Procession Of Ex-CEOs Gets Longer At Zee

Updated: Oct 20 2002, 05:30am hrs
One more CEO bit the dust at Zee this week. One more time, promoter and chairman Subhash Chandra promised to get hands on in the company, which made hazaarpatis into crorepatis and crorepatis into hazaarpatis. Lest we forget, for a few dizzy weeks Mr Chandraas the public face of an investor group in Zeepacked more net worth than a Ratan Tata or a Kumar Mangalam Birla. Thats when cover stories in business magazines became addictive. He started talking of flooding the country with 300 multiplexes. He outbid himself out of the market for FM radio licences. He got into lotteries. He even tried to bring down Atal Behari Vajpayee. If bewildered insiders are to be believed, such was the rush of blood that someone in Mr Chandras back office worked on Zees entry into the business of ATM vending kiosks. The logic was bewitching: ATMs were where the money was!

But why such confidence Well, it came from cronies who believed that Subhashji could do anything. In between pregnant pauses and puffs of bidi, Subhashji believed that. There is a crucial difference in the way this weeks announcement on CEO Sandeep Goyal being packed off on a sabbatical was made. This time Mr Chandra opened his cards to the public. Better he did. Because no one in the corporate world or on Dalal Street would have taken yet another professional Zee CEO seriously. Least of all Zees tireless underlings. At a town hall meeting organised by consultant AT Kearney, Mr Chandra disarmingly confessed that he didnt know until that morning how many staffers Zee and its cable arm SitiCable employ. These unknown foot soldiers have seenand survivedmany bosses in Zees 10-year history. Penguin could make millions if it got them to write quickies on navigation.

For insiders, the hands on Chandra rescue act is only as old as the last time he fired a CEO. When Deepak Shourie went home after running Mr Chandras news and print media businesses, the latter promised to talk to Mr Shouries deputies on a daily basis. This remained an intent. Insiders reveal how communication channels got re-routed through one or two people. Younger brother and group vice-chairman Laxmi Goel didnt like it, but even he would send his messages to Mr Chandra through the chairmans office and refer to someone barely two years older than him as chairman. For some reason Mr Chandras office was abbreviated as C-M-O. There it was, all pervasive and watchful over the so-called CEOs. The CMO ran Zee.

Meanwhile, yet another wave of people filled in a multi-tiered organogram. Their survival hinged on how seriously Mr Chandras CMO would take anonymous complaints on the Internet.

Two ex-CEOs reached for this story refused to speak on Mr Chandras uneasy relationship with them on the record. They, however, were ready to share anecdotal material rather liberally, and reassured us that they werent seeking anonymity as if they hoped to stage a comeback. Even if I say something positive, hes sure to misunderstand, argued another. This ex-staffer once ran a business unit for Mr Chandra.

I agree! Trust is alien to Chandra. He believes that keeping people insecure gives results. So, not surprisingly survival becomes the first and foremost priority of his CEOs. I think, if Chandra made Zee, he is as much the prime cause of its fall, said former Zee executive producer Umesh Upadhyay, who now runs New Delhi Communication Network Ltd.

If trust or rather distrust is the root of the problem between Mr Chandra and his CEOs, protective insiders would like to describe it as poor communication on part of Subhashji. These well wishers argue that Mr Chandra suffered a series of setbacks thanks to his CEOs, indeed one of the most celebrated ones succeeded in alienating him from staff as well as his younger brothers. The communication problem, these well wishers say, has been identified, and the initial results are very encouraging. In practical terms, the all pervasive CMO has been pruned, personal favourites have been caged, and a much chastened chairman holds constructive teleconferences with younger brothers Laxmi and Jawahar on critical areas of operations. This is a climb down for Mr Chandra as he hadinsiders claim this was done under the advice of one CEOretained Laxmi as a director on the Zee Telefilms board, but kept both brothers at arms length from the actual running of Zee operations.

As pointed out by an ex-CEO in an earlier piece (FE of October 16), Mr Chandras relationship with his CEOs had three dimensions. One, he would give this titleas indeed that of president, senior VP, business head, and so onto several people. Two, each one would keep currying for support from the CMO. Three, and most important, though they were once proud chieftains of major companies, all the decisions were finally left at the chairmans door step. Reason Wasnt he the brain behind it all! The talk of Chandra being hands off is bulls**t. He was never hands off. In fact, he was either too close or too far! muses an ex-CEO. The evidence of KBC is instructive here. When this hugely popular programme was mounted on Star Plus, Mr Chandra refused to acknowledge actor Amitabh Bachchan as big deal.

He had nursed a complex vis-a-vis Bachchan for years, and at one stage in the mid-90s Zee used to coincide releases of the actors films with an avalanche of Amitabh-starrers of the heady 70s. The logic was that after seeing Mr Bachchan in his prime on Zee, people wont go to theatres to watch a haggard version in his mid-50s. Coming back to KBC, when Star ratings ate heavily into Zees bread-and-butter evening programming, Mr Chandra panicked. In one late night converge, he growled: If they give Rs 1 crore, Ill give Rs 10 crore. Presto, the creative team of faithful Gajendra Singh and former ESPN boss RK Singh got cracking to deliver just that. Weeks of negotiations with actress Madhuri Dixit bombed, and finally the poor clone couldnt be saved by the histrionic combine of Anupam Kher and Manisha Koirala. SDCK broke the back of Zees fightback. Mr Chandra lost no time in explaining to the staff that he leaves all programming decisions to professionals.

A similar now hands-off, now hands-on drama was enacted when website tehelka opened investment discussions with Zee. The site hinted that it was working on a major scoop. The sub-text was that this would send valuations soaring. Mr Chandra secured a first preference deal to air the tehelka tapes. Ratings rose as did the impatience of the Vajpayee government. Not satisfied, Mr Chandra aired three hours of grainy video on all 15 of his TV channels. A simulcast of this magnitude was the firstand lastthat Zee attempted. But when advertisers refused to buy airtime and viewer impact was a yawn, the CMO put forward a rescue act. A public statement was made that airing the tapes on 15 channels was an editorial decision.

Mr Chandra is a first-generation business leader. He has roots in Hissar (Haryana). He rose to fame on account of three novel business concepts: Essel World, Essel Packaging, and Zee. He represents a clutch of family investors, including three younger brothers Laxmi, Jawahar and Ashok. Recently, he pulled out Laxmi Goel from the moth-balls and put him in charge of the sensitive Zee News operations. Earlier, Jawahar was made in charge of Zees cable-arm Siticable. Both brothers replaced professional CEOs. And, of course, now he himself is back hands on officially. Only time will tell how much it will pay off. Whether it will resuscitate Zee or merely save a CEOs salary!