Every once in a while, the Indian media industry faces its moments of disbelief – sometimes it is the sudden change in the media environment, at other times it is about developments big enough to impact the industry’s way forward. And then there are those times, when the decision of one individual sends an alarm bell ringing across the horizon. On November 10, 2011, the industry was faced with one of those moments -- Haresh Chawla, CEO, Network18 Group & Viacom18 had announced his resignation from the company. The first reaction of many to that was “How is that even possible - he is the owner of the company”. But this was not someone’s sense of humour going astray. Haresh Chawla is leaving Network18, and everyone knows that while no individual is indispensable for a company, for Network18, he was the closest that it comes to being just that.
By his own admission, even a few hours before the announcement, Haresh was still meeting his colleagues, some of whom he had worked with for the last 10-12 years, discussing business as usual. According to him, that is one of the very reasons why the news of his exit had to be announced as suddenly as it was. “There was no way to break the news slowly or sequence it. The fair thing to do was to inform everyone, at the same time,” he tells IMPACT.
“But this has been on my mind for a while. Raghav (Bahl) and I have been discussing this for the last few months, and it was time to put a succession plan in place,” divulges Haresh. As he goes through his last few days at Network18, this is one of the most crucial aspects on his final agenda for the company. He remarks, “For me, Network18 is a baby that I have seen grow from nothing to a very strong 12-year-old. The dream now is to see the child become a healthy teenager and grow into a strong person. Like any child, the personality and traits are formed in 12 years, and my only contribution to Network18 is the work ethics and culture that I have been able to build in this company.”
Some of the company’s traits – of aggression and energy - mirror Haresh’s own ways. He says, “Our people are extremely focussed, they don’t get carried away by glamour and there is a drive for excellence in each of our brands. We have fewer channels versus other networks but most of our brands are in leading positions. All of our brands have the leader’s mindset. This is something I hope would be carried forward.”
A Leader’s Legacy
In his role within the company, Haresh has donned many hats. He is credited with building Network18’s news business from scratch and growing the likes of CNBC TV18 to leadership position today. He led the company’s growth in the digital space from the buyout of Moneycontrol.com to the launch of Firstpost.com and everything in between. He was looking after the businesses of Infomedia18 and HomeShop18, but the one company that occupied his time the most was Viacom18. Haresh recalls, “Our news business was set, the internet business was getting set, and Viacom18 was the largest investment and the biggest risk that Network18 took at the time. It was very important for us to get it right. You would recall the general entertainment channel launches of the time. We were the 10th launch and around us, all the others were floundering.”
It was important for the company to build Viacom18 and subsequently Sun18. But Haresh did not let the job go even after the company was seeing success across its brands like Colors, MTV and Nick. The reason for that was the dual role of scaling up the existing channels by instilling right operating ethos and ensuring Colors did not lose momentum. Plans of new launches continued to keep Haresh busy. But the big hunt now is finding the right person for the job. A job that needs the blessings of both Network18 and Viacom18, which perhaps is the first reason why Viacom18’s initial hunt for a CEO was unsuccessful, and Haresh had assumed charge. Haresh, however, does not see this as a problem. “Viacom18 is run differently – there is no central sales team and each of these channels is run as a Special Business Unit (SBU) with a very competent leader and excellent teams. The drive is there, and structurally the company is on a forward looking track.”
Doing Something Different
Unlike the news side that has seen Network18 groom and promote talent from within, Viacom18 has seen the company look out. Haresh does not completely agree with this view. He points out, “There is no fixed formula and it depends on the availability of talent in the system.” He also adds, “You should remember that this is a joint venture with Viacom; it is different from our other operations.”
Did the “different” element of Viacom play a part in Haresh’s decision to leave? He shrugs it off as a possibility immediately, and states that Network18 has had “fabulous” partnerships. “And we manage them very well. We have transparent relations with CNBC, CNN, Viacom, Forbes and these relations have withstood the test of time. They are all run professionally and transparently. The Network18 culture is very professional; you don’t find individuals putting themselves ahead of the businesses, which is important because that grows a company for decades. That is what I have enjoyed.”
But a person’s motivation sometimes changes, and Haresh cites that as the reason behind his decision. He says, “Sometimes people want to do something different. The team may not like it because they are used to having me around as part of the furniture. But I have done this for many years, and I want to do something different now. My life has been Network18 for all these years – so somewhere, this is me saying, what I want to do from here.”
Right Time to Leave?
And people have a lot to say. Soon after the announcement of Haresh’s exit, the media questioned the health of Network18. Industry conversations on Haresh’s sudden exit range from problems within the company to management disagreement on the way forward. Some of these do bother Haresh, but it is not in his nature to let it perturb him. “Responding to rumours is not the way of Network18. On the financial side, our balance sheet has been stretched but there is no operational crisis. We have been bringing down debt and we would continue to do that. But one needs to look at facts. Fact is that we recently launched Firstpost.com, History channel, CNBC Prime HD, and there are two more channels– a kids’ channel from Nick and Comedy Central -- coming up in two weeks. We have signed up several blockbusters for our movie business. Which ‘sinking ship’ does all this?”
He asserts that while Network18 is over-leveraged, the company is working on it. “It is a financial structuring issue, which will get sorted out. The company is stable and settled, and everything is on track.”
In his matter-of-fact way, Haresh says, “I am not quitting. I am moving on to do different things. I have spent so much time doing this that I want to do something different now. Change is useful. I have been telling the team that it is time for them to step up. The operating philosophy is that the SBU leader is fully empowered and I am available as a full fallback. But now is the time for them to step up and take full and complete responsibility, and take the company’s values forward. They will further grow as managers and leaders - the culture of empowerment, of speed, no bureaucracy, not over-synergising and respecting people, the roles they play, the decisions they take... this change is a good thing for them. Our people are the only aspect of this company that matters. Our challenge is that when our people walk in, they walk in with passion. They need to be excited, have a direction and drive to win. They need to feel respected. This is not goodbye. I would always be proud of Network18, and it would belong to me in my head. It does not matter what people have to say.”
Almost echoing Haresh’s thoughts, Raghav Bahl, Founder & Editor of Network18 comments, “Haresh is the kind of colleague one can only dream of, he is so honest, committed and focussed on delivering excellence. However, I fully understand his desire to explore other interests, being a person with such boundless enthusiasm and passion for success. Perhaps Haresh's greatest achievement is the strong cadre of next-generation leadership that he has nurtured at several of our Group operations. Over the next few months, Haresh will work closely with me and this young crop of leaders to ensure a seamless transition of leadership. Finally, on a personal note, I wish to say that you never can quite say goodbye to an extraordinary friend and colleague like Haresh. He will always be around, as a friend, philosopher, guide and advisor to Network18, and, personally, to me. His can-do spirit is irretrievably woven into Network18's DNA.”
So what’s next for Haresh? Another start-up, which seems to have dotted his career graph? “I am not so sure. There are several things coming up, and I am still contemplating. The important thing for me is to figure out how I will spend my time. I became a business head at the age of 30, and it has been a constant adrenalin rush. When you reach my age - almost 44 - you think of the things you have not done, the so-called smelling the roses. I would spend the next few months thinking how I want to spend my time.”
But knowing Haresh, it would not even be a couple of months, and the entrepreneurial bug would be gnawing him again. “Sure,” he says with a laugh, “but let me enjoy those couple of months at least.”