Ronnie Screwvala: The serial entrepreneur!

Ronnie Screwvala, a pioneer in the Indian entertainment business, has helmed the transformation of the sector for the past three decades, introducing new concepts and initiatives, professionalising the industry and injecting much-needed vibrancy. More than 30 years after he launched his entrepreneurial journey — as a cable TV operator in 1981 in Mumbai’s posh Cuffe Parade area — Ronnie has sold off his multi-billion-rupee empire to Walt Disney and is now charting a completely new path.


Nithin Belle

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Published: Sat 26 Apr 2014, 8:48 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:17 PM

“Today, I’m at an interesting cross-road, I need to put on my hat and figure out where are my strengths,” the serial entrepreneur tells NITHIN BELLE in a no-holds-barred interview. “And I want to use those strengths in the for-profit space to work with entrepreneurs and in the not-for-profit sector.”

Excerpts from the interview:

What are your thoughts on leaving the media and entertainment business?

I have moved out of media and entertainment — December 31 was my last date (as managing director of the Indian arm of The Walt Disney Company India). It’s been a phenomenal 15 years and a lot has happened over the years. I’m proud I’ve been able to contribute a great deal to the sector.

Walt Disney is a very large and incredible company with phenomenal brands and intellectual properties; it’s a fantastic people company. The path is well laid for incredible growth in India as a combined entity of Disney and UTV. It gives me a great sense of joy and accomplishment.

WALKING THE TALK... “A big challenge in India is that nobody is willing to pay for what they consume; much of the media is dependent on ads. This has to change, says Ronnie Screwvala.

For me the big challenge is how to use my 15 years of learning, first as an entrepreneur and then as a media and entertainment entrepreneur in what I want to do next. While everyone thinks that India is an entrepreneurial country — look at the large number of shops and small enterprises — it is not scalable entrepreneurship. We need to get entrepreneurship to the next level.

Entrepreneurship should get into the DNA of the people. Unfortunately, the culture in India is not entrepreneurial-driven. Surprisingly, many parents feel that getting a job is the most aspirational thing for their children. If they venture into entrepreneurship, it is considered negative as they did not get a good job.

What are your plans for starting new ventures?

The 56-year-old media and entertainment tycoon, who has been featured in Esquire’s list of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st century, in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and Fortune magazine’s 25 of Asia’s Most Powerful. He has over the years launched new businesses, incubated them for a few years, earned decent returns and then sold them off to international giants keen to establish a presence in India.

> Pioneered the cable TV business by setting up Network in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade area in 1981, and also a home shopping venture

> Established United Studios, then India’s premier studio and animation complex

> Set up UTV group with interests in film production and distribution, gaming, new media, television content production and broadcasting

> Launched business TV channel UTVi, which was sold and later became Bloomberg TV

>Promoted companies/TV channels, incubated them for a few years before selling it off to international groups including Star and Walt Disney

> Produced scores of Bollywood blockbusters and memorable films including Rang De Basanti, Barfi and Chennai Express

> Launched his private equity business, Unilazer Ventures

Given my background, I would like to push and evangelise people into an entrepreneurial career. Where we suffer in India is in terms of not building scale and we are not brand conscious, we haven’t really built brands. We also need to create value, not just look at profit and loss. In my new venture I will be doing strategic investments. We are not a private equity fund, but strategic investors, and will take a stake of between 35 and 45 per cent in consumer-facing companies or impact industries. And while I do not want to run a company, I believe I can create ground-up businesses.

When we moved out of UTV and sold to Disney, Zarina, my wife and I debated a lot on what we wanted to do with the Swades Foundation (which was started by the couple to empower rural India). We were active in rural Maharashtra in a small way, catering to the needs of about 40,000 villagers.

The key thing for me was how to use my entrepreneurial and organisational skills for institution-building in the social sector. I genuinely believe one can bring the thought processes of the corporate world and aspects like accountability and build organisations in the social sector. We need to have core goals as in any other organisation. We spent a year meeting a large number of people in the NGO sector in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere and understanding their models.

We came to the conclusion that while many people are working in the sector, it is mostly in silos. And because of our confidence of having run diversified companies, we felt we could replicate it in the foundation. We have now created a few verticals where we will focus on: water and sanitation, health, education and creating livelihood. We have adopted 3,000 villages covering about a million people in the districts of Raigad and Ratnagiri in Maharashtra.

It is a monster of a job and a big challenge which will take a lot of resources. Part of the challenge is to raise funds. Right now, we are funding it entirely on our own.

How do you view the prospects for the Indian media and entertainment sector?

These are extremely interesting times for the media and entertainment sector and will remain so for the next 10 to 15 years. The level of disruption and innovation that is happening in media is incredible. A big challenge in India is that nobody is willing to pay for what they consume; much of the media is dependent on ads. This has to change.

The new media is also not being taken seriously as people do not visualise how they can make money. The world over, the new media is getting a lot of revenue. Look at Netflix, the leading internet television network, which is less than seven years old. It has overtaken HBO, a 50-year-old company.

In China and Japan, new players are marrying technology, content and consumers and creating humungous companies. India has the potential, but somehow we are not able to harness it. It is not going to change if we keep identifying opportunities, but not do something about it.

Creativity also needs to be taken to the next level. We take creativity and innovation for granted. There has not been much of innovation in the movies or television business. I don’t see the newspaper business being threatened in India for the next 10 to 15 years, mainly because there is an entire new population that is getting educated.

But if I were a newspaper owner, the biggest worry for me would be the fact that the core group — those between 16 and 25 — is gone. They are not reading papers. You have to tell the news in a different way, as they want to hear news in a social way.

You have to talk in their language and create hubs and discussion points, but that is not happening.

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