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Like father, unlike son: Punit Goenka’s bumpy ride at the Zee Group

In terms of leadership style, Goenka was a far cry from his father -- the flamboyant Subhash Chandra. Dance India Dance and the decision to quit sport altogether are among his high points at Zee. However, he is an overshadowed promoter caught in the shifting tides of an economy that is transforming.

September 14, 2021 / 01:32 PM IST

His name may be all over the headlines now, but before investors demanded his removal from the companies in which he had inherited control and management, Punit Goenka was never one for the spotlight.

In fact, for the outside world, it would be even harder to draw a connection to his famous and very visible father.

Originally from Hisar, the father changed his last name to become Subhash Chandra. But his two sons (Amit and Punit) kept their surnames as Goenka, also interchangeable with Goyal in the Baniya community.

Punit Goenka, 46, now CEO and Managing Director of Zee Entertainment Enterprise, is facing a growing clamour for his removal by two of his company's largest investors. Invesco Developing Markets Fund and OFI Global China Fund have called for a special meeting of shareholders to discuss his removal. Zee shares jumped 21 percent in response to this news.

Moneycontrol has reached out to Goenka for comment. This copy will be updated when he responds.

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Goenka’s launchpad

Goenka took charge of the Zee Group after the late Pradeep Guha ran it for a few years -- between 2004 and 2009. Before that, he was running a company called Agrani, created by the promoters, in a bid to launch a satellite for creating a TV headend that was truly in the sky. But it did not take off. (A cable television headend is a master facility for receiving television signals for processing and distribution over a cable television system.)

Then, under Goenka, Agrani Convergence launched its first chain of mobile phone stores under CEO Pankaj Mahendru. It set up some 40 stores, recalls a former employee, which were then shut down in a year or so due to a lack of competitive advantage.

Goenka grew up across India as a student, starting in Hisar in Haryana, then school at Sanawar in Himachal Pradesh, followed by the University of Mumbai. He started his career as most heirs do -- by working on the shopfloor and then serving as executive assistant to his father. He also spent time working at Essel Packaging.

The Zee innings

In 2008, he took over as CEO from Pradeep Guha. In terms of leadership style, associates describe him as an absolute contrast to his father. Punit Goenka prefers to be under the radar, low-key to a fault and without a sense of humour. But those who knew him also say he is gentle and benign.

While Goenka ran the group, most in the company saw him as silent and following in his father’s larger footsteps. He would be known to come into the office, and usually ask employees and managers if all was OK before he moved on.

“That he wouldn't say anything different or radical is a stretch. Goenka wouldn't say anything at all,” said one former manager who didn’t wish to be named.

He has no ivy league MBA and no technical degree from a world-class university. Yet it’s a matter of credit that despite his underweight educational qualifications, Goenka did fill in for his was larger-than-life father and kept the ship going. Later, he became chief of the Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF) and was also founder-chairman of BARC India, playing a significant role in setting up the TV viewership measurement company.

Goenka’s Twitter handle offers a peek into the genial side of the promoter, where he regularly congratulates his team for awards and achievements they may have won, gives kudos to Indian athletes at the Olympics. He even described Guha, when he died recently, as his mentor.

At a management level, he gave the organisation much more leniency and creatives improved considerably. While under him, TRPs were better and improved after having lost ground to the likes of Colors, one entertainment executive says that Goyal was truly adept at allowing creative ideas to take commercial shape at the lowest possible cost. An example was Dance India Dance, which allowed amateur peformers a shot at the spotlight but was low on the cost of talent.

It was also under his tenure that Zee completely exited sports -- never to return. They had failed at cricket and a variety of sports that they tried to make a go of the sports entertainment niche in TV.

Another long-time friend who knows him socially says Goenka is "a basic guy who kept the Zee ship going."

Goenka, in the aftermath of his father's departure from the company, was someone who avoided the broader social circuit but had his own little circuit of friends with whom he let his hair down. It's said that over a drink or two, the normally quiet Goenka would love to break into a song or two.

An overshadowed inheritor and promoter caught in the shifting tides of an economy that is transforming, the road ahead will test his ability to keep the music going.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: Sep 14, 2021 01:32 pm

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