Kumar Birla’s Living Media investment is a bet on a sunset sector

Kumar Mangalam Birla’s investments in “sunrise” sectors over the last decade have been garments, retailing, telecom, financial services and software. All these have fetched very poor returns. Now comes his investment in the messy, unprofitable and sunset media sector

Kumar Mangalam Birla has just bought a 27.5% stake in the Living Media group which publishes a clutch of magazines such as India Today, Business Today, Cosmopolitan and so on. The group also runs channels like TV Today, Aaj Tak and has a printing press called Thomson Press. The acquisition was done through Kumar Birla’s private investment company. While announcing the stake buy, Kumar Birla said “The media sector is a sunrise sector from an investment point of view. I believe that Living Media India offers one of the best opportunities for growth and value creation.” Both these are questionable. If you look at the balance sheets of all but a few of the largest companies, the media looks like a sunset sector and Living Media not exactly in the pink of health.

Mercifully, shareholders of Indian Rayon and Aditya Birla Nuvo have been spared of this adventurism. Aroon Purie, a chartered accountant who controls the India Today group, has so far kept Living Media and Thomson Press private, and has publicly listed only TV Today.

According to the data we have of 2010, Living Media made a loss of Rs12 crore for March that year. In fact, all except some English publications like the Times of India, Hindustan Times and the leading regional publications (like Malayam Manorama or Ananda Bazar Patrika) are losing money—as are top TV channels like NDTV and TV18.

If Mr Birla genuinely believes that media is a sunrise business, the question is how many times will Mr Birla get carried away by trying to invest in so-called sunrise sectors?

Kumar Birla has been dreaming of sunrise sectors for over a decade now—ever since he inherited the old fashioned metals, cement and textiles businesses when his father Aditya Birla passed away in 1995. He entered the telecom business (Idea Telecom), financial services (Birla Sunlife Mutual Fund and Birla Sunlife Insurance), sold stock the broking business and later bought again (Apollo Sindhoori) and took over the garments business of Madura Coats, paying Rs235 crore to acquire Van Heusen, Louis Phillipe, Allen Solly, Peter England and started a retailing business.

Among the sunrise businesses he had identified in 2001, was software. In June 2001 Indian Rayon bought 50.35% controlling stake from France’s Groupe Bull in PSI Data Systems (PSI) at a price of Rs186.80 per share in cash—costing Rs71 crore.  Commenting on the deal, at time, Kumar Mangalam Birla had said “This strategic foray into the technology sector is part of a well-crafted plan to enhance value for Indian Rayon shareholders, through significant rise in growth and earnings. Our aspiration is to attain a leadership position in this sector.” While spending Indian Rayon’s money in buying PSI and Madura garments, Kumar Birla had also declared that the company has undergone a major change in profile by getting into businesses in which “knowledge and branding are key”. That sounded like a powerful wish but was it grounded in reality? In June 2003, Mr Birla even went into the low-margin business of call centres by buying Transworks. The outcome? PSI Data got delisted in March 2009, after destroying 60% of shareholders’ wealth over eight years. Madura Garments hardly makes any money consistently.

The fact is, like the media Mr Birla is willing to fund now, all these businesses—garments, software, IT services, financial services and retailing, telecom— were also described as sunrise businesses and were claimed to be value creating. None of these have delivered return on capital that justified investments in them. Mr Birla’s attempt to make over the commodity-oriented group, through an entry into the glamorous businesses has added to the group’s profile but not much to its bottomline. All these new-gen businesses are limping because they need focused and innovative entrepreneurship while Mr Birla’s principal strength is access to capital.

Possibly chastened by the financial outcome of these dubious forays, Mr Birla has decided not to use public-listed companies to finance his media wish. In that sense, his private investment in Living Media marks a departure from his earlier adventures. He will be a passive and personal investor in an unlisted company. That doesn’t answer a key question: Will he again be throwing good money after bad having fallen for glamour? That depends on how well he understands the media business.

The economics of the media business in India is completely been vitiated over the past decade or so. It is not a business where the more efficient thrive. It is not a business which is delivering improved quality of products and services to masses. Indeed, many of the better media companies are financially crippled today because the competition for advertising revenues is too intense. So, why doesn’t the supply of media products and companies shrink?  Because poor quality media companies are not pushed to the wall and do not go out of business. Their losses are supported by politicians and businessmen for their own vested interests. Why have three new daily newspapers sprung up in a poor state like West Bengal over the last two years? If there was ever a sunset business, it is media, especially the print part, which is core of Living Media. And Aroon Purie has publicly stated that the promise of digital media is overblown. Kumar Mangalam Birla seems to have not only got carried away once again in his quest for sunrise sector but this investment is surely one of his worst.

