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November 30, 2000

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JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

India's Mr. TV
Subhash Chandra has prospered by taking risks others would not. His plan to bring satellite phone service to India is his biggest gamble yet
By AJAY SINGH

Subhash Chandra is often asked whether he attended business school. Sure, says the chairman of Bombay-based Zee Telefilms, I went to Jaganath Goenka University. The name usually elicits a puzzled frown - until Chandra, who never attended college, coolly clarifies that there is no such institution. The joke is his way of honoring the entrepreneurial prowess of his late grandfather, Jaganath Goenka, a small-town cottonseed trader who knew a thing or two about business - the kind of street smarts they don't teach at Wharton. If it wasn't for the old man, Chandra might never have become India's first self-made media mogul, a figure often compared at home to News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch.

Because Chandra's father was too busy taking care of business, the boy grew up watching his grandfather work his magic. Over the years the young lad listened and learned. He realized early on that there is no such thing as a stupid question; his grandfather shamelessly went around collecting information in the village bazaar. Today, Chandra is much the same and has no compunction about getting advice from the most humble of his employees. But the most important lesson of all was understanding the value of taking risks (and living with the results). Many a time, the patriarch would return home after losing millions in speculative trading, looking so calm that no one could tell what had happened. Chandra went on to take far larger risks than the old man. In a business career that spans three decades, only a few of Chandra's ideas have ended in disaster, mostly during the early years. Throughout it all, he has maintained a similarly cool outward demeanor.

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Chandra's just-do-it philosophy has made him something of a cult figure in India, a model to be emulated by countless young Indians eager to make their first million. His supporters point to his ability to launch ventures that, despite long odds early on, turn out to be gold mines. Those talents may be shared by many entrepreneurs, they say, but Chandra stands out among his Indian peers in one vital respect: He never does what has been done before in the local market. Chandra is credited with starting a half-dozen diverse ventures that are firsts in India. "He has always walked new paths," says Ranjan Bakshi, Zee's vice-president for corporate communications. "He believes walking down beaten paths is for beaten men."

Having built Zee into a going concern (1999 profits: $19 million on turnover of $53 million), Chandra is embarking on his biggest gamble yet: India's first private satellite communications service. If successful, it will bring telephones and Internet access to a nation where dial tones are few and far between. This is not a venture for the faint-hearted. Similarly bold plans have misfired elsewhere, most memorably with the U.S. firm Iridium, whose scheme to provide global satellite phone coverage failed spectacularly. But Chandra thrives on such challenges. "The joy of doing different things drives me," he says. "I like hitting roadblocks."

Page 2: From Plastic Tubes To Television >>

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