Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan ... "Why should someone be high profile, anyway? I am just doing my job."
Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan ... "Why should someone be high profile, anyway? I am just doing my job." Photo: Bloomberg
The Malaysian businessman behind FetchTV knows our larrikin culture, writes Colin Kruger.
It's not easy for a billionaire to tiptoe into Australia's media sector without drawing headlines and breathless speculation, but Malaysian-born Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan (TAK to his friends) guards his privacy more jealously than most.
''I have heard some people say I have a low profile. Why should somebody be high profile, anyway?'' he said in a rare interview many years ago. ''I am just doing my job.''
In his private moments, Krishnan may concede that some of the more flamboyant aspects of the ''job'' militates against the privacy he craves.
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He made his mark as far back as 1985, with a prominent role in helping Bob Geldof organise the Live Aid concerts.
The seminal event, stretching the boundaries of broadcast entertainment and satellite technology at that time, had a clear influence on the man who went on to make billions in Malaysia's mobile phone, satellite, and pay TV business, and is now trying to reshape Australia's media sector with FetchTV.
More than a decade after Live Aid, this boldness was on display again when he crowned Malaysia's decade of economic exuberance with the development of the Petronas Towers - the tallest buildings in the world at that time.
Despite a fortune now estimated at about $10 billion, Krishnan's public aloofness makes it hard to keep track of his business affairs, and reveals little of his personal background.
Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil public servant, Krishnan grew up in Kuala Lumpur's ''Little India'' - Brickfields - and demonstrated his early promise by winning a scholarship under the Colombo Plan to study political science and economy at Melbourne University. His extracurricular activities reportedly included working on the student newspaper and developing an early appetite for risk-taking by running a betting operation on the side.
Ananda credits this period with teaching him Australia's larrikin culture, something that has helped him in business. Not that it seems to have overtly coloured the personality of someone whose entrepreneurial success has relied heavily on a network of business and government contacts in south-east Asia.
In a comment that has clearly dated since 1996, Krishnan subtly criticised the larrikin-style of Australia's political leaders of that time as they attempted to build relations in Asia. ''In Asia, personal relationships are important, but you cannot personalise diplomacy,'' he said.
There is no doubting his credentials in this regard. A close relationship with then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad played a pivotal role in building Krishnan's fortune, but also tainted it with allegations of crony capitalism.
Allegations aside, there is no doubting the regard with which he is held in Malaysia's closely aligned business and political worlds, dominated by ethnic Chinese and Malay entrepreneurs.
Krishnan has made a reputation with his philanthropy, a keen intellect, and tough business manner.
''He knows in advance what you're going to tell him but he'll lead about in a Socratic fashion and let you incriminate yourself at some point,'' said an unnamed executive at Maxis. ''Then he pins you to the wall.''
After returning to Malaysia with an MBA from Harvard University in 1964, Krishnan set up a consultancy and made his first fortune in oil and gas - a sector he helped restructure.
He is said to have played a key role in setting up the government-owned energy giant in 1974, Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas). He is said to have served on the company's board of directors as well as on the board of Malaysia's central bank.
With Mahathir's backing in the early 1990s, he acquired the land to build the twin towers that were named after the company he landed as its biggest tenant - none other than Petronas.
Krishnan reportedly sold out of the project in the '90s, and used the cash to fund his entry into the satellite business, MEASAT Global. It remains one of the cornerstones of an empire that extends to gambling (Tanjong PLC), pay TV (Astro All Asia Networks), property and oil exploration. But most of his fortune comes from his stake in Malaysia's biggest mobile phone group, Maxis.
Krishnan holds no executive roles at the Malaysian companies he controls, further removing him from public view, although not entirely from controversy. In 2007 he drew flak after selling a stake in Maxis to Saudi interests for a higher price than he had just paid shareholders to privatise the company.
He relisted the company's Malaysian operations two years later, but not the fast-growing Indian and Indonesian subsidiaries.
The wide palette of investments Krishnan has engaged in makes his foray into Australian media, FetchTV, all the more intriguing.
While small in the context of his personal fortune, it could have a considerable impact on the local media industry.
FetchTV offers a range of pay TV-style programming over broadband for a monthly fee and is finally ready to build a critical mass of customers after signing up Optus as a partner this month.
Adding Optus to earlier clients such as iiNet and Adam Internet, FetchTV now has a potential broadband audience as big as Telstra's.
It gave the market a hint of what mischief it can cause last year when FetchTV's name came up in conversations around sports broadcast rights - the vital ingredient that makes Foxtel, and its regional counterpart Austar, a must-have for so many households despite the hefty subscription fees.
FetchTV missed out on the AFL and English Premier League rights recently but demonstrated the benefits of a business model which aligns itself with free-to-air broadcasters, and the sports bodies, as an alternative to pay TV-style deals.
A free-to-air broadcaster would choose the games it wishes to broadcast but would offer all games live on an exclusive AFL subscription channel via FetchTV. The AFL and broadcast network would share most of the proceeds from this channel.
With pay TV offering its sports channels as part of a $90 per month package - and to an audience stubbornly stuck at about 30 per cent of households - a cheaper FetchTV offer to about 60 per cent of households via broadband could one day prove enticing, especially with the national broadband network starting to take shape.
There is no guarantee FetchTV would go the sports route once it has built an audience that would make this option viable, but the upcoming NRL broadcast rights may provide the right test for this business model.
There is plenty of resentment in league circles over the $650 million Foxtel has agreed to pay for five exclusive AFL games a week under its new deal, in comparison to the $210 million the NRL receives at present for the same number of live exclusive games.
Unless they receive a similar pay TV deal to AFL, the NRL will look to place as many games as possible on free-to-air TV and is exploring other broadcast options.
There will be little personal attachment from Krishnan either way - thoroughbred horseracing is his preferred sport.
In 2000 Krishnan acquired the historic Kia Ora stud situated on the outskirts of Australia's horse-flesh capital, the Upper Hunter town of Scone. Kia Ora, established nearly a century ago, claims to have produced six Melbourne Cup winners over the years, but none since Krishnan took over and went about restoring the place to its former glory.
The picture painted of Krishnan is of a boss happy to let his businesses run with some autonomy by trusted lieutenants, but he maintains a strong understanding of the various businesses.
The big question is, what would happen if he does in fact tire of the business?
Unlike Rupert Murdoch, Krishnan has not ushered any of his three children into prominent roles in the family business.
His son has chosen a calling more in line with the splendid isolation his father appears to crave: he lives as a monk in a forest.