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Shekhar Gupta: What made me never want to trust Indrani Mukerjea professionally

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaAug 29, 2015 | 14:50

Shekhar Gupta: What made me never want to trust Indrani Mukerjea professionally

In this season of "I also knew Indrani and this is what happened jab we met", here's a little contribution of mine too.

As a media professional of a certain vintage and seniority, I do know the Mukerjeas professionally, and to some extent socially, though not really personally. I am also confining myself to purely professional issues, except one, which I am keeping to the end. But that is more human than judgmental.

What might be judgmental, but legitimately so, is my view of the Mukerjeas on professional issues because that is where our paths crossed more than once.

First, Indrani had entirely her own definition of business ethics, and I will mention one. Before she launched her own media enterprise with Peter, she ran what seemed like a really exclusive head-hunting company. It confined itself, she said, only to the top, what would be today called CEO-level appointments, preferably in the one-crore plus per annum bracket.

Remember, we are talking about 2001-2. A crore-plus PA was then a top wage.

I had then been pitch-forked by a complex and dramatic set of circumstances to take over the job of Group CEO of the Indian Express Group in addition to being the paper's editor-in-chief. I knew nothing about management. Forget reading a balance sheet, I didn't even have the software in my head to comprehend an Excel sheet. I couldn't tell debit from credit on an account statement.

I desperately needed key personnel to help me and the Express Group navigate our way out of a near-death situation. This was also the period of the first dot-com boom-bust, the economy was down, newsprint prices high and interest rates ridiculous.

I asked anybody I knew in the corporate and financial world for advice. I asked the Mukerjeas too. Indrani said she could help me find key people and asked if she could come make a pitch.

She came by one afternoon to my corporate office in Mumbai, where I spent about half the working week in that crisis period. She made a brilliant presentation, smarter than I have seen from many fancied head-hunters. She said she already had a candidate for my CFO. She passed me a folder with his CV and details and said she would recommend him strongly as a person ideally suited for the kind of situation our company was in.

One look at the CV, and I was taken aback. The gentleman had a pretty good track record it seemed, but his current employment then was CFO of Star Network in India.

"Indrani, he is Peter's CFO, no?” I asked, wondering if she had mixed up something in her papers, etc and offered me the wrong candidate.

"I know, baby, but so what," she said. "I may be married to Peter but we have professional lives totally independent of each other."

Tell you the truth, I more or less bought that explanation. I thought probably that is how things are in the corporate world. And why should a woman be constrained in her existing business just because she marries somebody.

But that was only for a few minutes while we finished our coffee, I said I would run reference checks on the person. Then I came out to escort Indrani to the lifts in Express Towers in Mumbai.

"Tell me, Shekhar," she said, her hand casually touching my forearm, "how much do you get paid?"

Caught unprepared, I blabbered something confused but to the effect that it wasn't relevant.

"No, baby, it is relevant," she said. "I can place you as well in a much better job, just give me your details, na."

I asked if it was correct for her to come pitching to the CEO of a company to help him hire key personnel, but also try hiring him out instead?

She said, "baby", grow up. Stop being a silly journalist. Learn the ways of the corporate world and, of course, "would I ever do anything that was not ethical?"

Full disclosure: I did not give her any mandate either to hire people for me, or to hire me out, nor did I share my "details" with her. I was never going to trust her as a professional. Also, that later when they launched their own venture, they approached me to join their "exciting new group" flush with cash "unlike" where I was. But that was an entirely legitimate approach, which I politely declined.

And the little personal story: On one of those very joyful dinners on the Mukerjea family terrace, we discovered their little daughter Vidhie and I shared our birthday. From then on, every year, I got a more or less identical text from Peter: “Many happy returns to one of the two most charming and impossible people I know.”

Since I was in Mumbai this week, I dropped by at Peter's home to understand his side of the story. It was, coincidentally, also our birthday.

I didn't quite know what to say to Vidhie, who had just turned adult and had been hit by this situation. So I said, not one of those birthdays when you say many happy returns of the day, but as my old friend and US Ambassador to India Bob Blackwill loves to say, no matter how bad the times, tomorrow they will be your good old days.

This story has taken many turns in the three days since. And I am assailed by guilt that my birthday remark was out of place, may be even insensitive.

Last updated: August 31, 2015 | 11:18
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