From cable TV to aviation biz, Marans march continues

Written by fe Bureaus | Chennai | Updated: Jul 14 2010, 04:51am hrs
Kalanithi Maran, chairman and managing director of Sun TV, does not believe in also-rans. He has to be the market leader or, till it happens, a strong number two in whichever business he is in. He is the undisputed king of the regional media. Sun TV has consistently outperformed not only the regional channels, but most of the other Indian media companies as well. Maran has also gone national with his radio stations and the direct-to-home business. The Sun Network has 20 satellite TV channels and 48 FM radio stations. After toying with the idea of getting into the aviation sector for almost three years, he has recently acquired SpiceJet in a deal (possibly the largest from Tamil Nadu) which is a profit making low-cost airline. At the moment it ranks second among the airlines in that category.

Sun TV has registered a consolidated net profit of Rs 520 crore for financial year 2009-10 as against Rs 368 crore in the previous year, a growth of 41.3%. Its consolidated net sales jumped 39.85% to Rs 1,453 crore in FY10 from Rs 1,039 crore in FY09. The slowdown of 2008-09 did not affect the company. As the market leader it attracted more ad revenues than ever before. It also helped that the Southern market is not as fragmented as the North. Sun TV has consistently reported operating margins of over 70%, twice the industry average. Last year, Hong Kong research firm Media Partners Asia named the company Asia's most profitable broadcaster, ahead of its biggest rivals Zee and Star. Sun has unseated Subhash Chandra's Zee Entertainment Enterprises, which is a national player and twice Sun's size in revenues, to become India's most valuable listed media company with a market capitalisation of Rs 16,925.93 crore.

When Maran went to the US for an MBA degree, he was exposed to the large number of channels available on American Television. Then, in India staid and boring DD ruled. He returned to India in 1987 and joined the family's small publishing business. He knew he wanted to get into TV but it had not opened up to the private sector yet. So he did the next best by launching a video magazine in Tamil in 1991. It was a success story.

Around that time satellite television was opened up and Zee launched Indias first Hindi channel in 1992. The next year, 28-year-old Maran launched Sun TV. He put in his savings and got a bank loan guaranteed by his father, Union minister the late Murosoli Maran. Granduncle M Karunanidhis family, took a minority stake (which Maran later bought out). The original team of 25 people included a number of Maran's college friends. Many of them are still with him. He has now brought in professionals from rival channels like Zee and Star, putting an end to the criticism that Sun TV is a one-man show. However, he remains a workaholic who tracks every aspect of his various activities all the time.

When Maran approached Zee to give him an afternoon slot on its transponder he could not meet Subhash Chandra. A junior executive rejected his proposal, saying it wouldn't work as there wasn't big enough audience for Tamil programmes. But Maran knew what he was doing. The four South Indian states account for almost one-fourth of India's population and with a third of all homes possessing TVs. He got transponder space from ATN and launched his channel. There were many early glitches which had to be sorted out. He had to introduce cable operations to the state. He literally persuaded video shop owners to turn cable operators. Today his SCV is the largest cable operator in Tamil Nadu.

From one channel in Tamil, he expanded his operations to the other southern states, launched separate channels for news, movies, music and so on. Couple of years ago, he set up a film production division Sun Pictures, which within two years has acquired and distributed 14 films, most of them have been hits. He acquired a languishing Tamil newspaper Dinakaran, and turned it around to run neck-to-neck with the market leader Dinathanthi. Now he has a clutch of Tamil magazines and couple of newspapers in his fold. He has always said he would like to launch an English newspaper. But he obviously has not made up his mind yet. Marans direct-to-home (DTH) service, is a joint venture with Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan's Astro All Asia Networks. Sun Direct was the third entrant in this segment after Chandra's Dish TV and Tata Sky, a joint venture between Tata and Star, but it is quickly catching up. It has on its rolls 5.5 million subscribers. When the number reaches 6 million, the business will start breaking even. The radio stations are now beginning to yield profits. Now of course the SpiceJet deal. Fleet expansions, increased routes, going international are all on the cards. Maran used to get annoyed when his achievements are attributed to his political ties. Over the years he has patiently learnt to point out that the opposition party was actually in power when he started Sun TV in 1993 and again when the company went public in early 2006. His family's political party has been in power only in about half of the 16 years. Sun TV has been in existence. He did very well even during the short lived but very bitter fallout with the ruling party DMK and his relatives. Will Sun TV enter the North What will he do next His moves are all calculated and well thought out. There is no room for sentiment in his plans.