Amit Jain can tell a mean story. Just get him started about military history and see. Not that Sun Tzu stuff. Ask him about the fun riots he’s found himself in, as a former Coca-Cola executive, and just listen to the detail and watch him act it out. But ask him what he’s bad at—and other things like that—and here’s what you’ll likely hear: “Hmm. That’s a murky question”, “that’s murkier”, and “for that question I’m going to need a fourth drink”.
These days he’s surrounded by kids at his MTV stint as managing director. “I’m, what, the only guy above 40 in the whole company (he’s 42)? We’re going to have a company policy that says ‘there’s only one guy with white hair who’s allowed in this building’!” he says to Sandeep Dahiya, his communications director, who I think is there to say “no, no, chief, you can’t mention that to a reporter”, but who is silent, watching the conversation unfold.
We’re sitting in a pub called Dublin and it’s down the road from the Bata warehouse in Parel, Mumbai. It’s got all sorts of green Irish metal picture things on the walls and there’s stained glass everywhere. Oh, and the music. There’s a lovely strain of Celtic music playing in here. At the same time, over another speaker, you have George Michael singing about freedom. This goes on for a bit. But Jain isn’t perturbed. He’s sitting there, sipping a Glenlivet.
It must be bliss because he hasn’t moved for two hours. How does he handle the noise? Maybe it’s the drink, but maybe he’s just immune to terrible music. It probably goes with the territory of being boss at MTV. Punjabi hiphop? Out. George Michael-Celt remixes? Out.
I wonder if he’s the kind of boss who gatecrashes a brainstorming session and says, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a promo!” and nobody knows where to look. “I would have loved to say yes,” he says, “but it’s important for a person to know what he’s good at. So, no, I’m not too good at promos. Well, I’m not good enough.” Momentary wavering and then: “I have an idea a day, so I catch Dahiya at 9.30am and tell him I’ve got a good idea. But then my team just looks at me, like, ‘Boss, why don’t you do what you’re good at’?”
What, according to him, is he good at? He makes himself comfortable. “I surround myself with the right people. I’m not the most inspirational guy. I can’t stand on a stump and give a rousing speech, but give me 10 good people, and I’ll make sure they’re 10 great people.
“It’s very different here. From working with seasoned managers to working with people who spew this creativity, it’s awesome.” Jain joined MTV India in January 2006, after 11 years with Coca-Cola.
We talk about leadership styles for a while—his own and the people he has worked under. How about Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, I ask. “A large part of the Google story was about invention and innovation, and facilitative leadership in equal parts—they knew when to step back. It’s genius. Not only did they have a good idea, but they had the maturity to partner with a bunch of professionals who could take it to the next level. Unlike a lot of us Indian businessmen, they knew when to let go.”
The son of an air marshal, he always dreamt of joining the air force. “I sat in flight simulators to train. It replicated the fright of a deep-penetration. So, you’re flying in a Jaguar at Mach 1.2 at a 100 feet and all you can see is a blur.” He sighs. “It’s the most incredible high you can get.”
So how did he miss out? He was done in by, of all things, his spectacles. “Lasik would sure have helped.” He turned to the stories in air-force canteens, military history books and war movies to keep him going.
We talk about movies: The Longest Day, the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. “Exactly! When you listen to their stories, they tell you about the fear. They tell you so much about their fear that a random bullet could get them from nowhere.”
At some point, he mentions that his Delhi branch employs a sniper who fought at Kargil. He never stops smiling. “What a varied bunch we have, eh?” he says. The sniper, he adds later, now has more mundane duties.
Although the air force eluded him, Jain found himself in some pretty hairy situations. There were shootings in Nepal, a riot in Bangladesh when the Gulf War occurred and the 1984 riots in Delhi, when a sword-brandishing Sikh with a turban on fire took after him.
As an executive at Imperial Chemical Industries, Coca-Cola and now MTV, he’s travelled extensively. Of all the places he has been to, “Thailand was the most fun”. How did he, a vegetarian, survive there? “You don’t! Before going out for a dinner party, I’d eat at home. You know, even their raw papaya salad was served with fish sauce. So, I’ve never eaten out.” For the record, his family is vegetarian. “It’s a belief system. I’m not religious.”
When he was at Coke, he was loaned to McDonald’s to set up their first India branch, where he learned how to make a burger.
He talks about travel and tradition for a bit as Dublin slowly fills up. At some point, the pub begins playing an accordion rendition of a 1950s Hindi classic. The DJ has to be absolutely mad. Jain, on the other hand, keeps talking. “We have this family tradition. In December, wherever we are in the world, we go to a wildlife park. We go out, photograph tigers. It’s very important.”
His last assignment before he took over at MTV India was running the northeastern operations of Coca-Cola—a business worth $200 million (about Rs880 crore). The move to MTV was because he wanted to be part of a business where he could have a paradigm shift. He had his wish recently when he launched MTV in Pakistan.
Jain has worked in South Asia and Southeast Asia a lot, and I ask him what the toughest part of doing business in this part of the world is. “It’s the uncertainty,” he says in a blink. “Having operated businesses in other emerging markets, I can safely say that India’s a surprise a month.” What is the toughest place he has done business in? “Bangladesh, without doubt. I think God was in a bad mood in December 1971. A very bad mood. It’s very scary. Annually, 40% of the country is flooded: They get hit by tidal waves, cyclones and annual floods. Life is just so unfair to them. It changes the mindset of the people. If a manager has run a successful business in Bangladesh, I have a lot of respect for him.”
Then he turns to our rather silent companion. It’s running late. Time to wind down. “I shall flick a cigarette from you, Mr. Dahiya,” he says with a smile. He lights a Wills Classic and the smoke rises, whispering past the no smoking sign above us. It’s what I like about these MTV guys. They’re irreverent wherever they go, Dublin included.
Name: Amit Jain
Born: 1964 (in Meerut)
Education: MBA from Faculty of Management Studies in Delhi, has done an advanced management programme from the Wharton Business School
Work Profile: After leaving his job at Imperial Chemical Industries in August 1994, he worked at Coca-Cola for 11 years, where he learnt both sides of the business — the bottling and the marketing. Joined MTV in January 2006 and, recently, launched MTV Pakistan.