Ronnie Screwvala : The Persistent Businessman

People know him as a Bollywood producer with many superhits like Rang De Basanti, Barfi, Kai Po Che, Chennai Express, Delhi Belly and acclaimed films like Swades, Jodha Akbar, Khosla ka Ghosla, No One Killed Jessica, etc. under his belt. But being true to his Parsi genes, Ronnie is an opportunistic and has had multiple businesses before ultimately taking on this role. Born in 1956, Rohinton Soli Screwvala aka Ronnie Screwvala was the founder of the UTV group (that houses Bloomberg UTV, UTV Motion Pictures and other subsidiaries) that was sold to Disney in 2012, and Swades Foundation that is working towards building a better India. He’s also been named in Esquire’s 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century and was among Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. He is also the author of Dream With Your Eyes Open: An Entrepreneurial Journey.

“Dreaming with your eyes open means being alert to challenges but refusing to let them stop you.”

It all started when Ronnie was 13 years old and his house in Mumbai had a direct view of Novelty Cinemas. Whenever a movie premiere happened, thousands of people would gather to see the celebrities and Ronnie found an opportunity to sell ‘balcony seats’ to a few for the event. Giving enough money to splurge on dates and confidence to do more of what he liked, the little Ronnie gradually moved on to exploring his passion for theater and debates while in college pursuing B.Com.

His philandering focus on studies in college costed him an year, but gave him a clear idea that studying further and looking for a job was not something he was going to be good at. Like most stories at this stage, much to the disappointment of his father Ronnie told him that he’d be focusing on carving his own path in life.
As it is said, it is equally important in life to know what not to do.

ENTRY INTO THEATER

Ronnie decided to take his hobby to a professional level and started doing drama, ad films and voice overs. He also invested money in a failed rock concert for which he had to borrow money from family and girlfriends. To make up for it, he dabbled more into theater and voiceovers and ended up in a play with Alyque Padamsee and voiceover in a commercial for Cadbury 5 Star that paid him good money for that time. Theater also made him a good and confident orator.

“You don’t have to be the fastest wildebeest to survive. You just never want to be the slowest.” 

SELLING HIS FIRST CABLE TV BUSINESS

Soon Ronnie was doing enough theater shows to get bogged down by multiple commitments and time clashes. This prompted him to start making his own shows so he could be his own boss and was not answerable to other producers for not making it to their shows. ‘Lazer Productions’ was then founded with only pocket money and earnings.

During one of his trips for voiceover to a recording studio, Ronnie met Mr. Nanavati, founder of Nanavati Hospital and his future father-in-law. One of his companies was putting CCTV cameras at various race courses in the country and streaming it to live audience. This gave Ronnie the idea of cable TV and he founded ‘Network’. After some hard time getting customers, doing demos for people in their homes, or for communities in their lawns, Network got a few customers who would watch the cable TV only on weekends. Soon they turned their eyes towards hotels, and Network’s growth graph changed with deals from Oberoi, Taj and Ashok group of hotels. Network was later sold to Sterling Group.

SELLING HIS SECOND TOOTHBRUSH MANUFACTURING BUSINESS

Around the same time, Ronnie spotted an easy to miss opportunity in England. During a visit to Addis hair and toothbrush factory, he noticed two machines that were ready to be scraped but were in perfect working condition, had years of life left in them and he knew would be considered cutting-edge back home. He went back home, met with many toothbrush companies and convinced Colgate to be their customers. Ronnie found this company purely because of the opportunity it presented, and so he appointed friends as co-founders so he didn’t have to do much work and could focus on other things. The company was later sold.

“I am too busy working on my own grass to notice if yours is greener.” 

ENTRY INTO TELEVISION

During his days of theater with Alyque Padamsee, he once mentioned to Ronnie that Hindustan Unilever wanted to sponsor a show on Doordarshan but he needed someone to execute it. Ronnie was quick to grab the opportunity and used it to register United Software Communications, a television content company, in 1990. The company also went on to make the popular afternoon show ‘Shanti’ for DD, starring Mandira Bedi, and sponsored by P&G. Soon the company grew into a diversified media company having teams for adfilms, television content and corporate videos. 

Things changed when Zee, India’s first satellite broadcasting company, entered. Having commercial experience with Shanti, in a bold attempt Ronnie went ahead and pitched ten shows. After some reluctance from Zee, things materialist and with this new success eventually United Software got its first private equity investment.

By this time, Ronnie knew well about the media and entertainment content and landed on the list of people to meet during media mogul Rupert Mudroch’s visit to India, who later expressed interest in choosing United to be Star’s content partner in India.

UTV was also doing voice dubbing for a lot of kid’s shows on Disney, Pogo and Cartoon Network, and that’s when Ronnie had an epiphany. He realized that there’s a big gap in children’s entertainment business and this made him launch ‘Hungama’ channel, focusing only on shows for kids. While it struggled initially, the channel then aired two shows that made it the number one channel for kids – Shinchan and Doraemon. This caught Disney’s attention which bought the channel, and later the whole UTV. During this, UTV even bought Vijay TV from Vijay Mallya and ended up selling it to Star TV in 2001.

ENTRY INTO MOVIES
ronnie screwvala movies

The initial deal with Star didn’t prove to be as beneficial as Ronnie thought, and even made old made domestic partners pull out from United’s content and shows. After some complicated turn of events with Star and News Corp (UTV’s early investor) that did not seem to doing well, Ronnie decided it was time to take the business B2C and he made his entry into movies and became a broadcaster himself in 1998.

Movies presented a steep learning curve and significant initial failure, but Ronnie did not want to move back to the B2B business. His team members were suggesting getting out of movie business, and Ronnie could feel pressure too but was determined to make it work. But, then came Rang De Basanti, which marked the inflection point and their credibility in the business and things changed after that.

BUILDING A BETTER INDIA

After moving out from the Disney-UTV deal, Ronnie focused some attention towards scaling his NGO, Share, with his wife Zarina. Share was later renamed ‘Swades Foundation’ after having a resemblance in theme with the eponymous movie and works toward health & nutrition, education, sanitation and economic development for rural empowerment.

Ronnie also founded USports, a sports business company managing athletes, trainings and events for Kabaddi, E Sports, Football and motor sports.

In Ronnie’s own words, he says that he feels blessed with the way things happened. What may look like a businessman’s acumen and vision, was in fact just him holding on to things and not letting opportunities go. He faced several downs, and a few ups, that are enough to make people remember Ronnie Screwvala.

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