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Why Harit Nagpal of Tata Play loves field visits

The MD and CEO of Tata Play talks about his four-decade career in consumer businesses, his leadership strategies, and taking acting lessons

Harit Nagpal, MD and CEO of Tata Play (formerly Tata Sky)
Harit Nagpal, MD and CEO of Tata Play (formerly Tata Sky) (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

The first thing you notice about Harit Nagpal, the managing director and CEO of India’s leading direct-to-home (DTH) company Tata Play, is that he likes to listen. “Sometimes the best ideas come from the non-involved, less experienced person,” he says.

We are meeting over lunch at Kebabs & Kurries, the fine-dining restaurant at ITC Grand Central in Mumbai. After ordering the restaurant’s famous Gilawat ke Kebab and Murg Angaar, Nagpal, 62, gets down to talking about his learnings from his four-decade career. He calls his journey “luck by chance”.

“My whole journey has been accidental. I appeared for medical college entrance exams, got admission, and then realised that medicine was going to take me nine years. I saw a cousin of mine who was struggling after many years of studying medicine.... I realised, mere paas nau saal nahi hain (I don’t have nine years). Then I thought let’s do engineering, but by then only three college forms were available—Punjab University, Delhi College of Engineering and BITS Pilani,” says Nagpal, who was born in Delhi and grew up in north India, mostly Roorkee.

He ended up studying chemical engineering at Punjab University. “It was the only seat I got, so I went to Chandigarh and did chemical engineering,” Nagpal says philosophically. By this time, our kebabs have arrived and Nagpal is already ordering a second helping. “Food is my passion, especially north Indian food. I also love to cook when the kids (daughter, 33, and son, 29, who live abroad) are home. Then, nobody else is allowed in the kitchen,” he says.

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“So what about life after engineering?” I ask. “I received three job offers as a plant engineer, but my father was adamant that I must do an MBA...that a plain engineering degree is useless. So I appeared for IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) but did not get into any. (At) XLRI, couldn’t even clear the written test. Couldn’t clear Punjab University management. Ultimately, an interview call came from the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) Delhi. I sat through and got admission,” he says.

Anyone who says they planned their journey is lying through their teeth, Nagpal says, laughing. “We are all here by chance. Very often, when I sit with my batchmates, we wonder how we all got where we are in life. Things happen. We are the products of our efforts and the environment being favourable towards us,” says Nagpal, who has been living in Mumbai for three decades now.

Over the next course—nehari and Dal Bukhara—he talks about his first job at an Indian multinational (which he did not want to name). A week into the orientation programme in Mumbai, he got a call from the cosmetics company Lakmé, which had interviewed him on campus. “They said we have a new position for you and we can make an offer right now. I was excited. Lakmé was a consumer company, and it felt like a better fit, so I resigned from my first job after seven days and called my parents to inform them about my decision,” recalls Nagpal. His parents were aghast. “My father was about to retire from a job where he had worked for 35 years and told me ‘you must have done something wrong’. I told him no, I just got a better company. He asked if they were paying better, and I said no, they were paying 400 less than what I was going to make at the present company.” It was 1985. The first job paid 2,200 per month, and Lakmé, 1,800.

He has been in consumer-facing companies since. After six years at Lakmé, he moved to Marico, then PepsiCo, Shoppers Stop and Vodafone, before joining Tata Sky (now Tata Play) in August 2010.

After working for 13 years in sales, operations and other functions across companies, he got his first marketing role at the multinational food, snack and beverage company PepsiCo. “Opportunities did come but I was of the opinion that a solid operations grounding is necessary before a strategy role. And I believe that marketing is a strategy role,” says Nagpal.

He has always been restless, and one of his mantras in life is to display this restlessness to his superiors. “I made it clear that I have done enough of this, I can’t add any more value to it and let me know if you have something else for me. I have been lucky that they found me a new role every two years. So I have not spent more than two years in any role till I reached here (Tata Play). Even at Vodafone, where I spent nine years, I had probably six roles—ops, marketing, global, and whatnot.”

Changing industries was also something that helped with the restlessness—he has never worked with two companies in the same industry. “I carried learnings from one industry to the other and then kept building. Ultimately, it’s the same customer who buys a car, who buys soap, shampoo or insurance. The consumer is always the same,” he says.