1 decade ago
ear sucheta

will you only invest in companies which are Profitable, then why did you start Money Life, as a Non profitable organisation and trying to empower investors..

you should understand Media is not just for making profit or Money, they have a social responsibilty , by doing this resposibly and honestly, everybody cant make Money. Mr.Birla Put money into INDIA TODAY Group not for getting dividends. its his responsibilty to support an indepentant media house to survive in the longrun...group
Shibaji Dash
1 decade ago
The Committee on Corporate Governance was constituted a decade or so ago under the Chairmanship of KMB. The report was submitted.At that time the name KMB sort of spelt magic. Today, sadly, it does not.Some of the reasons are embedded in the views expressed so far. One wonders why the health care sector which has only two major players with limited share of this promising niche market did not tickle the imagination of KMB.
nagesh kini
Replied to Shibaji Dash comment 1 decade ago
Are Birla's not major stakeholders in health care with Bombay Hospital?
Nagesh Kini
1 decade ago
Narayan Murthy of Infosys also got on the board of NDTV and exit too?
1 decade ago
I think, this is one of the best analysis of how best one can waste money. thanks ML for highlighting the poor vision of KMB. The typical born with a silver spoon, and their cronies like Manali think like they knew everything and they are the wisest. Unfortunately, when it comes to balance sheets, they have been proved ingorant all the time. Isnt it time for the likes of KMB and Manali to take a break. Grow up...
jayesh Shah
1 decade ago
I agree... I was idly glancing through the comments and remembered that this is not the first time Birla had lost money. In fact there was something in Birla Money.
Here is a link: http://new.moneylife.in/article/aditya-b...

And I found it in moneycontrol as well - so you were not alone in trashing him
1 decade ago
I was not surprised abt this move of Mr Birla.He has habit of doing this often.Initially he written off 100 cr investment made in carbon project then the famous MRBPL sell @ Rs:2/= to ONGC.So still investors go for his companies,they deserve to loose.
1 decade ago
Excellent facts and analysis
IT professional
1 decade ago
Birla IT foray as Birla Consultancy Service (renamed Birla Technologies) was disaster. PSI was dud acquisition.
Manali Rohinesh
1 decade ago
A well argued article..but if Mr Birla had offered MoneyLife his cash..would you have turned him down? You have one magazine which is mostly read online by readers like me, who chose to read you in the first place! India Today has everything from Harvard Business Review to Reader's Digest to one of the best current news magazines in the country. So, while they can't point to a healthy balancesheet at the moment, they have still been around longer than MoneyLife. So, when MoneyLife completes 30+ years in good health and then gets a little vital cash infusion, due to wear and tear, no one would grudge it that.

As for whether it makes business sense or not, well a lot of businesses run on debts and loans and refinancing. What are banks there for? They certainly don't only survive on peddling loans and products to me!!
shanta kulkarni
Replied to Manali Rohinesh comment 1 decade ago
What is your point, if any?

Or are you not getting the fact that this is about Kumar Birla not about living media...

Manali Rohinesh
Replied to shanta kulkarni comment 1 decade ago
It's about Kumar Birla's investment in Living Media and my point is 'It's his money and others would have been happy to take it too'. Wasn't that clear to you? And to emphasize it a little more clearly...other media companies with less pull and products out there would love to be in Living Media's place.
Replied to Manali Rohinesh comment 1 decade ago
And so kumar birla will throw it?
Did you understand the point of the piece?
its not about living media, about birla.
Replied to rakesh comment 1 decade ago
Even Apple and Google have miscalculated and made investments in dud products/projects. It's good to know they weren't listening to you because they must have learnt something along the way. So, if money is thrown away..it must be because the owner of that money saw some value in what he was investing in - and it's surprising that you don't seem to get that.

And I'm entitled to my opinion..just like the way some of you are parroting each other. So, don't try to correct my viewpoint because I don't care about yours. My comments were my takeaway from this 'piece'.
Replied to Manali comment 1 decade ago
"if money is thrown away..it must be because the owner of that money saw some value in what he was investing in"
That is the whole point. What is that value, in case you know it?
Please enlighten us and the Moneylife writer. You seem to be much smarter
sachin rao
Replied to rakesh comment 1 decade ago
Looks like this Manali person has a problem with Moneylife ... hard to believe she is on a business/finance/ personal finance website and does not realise that your analysis is not about likes and dislikes and whether people would be happy to get Birla's money -- but about Kumar Birla's judgement.

He he... did moneylife offend her in some manner?
I wonder why all of us are taking her seriously - me included. Just tempted to join the debate, I guess :-)
Ravi Shyam
1 decade ago
Since its inception Moneylife has stayed focussed on issues that matter and helping its readers get sensitised to the realities that surround us. While investors interest and welfare has been its core thrust,this article armed with irrefutable facts brings out the case that this investment is one of due negligence and certainly not of due deligence!
Replied to Ravi Shyam comment 1 decade ago
Couldn't agree more.
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