Rajeev Chandrasekhar looks good. His eyes are bright, handlebar moustache luxuriantly black and with a dapper upward twirl at both ends, and he smiles easily and contagiously. He also looks fit, a result, he later says, of regular workouts (it turns out he lost 30kg in eight months since July 2005). That’s radically different from how he used to look a few years ago, but Chandrasekhar sets the tone for this meeting by stating upfront that he is “focused on the future”, not on events of the past.
The meeting is at Chandrasekhar’s old office in Bangalore. Only, the name on front is new. Jupiter Capital is the company Chandrasekhar founded in July 2005 even as he set out to reinvent himself and his business interests. The makeover that has followed since has been nothing short of dramatic.
Clearly, being a member of the upper house of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, suits the man (he is also chief of what is, arguably, India’s second most powerful industry lobby, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, or Ficci). And, the former Intel techie and BPL Mobile boss isn’t just any parliamentarian. He is the man who kindled what can only be called l’affaire derivatives.
Big bucks: Chandrasekhar will host a radio show of blues and contemporary rock music. (Illustration by Jayachandran/ Mint).
Over the past few months, several small, mid-sized, even large companies have announced mark-to-market losses on foreign exchange derivatives they originally bought to prevent themselves from risks associated with currency fluctuations (some of the companies have since taken the banks to court alleging that they were “mis-sold” the derivatives which, they further claim, are in violation of the RBI rules). Chandrasekhar’s involvement with the issue stems from a question he asked of finance minister P. Chidambaram in Parliament. It was in response to this query about the quantum of derivatives in the Indian banking system that Chidambaram made his by-now famous revelation that there were Rs127.86 trillion worth of derivatives on the books of Indian banks as on March this year.
Chandrasekhar’s question was an intelligent one. But then, the engineer son of Air Commodore M.K. Chandrasekhar is known to be smart.
While a student in the US, he met and married Anju Nambiar the daughter of BPL founder T.P. Gopala Nambiar. On his return to India in 1991, he went to work for the group, at that time one of India’s best-known consumer products companies. A chance encounter with one of his father’s former air force colleagues, Rajesh Pilot, then India’s minister for telecom, convinced Chandrasekhar to enter the fledgling mobile telephony business in the country.
He, and BPL, did well. For a time, Chandrasekhar and Sunil Bharti Mittal, now chairman of Bharti Airtel, were spoken of in the same breath. The two even posed in dark suits for the cover of a business magazine and presented the very image of a new India. Then things went wrong. Debt piled up, a proposed merger didn’t materialize, and BPL lost out on an opportunity to parlay its early success in the business into a pan-Indian mobile footprint like Bharti did. Still, Chandrasekhar did come out on top, when he sold BPL’s mobile business to the Essar Group in a transaction that is reported to have left him with around Rs1,600 crore. That was in 2005. And Chandrasekhar, who must have been tired of it all (he also fought a bruising battle with his father-in-law for control of BPL’s mobile businesses), took a break.
After emerging from that hiatus, Chandrasekhar has entered businesses as diverse as container trains, ports, radio, media, and aircraft maintenance. He also managed to get himself elected to the Rajya Sabha as an independent from Karnataka in 2006.
Which is why he took out advertisements (at his own expense, he hastens to add) to encourage people to vote in the recently concluded Karnataka elections.
Evidently, the man who has effected a remarkable makeover in his person and business wants to do the same with the political system, and even Ficci.
“I don’t want Ficci to be seen as a cosy lobbying agency for the interests of a section of business. I want it to be a platform for entrepreneurs and those businessmen who want to be a part of nation building,” Chandrasekhar says, adding that he would like to “reinvent” the organization.
As for politics, Chandrasekhar considers it serious business and rattles off details of the issues he has raised and his attendance in Parliament. Business itself is best left to the people he has hired to run his companies, Chandrasekhar says. He is still there to set the direction, but they do all the running there is to be done.
Jupiter’s war chest has allowed it the luxury of entering businesses that have either just emerged on the Indian landscape or those set for frenetic growth. “There is no big picture. My investments have been in five chosen areas of aviation, technology, transportation infrastructure, media and entertainment, and hospitality, sectors which I think will be relevant and fast growing in four to five years from now. Professional managers run the show, I am just a investor and lead coach,” says Chandrasekhar.
He is also wary of discussing the nitty-gritty of his individual businesses, claiming that most of his companies are still in stealth mode because he doesn’t want to attract attention or competition by talking too much about them. This, despite some very public wins such as the Rs1,300 crore Vijaydurg port in Maharashtra or the acquisition of engineering services firm Axis-IT&T.
Chandrasekhar says the strategy for his business investments is to identify a fast growing opportunity, scale up the business and bring in a partner only after it has achieved a certain size and momentum. “We are builders of ventures and not necessarily turned on by running it. We build scale and then bring in a partner.”
Chandrasekhar has big plans for media, too. He runs TV channels in Kannada and Malayalam, an FM station, and a city magazine. “I like the non-Hindi and non-English media space because I see a lot of potential. By the end of the year, we will have channels in Telugu, Tamil, Marathi…nearly nine more channels,” he says.
He refuses to comment on rumours of his interest in The Printers Mysore (Pvt.) Ltd, the company that publishes Bangalore’s Deccan Herald paper. “I like that (print) space and we are scanning the market all the time for suitable acquisitions. We will, however, grow organically also,” Chandrasekhar adds.
Chandrasekhar’s involvement in the media will also extend to a 2-hour programme that he will host on his FM station. It will “play blues, contemporary rock…” It won’t just be about the music he likes, Chandrasekhar says. “If the point of having a radio station is to play only music I like, it would be cheaper to buy a music player rather than invest Rs35 crore in running a station,” he adds.
He is also learning to play the guitar. He admits these excite him more than the things that once did—such as cars and bikes (he has an impressive collection, including a Ferrari, at his home in Bangalore’s Koramangala area). But, what excites him most is being an agent of change in every walk of life he steps into.
Born: 31 May 1964
Education: Bachelors degree in electrical engineering, Manipal, Karnataka; masters in computer science, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA; advanced management programme, Harvard University, Boston, USA
Career: Between?1985 and 1991,?he was in the USA with chip-maker Intel Inc. and was part of the Pentium team. Returned and founded BPL Mobile in 1994. Sold his 64% stake in BPL in 2005 to Essar. Later formed Jupiter Capital, a venture development and investment company focusing on infrastructure, media and technology ideas
Hobbies: Motorbikes, cars, planes and music. He flies a Cessna 162, P-68 and also plays the guitar
Most Satisfying Moment: The day he launched BPL Mobile
Currently Reading: ‘Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army’ by Jeremy Scahill
(K. Raghu contributed to this story.)