Murdoch survived & thrived, so will Chandra

Zee's promoters are battling the so-called debt crisis headon, just like Murdoch did in the 90s.

MUMBAI: There's alarm bells being sounded that Zee TV chairman Subhash Chandra and his dynamic sons Punit and Amit might be losing control of India's cable and satellite TV pioneering venture. Unconfirmed reports have been appearing about certain financial institutions selling promoter shares pledged with them. Are the concerns warranted? No! Absolutely not!

More often than not, there have been canards floated around by vested interests that someone or the other is wanting out of the arrangement that Chandra’s elder son – Punit Goenka – has hammered out with the instituitions that have lent the family money on promoter shares pledged with them. These have appeared in a specific financial daily and have more often than not proved unfounded.

Chandra and his family are finding themselves in a spot just like Rupert Murdoch did in the late eighties-early nineties. Murdoch had weighed his firm News Corp with some $7.6 billion in banking and institutional debt to fuel the massive rapid expansion of his media empire globally. He had bet that interest rates would drop; they rose instead. A banking crisis and an advertising market collapse hit global economies, pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy. To add to his woes, the principal lenders had sold off parcels of debt to others making it a roster of 146 financial firms to which it owed the money and in 10 different currencies.

The banks were getting a bout of nerves wondering whether they would be repaid ever. But Murdoch came up with an aggressive survival plan along with a Citibanker Anne Lane, who believed in his strategy. He began a roadshow to get the bankers’ approval for News Corp to continue to do business. Murdoch’s  first port of call was in Adelaide where at the Commonwealth Bank, he unabashedly told his other lenders that he would not be able to repay the debt in the form it was structured. The bankers howled and screamed, but Murdoch and Lane stood firm. The Ozzie at times got agitated about the fact that he had to placate his bankers and make them believe that he would come good. Three hours of harddselling and persuasion, and the bankers left without any commitment of extension.

From there he flew to London and New York where the same pleading, cajoling and convincing continued with his lenders. A small bank in Pittsburgh was threatening to call in its $10 million loan; Murdoch along with Lane flew down to Pittsburgh and convinced its manager not to.

The road show went on and Murdoch kept missing his repayment deadlines. From November 1990 to February 1991 he continued with his spiel non-stop. Until  he heard that all the banks had agreed to stand by him. They stated that they would freeze the nearly $8 billion in loans for the next three years. 

The rest of course is history.  That  tough period helped Murdoch toughen himself up even further and he went on to further build his empire which Disney bought for about $72 billion, even as he retained control of the news business.

There are parallels between Murdoch and Chandra. Both are first generation media entrepreneurs. While the former grew his media and entertainment empire, he failed at almost everything outside it. Ditto with Chandra and family who pledged their equity to fund his infrastructure projects, an area he was not very familiar with. Chandra and family are currently extracting his company from what some may call a finacial quagmire. Murdoch had his moment in the early nineties. Both were partners in the nineties in Zee TV's uplinking company and in cable TV arm Siticable, before deciding to part ways. Murdoch had relatively humble beginnings; he inherited a local publication in Australia; he swelled it to a global empire. Chandra’s origins too  were modest; he used to make massive food grain containers and toothpaste lamitubes. And then came his entertainment and media expansion, followed by a disastrous entry into infrastructure. Both Murdoch and Chandra read their respective markets wrong. Both suffered on account of market changes.

Then, like Murdoch, Chandra and his sons are battling a crisis. They are facing it with their chins jutting out, that’s the degree of their confdience. And that's the mettle of their entrepreneurship. They have built a media company like no other in India with a clutch of channels and assets like Zee5.  A corporation  which has a reputation globally; one which is truly rooted in India, understands its audiences. but with a worldwide  presence. An organisation which is tightly run by a professional owner - Punit - with his father mentoring him-  and a team of managers cobbled togerther from the top most Indian and global  firms. They have been working on finding ways to reduce their costs: the daily newspaper DNA has shut down its print edition, retaining a digital presence.  Some of their infrastructure initiatives are on the block.

Will they pull off a rescue of their battleship? Despite the so-called financial crisis, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd has been turning out enviable financial results in the last two quarters. Which apparently is not reflected in the share price that has been relatively subdued.

We, at, are betting that the family Chandra will come sailing out of the storm ; they will most likely emerge a little  bruised but not battered. They have five months to find buyers for their pleadged equity shares. Which they will. All they need is time. Just like Murdoch did. If it sounds too simplistic a reasoning; only time will tell us whether it will come true. So keep watching this space.

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