to cable TV operators.

He followed that with an inconceivable deal: he acquired ETC Networks, which owns the rights to ETC Punjabi and ETC Music, and the telecast rights to Holy Sikh prayer, Gurbani, in the Golden Temple. He paid Rs 252.15 million for a 68.32 per cent stake in ETC. Chandra expects a major foreign exchange inflow through subscription revenues from this deal. Zee estimates say it has 150,000 subscribers each in the UK and the USA and another 50,000 in Canada. Working with a subscription rate of about $ 20 a month that sources close to the deal say will be the charge for etc Punjabi, that gives a potential earning of $ 84 million a year.

When you are pushed back to the ropes, you should pull up your defences, pause momentarily before you launch into a counter against your opponent. That?s the piece of advice many a boxing coach may have given their pupils.

Then yesterday Chandra announced another deal which once again sent reverberations through the industry. He said Zee Telefilms was going to acquire a large stake in animation and film company Padmalaya Telefilms. The cost 590 million for a 64.3 per cent stake in PTL?s holding company, Padmalaya Enterprises Pvt Ltd (PEPL).

Industry sources say the network has just about started out on its acquisition trail. Other deals are planned to achieve his goal of being a vertically integrated media company.

Let?s take a look at what he has achieved so far in his vertical integration plans:

Entertainment Broadcasting: Zee Telefilms, with its channels in Hindi, English, and regional languages.

Cable TV: Siticable, which commands a subscriber base nationally of about 3 million homes.

Films: under the Zee Telefilms umbrella, which had a super success in Gaddar - Ek Prem Katha and now under the Padmalaya Telefilms umbrella.

Theme parks: Entertainment complexes in major metros under the E-Citi brand, and the Water Kingdom and Essel World brands.

Publishing: An interest in Asian Age.

Education: The Zed Learning initiative.

Retailing: Agrani iSwitch stores, which will retail everything from mobile phones to convergence devices, to computers to even addressable systems.

Manufacturing: Essel-Shyam, which is in telecom and V-Sat Equipment Manufacture.

Real Estate: Essel Construction

As recently as mid-last year, the Chandra was being dismissed of as a player who had been outmaneuvered by his rivals and had misread the market. His big convergence, expansion and fund-raising plans had fizzled out. His satellite telephony project was left on the shelf, thanks to the US government sanctions on US companies sharing information on sensitive areas such as satellites

His mother channel Zee TV was looking tacky, losing marketshare consistently to rivals Star and Sony. The Zee Telefilms share price had dropped to a low, and his associations with certain stockmarket operators were being examined under a magnifying lens.

The company looked weak on the human resources front, with employee morale being on a low. Siticable was reportedly losing subscribers to rivals. Report after report in the media had highlighted how Chandra had lost his Midas Touch and that he was facing an uphill task.

But Chandra did not let things weigh him down. He admitted he had gone wrong in a story to a leading business magazine. And he went about trying to right the situation. He brought in a new CEO Sandeep Goyal, who launched a glut of new programmes in a hurry which failed to find favour with viewers. But Chandra did not let this faze him either.

Along with Goyal, he has been gradually restructuring Zee Telefilms, bringing in new people to tackle any weaknesses. Among them: TV producer and writer Vinta Nanda, who is heading the ideation team to help bring back Zee TV to its glory days. Additionally, the network has reworked its regional language bouquet, making Channel IDs more contemporary, with modern programming that seems to be working with viewers.

Clearly, Chandra is looking at adding more value to Zee Telefilms. He has for some time being talking about bringing in a global media firm in as a strategic partner into Zee Telefilms, even if it means acceding control. Zee Telefilms today looks a lot more mouth watering than it did a year or two ago, because of the acquisition route that has been followed. There is real value in the deals he has struck, unlike earlier there were only plans. Chandra has acquired good products, brands at reasonable prices, and hence cut down on set up time and costs.

It?s not as if his entire growth map has been completed. He has to fill the following holes:

* Publishing, promotion and merchandising of successful television shows.

* A theatrical chain (which could be filled through the E-Citi chain).

Unconfirmed reports are that he has more or less agreed with AOL-Time Warner to sign up for a DTH venture for the Indian market. Additionally, there is likely to be the deal with the same global behemoth, wherein it could take a stake in Zee Telefilms. The visit of AOL-Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin and the meeting he is having with him in Delhi today are indicators that things are moving ahead between the two.

Some see the deal - when it happens with AOL-Time Warner - as a sellout by Chandra. But they could not be more wrong. Chandra is among those businessmen who are unlikely to disappear over the horizon. Expect him to lead from the front.

All these indicators are exciting investors and analysts. Analyst after analyst that spoke has changed his recommendation on the Zee Telefilms stock from sell to hold or buy.

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