I was all set to retire at 27.... - Zubin Gandevia

Young Turks.'s new series profiling the brightest and the best among the youth brigade in the Indian television industry. Under the spotlight are the men and women on the "right side" of 35 who are serving it up stirred and shaken. And making a huge difference, each in their own right, to the way in which the TV business is managed.

In this, the second of the series, we get up close and personal with Zubin Gandevia, managing director, South Asia, National Geographic Channel.

What will a teenager do if his father refuses to buy him the snazzy mobike on which the youngster has lost his heart ? There are two options, possibly, before the teenager: one, he either forgets about the mobike or, second, he earns enough money to buy the two-wheeler.

Zubin Jehanbux Gandevia , the young managing director for South Asia of National Geographic Channel (NGC) , went in for the second option ("I thought if my father wants me to earn to get the mobike, so be it."). He not only managed to buy the particular model of Japan-made Yamaha in the mid-80s, but, in the process, also set up one of Mumbai's oldest cable network, along with two other associates, United Cable Networks (sold later).

No wonder, a card from his parents, occupying the pride of places in Zubin's room in the Star office in Delhi, aptly has the message: "Beta, I am proud of you."

Zubin, as he is more commonly known to friends, colleagues, associates and the media, actually fits in very well with the NGC culture which is all about adventure, outdoor sports and, more importantly, the curiosity to know more about our immediate surrounding and people.

"When I look back now at my stint at NGC, which is about two and half years old, I think we have got a good stable business with a sound revenue model. There is also a dedicated band of viewers and advertisers and the effort is to increase the base," Zubin says, as he stretches his legs in his room that houses a computer, apart from other office knick-knacks. Sitting atop the PC is a Star Trek-type gadget which Zubin finally reveals is for his "back which is giving a bit of a problem."

But the road to the managing director's chair at NGC India has been a roller-coaster ride for Zubin, every moment of it cherished and enjoyed. Surprisingly, not also tinged with much regrets, says the 35-year-old.

As the MD, South Asia, for the National Geographic Channel, Zubin is responsible for running the business of the channel in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. With over 14 years of experience in India's cable and satellite television industry, he was among the first in the country to establish his own cable business with United Cable Network (UCN) which went on to become the largest single headend in the country.

Zubin joined the television industry in 1996, as director of cable affairs (read managing cable operators) of Star India Pvt Ltd and was responsible for managing the Zee relationship in Siti Cable (the days when Rupert Murdoch and Subhash Chandra dreamt together they could build an unbeatable media company in India and later, probably, Asia; a dream which has long since gone sour). Zubin has also worked in Star's DTH division as senior vice-president in-charge of technical services and business development (again a division which has seen more downs than ups).

But these hiccups somehow failed to deter Zubin or his enthusiasm. In line with the spirit of National Geographic Channel, Zubin enjoys the outdoors, has a passion for motorsports and --- no surpsies --- is a big fan of Michael Schumacher. In this interview, Zubin, a person who is very reluctant to talk to the media ("I have had some bad experiences with the media with journalists mis-quoting me completely out of context") lets's Anjan Mitra enter his private world and speaks on the industry, his urge to innovate to avoid perishing and, of course, how he entered the TV industry.

"If I am hardworking, the least that I expect from my colleagues is that they also should put in their best"

How did you foray into the TV industry ?

I was about 18 when I asked my father to buy me a Yamaha mobike . He refused, telling me 'if you want the mobike, buy it out of your money'. That inspired me to join the cable industry which was then in its very early stage and a far cry from what it is today. I joined my uncle who was in this business and later with some friends set up my own company, UCN.

How was it starting a business venture in India in your early 20s?

Now when I think about it, the experience was a learning process of trial and error. The cable business, along with my friends, was started with almost no money. Rather, it was the subscription money collected from people in an area near Breach Candy in south Mumbai which set the whole thing rolling. We went to this society where there were about 50 families residing and told them of the cable service. About 16 of them opted to subscribe to the service after giving Rs 600 as installation fee and agreeing to pay Rs 75 per month.

So, the subscription money collected saw you guys setting up shop. But was the money enough to start a cable service, no matter how much limited?

(Laughs) The money that we collected just gave the green signal to our intention. We also did not have enough money to buy a VCR to show movies. So, the first week we rented the VCR from the neighbourhood electronics shop! The response on movies, some of them new, was good. So we went back to our subscribers and requested them that if they were happy with the cable service and wanted efficiency, it'd be great if they gave us three months of money in advance. Having managed to convince them, the collection was enough for us to buy a VCR and that was it.

Did you manage to buy the mobike which, in a way, was instrumental in bringing you into the broadcasting industry?

Oh, yes. I still retain that mobike (smiles, as nostalgia sweeps over his face).

"If at all I do miss something and feel about is not having enough time to spend with my family"

UCN and the cable business expanded pretty well. Why did you sell off the business in the mid-90s when the industry was just about picking up?

There were several reasons for this. Because of the expansion, the business did not look like a revenue making one. Agreed, we had acquired assets and had a huge capital asset base, but at the end of the day we thought it was getting a bit too big for us. That was when we sold part of it to (the Business India group owner Ashok Advani-promoted ) Business India TV.

How much did you make by selling off the business?

I cannot tell you that. But it was an okay sum.

Why did you join Star?

Since my cable days, I had a working relationship with Star India. When the word went around that I had sold off part of the cable business, Star asked me whether I would be interested in joining them. I joined Star in 1996 to manage the relationship with Siti Cable (which was then a 50:50 joint venture between Star and Zee Telefilms). A year later on 1 April, I was shifted to Star's DTH division.

It is said that you still retain part of the cable business. Has Star allowed you do that?

Yes, I still have some personal cable subscribers and before joining Star I apprised them of the situation. The company was nice enough to allow me to do that even though I became an employee of Star India.

How has it been with National Geographic and being its managing director for South Asia when rival Discovery is openly saying these days that it's a leader?

Is Discovery saying so ? Good for them and for me also. You see, in India, NGC is a comparatively younger channel as Discovery's Indian operations were set up much before NGC's (Discovery started its Indian operations in 1995 with Kiran Karnik as its first country head). But if Discovery is accepting our existence in such a short period , I can only feel good for the NGC team. But I must admit that at NGC it has been an enriching experience. National Geographic is a hallowed brand with a rich legacy. At present, we have managed to set up a sound foundation, but because we are still such a small player, I feel there still lots needs to be done.

After having informally interacted with your colleagues, I get this impression that you are quite a Hitler in the office. Right or wrong?

Hitler, me? That must be a joke. I don't believe in cracking the whip because I firmly believe one can still learn from anybody and everybody. Every colleague of mine here can walk into my office whenever he or she wants to and speak to me on any issue. Yes, but if I am hardworking, the least that I expect from my colleagues is that they also should put in their best.

So, what is your business philosophy or what is the mantra that you have for succeeding ?

It's all about common sense. It is also about going back to your customers to know more and especially of their needs. But in short, I would say the business mantra is : innovate or perish.

I feel, if you don't do things differently you won't go far. To give you an example, I still go back and interact with the cable subscribers that I have to know their problems, the issues involved and what more can be done for them. One has to be in constant touch with one's customers and the feedback is very important.

Do you have regrets in life?

(Thinks a bit) Probably not. May sound strange, but I don't have many regrets. Life has been kind to me. If at all I do miss something and feel about is not having enough time to spend with my family.

Have you ever thought of retirement?

I was all set to retire at 27 when I sold part of the cable business. And then Star happened. But now I don't think about retirement. I love my job and want to continue exploring life in the true tradition of NGC.

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