Talking about the DTH business, which has been witnessing a drop in subscribers with consumers moving to streaming, I ask if it is under threat. Nagpal believes that every business goes through a cycle and has to reinvent itself every 8-10 years. He does not think that the decline has been a substantial one. “The pay-TV industry had 110 million households as subscribers before covid. It went down by a few million. This doesn’t mean the industry is dead. Today, 110 million households pay 300 per month on average for cable or DTH service, month on month regardless of cheap data and free content. The number hasn’t come to 50 million, it still is over 100 million. So why is this doomsday thinking? These are just minor hiccups,” he says.

As per the latest subscriber data by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), Tata Play is the leading DTH player with 22 million active subscribers and 32.43% market share. Airtel Digital TV is the second largest player with 17.58 million, followed by Dish TV (13.97 million) and Sun Direct (12.5 million). Due to its investments in OTT aggregator service Binge, Tata Play posted a net loss of 105 crore for the last fiscal, as opposed to a net profit of 69 crore in FY22.

In India, unlike the West, where cable and DTH were costlier and OTT services came as cheaper alternatives, ARPU (average revenue per user) for pay-TV is much lower than premium OTTs. Moreover, there are over 90 million homes, which are yet to buy their first TV, which the pay-TV industry sees as a big potential. And while some affluent households are moving to connected TVs, many free-to-air viewers are upgrading to pay-TV.

“The problem comes when companies stop listening to customers. Even now, barring the three months of the monsoon, at least two days in a month I am out in the field. My field visits are not just about visiting our own customers. I randomly visit the homes of people and talk to them about anything. The purpose is to fathom their lifestyles, beliefs, aspirations and constraints. In the process, I also check on their experience and expectations from media and entertainment.”

He gives an example: In the early days villages did not have continuous electricity supply. Subscribers told them that while they recharged for the month, their money was wasted for many days due to power cuts. At 240 a month, it came to 8 a day. So he and his team created scratch cards for the unused value, which people could buy and recharge when necessary. Most of Tata Play’s process changes with respect to packaging, pricing, distribution, communication and service have been a result of these conversations during field visits, says Nagpal.

“I feel very under-confident and rudderless if I don’t know what the customer is thinking of my brand. Binge was created like this. Customers wanted a seamless experience with OTTs, so we gave them one subscription,” he says.

It’s time for dessert. Nagpal asks for a kesri phirni; I order gulab jamun.

In January, Nagpal, who enjoys writing, published his first book, Adapt: To Thrive, Not Just Survive. “It is a guidebook for business leaders, B-school aspirants and budding entrepreneurs. It gives you 10 valuable business lessons through 10 fictionalised short stories. Most of these are learnings that I have experienced myself,” he says.

The idea for the book came during the covid-19 lockdown. “Before the lockdown was announced, all the CEOs of the Tata Group companies were taken on a call by Chandra (N. Chandrasekaran, group chairman). And he said guys, this is more serious than it looks. Start working from home for the next three weeks. This was before any lockdown was announced,” Nagpal recalls. “He ended the call by telling us to go ahead and do whatever we have been wanting to do for all these years and did not have the time for.”

We connect over our love of reading and Hindi literature, and attending kavi sammelans while growing up. “I started playing the flute 15 years ago,” he recalls. “I found a great trainer, and would carry the flute with me everywhere I travelled. It couldn’t be checked in, and had to be carried by hand... I would practise in my hotel room at night.” Recently, he also attended an acting workshop because he wanted to understand the science and techniques of acting. “That course taught me that you have to find your own technique. If you do the same as somebody else, you can’t grow.”

Over the years, Nagpal feels that his own style of working has evolved. “When I became a manager, I would challenge the status quo but let them (my juniors) do the job. I learned from my own life—I hated the bosses who would breathe down my neck while I was executing the work assigned to me. You have given the brief, now let me do it. If you are checking on me every hour and giving instructions, I can’t work like that. People don’t leave companies, they leave lousy bosses. I have had 13-15 bosses in my life. Probably three of them taught me what to do, and the rest taught me what not to do. I am actually more grateful to the ones who taught me what not to do.”

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