The media was the one business, of the many my family was involved with, which really fascinated me. From an early age, I would come up with ideas for our newspaper Hindustan Times
. I would bounce these off my father, K.K. Birla. He realised my passion. But to convince him that I could lead a newspaper took a lot of hard work. I did not walk into an empowered position in HT Media Ltd right away. I worked my way through different aspects of the business for several years. I first became director, then executive director, and much later vice chairperson. It was after my father passed away that I took over as chairperson.
My biggest challenge did not have to do with gender. It is true there were few women in the media when I joined it. That did present some challenges. But that was the norm in every industry those days. The bigger challenge was to understand the nuances of the media, which was going through a metamorphosis at the time. As the liberalisation process got underway, a new middle class emerged. With a surge in consumerism in this class, the media became a very vibrant place. New kinds of advertising emerged, a departure from the past when publications depended heavily on government ads.
The next main challenge was to re-orient the company as a profitable, professional and consumer-focused one. HT had a legacy issue in that it was a potent nationalist organ during the freedom struggle. It was at Mahatma Gandhi's behest that my grandfather started the newspaper, and it was Gandhiji's son Devadas Gandhi who was our first editor. The paper had a very patriotic flavour; the profit motive was only secondary. After Independence, the paper's focus had to change. It had to find a new raison d'tre. It had to be turned into a product that would engage with consumers and retain them as readers. This had to be in sync with the rapidly changing dynamics of the country. We could not afford to rest on our laurels.
When I was really empowered, my first task was to set up a team of professional managers. At the time, the media had few people specialising in the sector. I had to look to other industries for talent. My senior management largely comes from the consumer goods sector. A media platform is no different from any other product. You have to identify the demographic profile you want to cater to, what kind of product that segment is looking for and then package it accordingly.
I want to benchmark HT with the best in the world. My work ethic and inspiration comes from my parents, my ideal of what I want HT to be comes from The Washington Post. In 1984/85, I spent time at The Post's offices in the US to understand how they functioned. We borrowed resources from them and have tried to incorporate their best practices.
The company's transformation - from a Delhi-centric paper to a vibrant multimedia company - has been immensely fulfilling. Very often, things do not go according to plan. This is why you have to keep benchmarking yourself. The question you have to ask yourself is: are you on course? If not, you have to undertake mid-course corrections before it is too late.