Profile: Sunil Mutreja: More hits than flops

By Sumantha Rathore , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing
Last updated : September 25, 2014 10:34
The recently-promoted executive director of the Amar Ujala Group of Publications believes that mistakes are a part of life.

Sunil Mutreja has no regrets in a career that is into its 28th year. He learnt one thing early in life. Embrace failures as gracefully as triumphs. The recently-promoted executive director of the Amar Ujala Group of Publications believes that mistakes are a part of life.

"I've made lots of mistakes, but I've also worked very hard to be where I am today. I've learnt something new with each mistake," says Mutreja, a linguist who is proficient in Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, English, Hindi and Punjabi, and whose forte is communication. He has invested in filmmaking, started magazines, worked with an ad agency, and looked after newspapers. "If I had to pick one business, it would be the newspaper business. It's a challenging job, in terms of building up a brand and readership numbers. It is probably a bigger challenge than selling FMCG products because reading habits are strong and there is not much product differentiation one can create," he claims.

Creating unnoticeable differences can help one build a product over a period of time. "The newspaper business gives you an opportunity to think out-of-the-box, because there is too much of a routine," he says.

One of the unnoticeable changes brought about at Amar Ujala has been to build up a weekend product and then reduce its cover price. "That exercise paid me a huge dividend at a much lower cost and translated into the weekday numbers," he smiles. Compact, the tabloid-sized daily from the group, and Yuvan, the latest product for the youth, are other examples he is proud of.

Filmmaking is something else he enjoyed doing. "I won't mind going back to it provided the person who invests in it (the film) believes in the vision I have, which is to work on smaller films minus the big stars," he reflects. Filmmaking, however, was not a bed of roses for Mutreja, who had quit his job at The Times of India (TOI) to start his own business. "I had only Rs 10,000 cash, my wife and a daughter when I left the TOI. I established a company worth Rs 14-crore out of that. It was not so much about money, but about chasing what I believed in. I believe that if you chase your dream, money will follow."

But, his first film as a producer almost ruined him. "The film (in Tamil) was a flop and I lost Rs 1 crore. That was the time (1999) the TOI called me for a job. But, no amount of salary could help me repay that debt." Left with nothing and faced with the prospect of shutting down his company, Mutreja ran into Narasimha Rao, who conducted exit polls for Doordarshan (DD), which in turn would pay him Rs 20 lakh for each project. It was a chance meeting.

"I suggested that he make an entire show for DD so that he would earn more money. He didn't want to take the risk. I told him I would -- if he would get my idea into DD," says Mutreja.

Staking everything, Mutreja borrowed money, and agreed to make the show and sell the inventory. He also agreed to pay Rao Rs 20 lakh and then split the profit equally. The gamble paid off.

"Since then, there has been no looking back," he reminisces. Within two years, he had paid all his debts, bought a plot, an apartment, an office, and an editing studio. He learnt from the Tamil debacle and knew exactly what had to be done for his next film, American Desi. "I could spot holes during the script stage itself. I finished the film (which would have cost me Rs 1.2 crore) for Rs 95 lakh, and made a profit of Rs 2.5 crore."

Strangely, Mutreja doesn't find television shows very appealing, especially the GECs. "They are repetitive and don't give you any kick in terms of creativity. The business of television and newspapers are like factories. But then, unlike a GEC, newspaper gives you something fresh every morning," he reasons.

In his fifth year at Amar Ujala, Mutreja is now in charge of newsprint sourcing and consumption (it accounts for 50 per cent of the cost), creating budgets and patterns for newsprint, handling new initiatives like magazines and below the line (BTL) activities.

He began his media career in 1989 with the TOI. He adds that his media foundation was laid during his tenure with the the TOI group. It was there that he met Sameer Jain and Pradeep Guha, his role models. "I'm still very passionate about the group, and say so openly," he adds.

Mutreja was an associate vice-president at TOI, when he left the job to start his own business (the magazine business).

Mutreja, who headed the Rajasthan circle for Dainik Bhaskar for one-and-a-half years, from early 2005, considers the newspaper his biggest "circulation success" till date. "My knowledge of circulation and the aggression came from my stint there. It also nurtured the entrepreneur in me," he recalls.

No regrets? Well, there is just one thing. Mutreja feels bad about his being a little unfair to his family. "I've been chasing my heart and haven't been able to give them the time they deserve."

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