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Spenta's one-stop shop style of publishing

02 August 2011

With a stable of 40-plus titles, Spenta's Maneck Davar tells Ramu Ramanathan that he still has ambitions to grow.

8a281a540154bf25a56105b98b3ac528 Davar: The industry hasn't given Spenta and our publications enough credit for what we've created

The whiff of pressroom chemistry and ink on paper hangs over the entrance to Spenta Multimedia. And the entrance I prefer is past the Heidelberg presses and Muller Martini bindery line. The formal authorised entry is through a lobby where guards insist on high-security etiquette.

Either way, it is always reassuring to meet Maneck Davar, the publisher and proprietor of Spenta Multimeda. For one, he has lots of time which is surprising when one considers that he publishes more than 40 customised and lifestyle magazines. Then there’s his room which has a very relaxed atmosphere and features paintings by the Indian legends.

"Look! A new project!" he says, showing a dummy version for an English magazine about Japan which will be distributed in business centres and airport lounges. In October 2010, Davar travelled to Japan and he is clearly impressed. "The manner in which the Japanese responded to the recent tsunami and earthquake is impressive. The rebuilding is being done with the least amount of fanfare. There is no breast-beating. The process of rebuilding is proceeding in a low key, quiet and dignified way."

This is Davar’s approach too.

Judging from the evidence, Davar should have been a journalist. A graduate from Mumbai’s Elphinstone College, he freelanced and made a living primarily as a scribe with the Indian Express, Free Press Journal and Femina. He borrowed Rs 250 to cover Indira Gandhi’s election campaign in Chikmagalur. He cheerfully admits he had the instinct of a journalist but he didn’t know how to type, nor did he drink tea or coffee, nor did he hang around at the Press Club.

That being so, he was talent-spotted by Russy Karanjia – the legendary editor of India’s first tabloid newsweekly, Blitz.

Buoyed by the success of the weekly Blitz, Karanjia started a morning tabloid in Bombay called The Daily ("a bulldog of a newspaper"). Karanjia asked Davar to work along side him. Davar flitted between Karanjia and Blitz and Minhaz Merchant. From both, he grasped the nuances of magazine production. Davar states, "I learnt to do almost everything (handling agencies, newspaper distribution, hiring staff), other than writing".

He doffs his hat to Karanjia, the quintessential editor. "The thing I learnt from Russy is, talent doesn’t have an age limit. He trusted me and enrolled me when I was a 20-year old."

Post-Karanjia and post-Merchant, Davar did cutting-edge investigative journalism with Indian Express where another of the iconic editors, Arun Shourie wielded the baton. Davar says: "These were the last of the editorial mohicans, as it were."

In the mid-nineties, Spenta came into being. Davar was keen to set out on his own. He says, "I didn’t want to work for anyone else." His approach was sober and sans illusions – as he attempted to create an ethical business.

Indeed, the journey of Spenta coincides with the strong sense of confidence of the technocratic elite in India’s performance and prospects. Similar confidence was palpable among Maneck Davar. It is this confidence which made Spenta’s journalistic goal a radically different one from what the Blitz or Indian Express knew.

The emergence of an entrepreneurial elite – and a consensus on where the country was going, was clear to Davar. That’s how he struck a long-term contract with JetWings. "It was the beginning of the era of open markets. We could have gone to the other start-up airlines. But we didn’t." Today, all the other airlines have vanished from the airspace. The partnership with Jet is 16 years old and Spenta produces three magazines: JetWings International for the international route, JetWings for India; and a publication for Jet Lite.

Davar recalls the first issue: "There were five of us working on JetWings. And I think I did everything. From writing, designing, selling, printing and distribution." The hard work paid off. Today, Spenta is "India’s largest custom magazine publisher".

A feature that emerges from Davar is his pragmatism about India’s publishing policies, particularly over finance and controlling production prices, which have proved correct. Davar states, "Having in-house printing has given us a definitive edge over our competitors, especially in the custom publishing space. For publishers with volumes, an in-house print option is effective for a number of reasons. The main one being costs and the ability to deliver on time."

In fact, Spenta is in the process of expanding its print facilities in Ambernath with the addition of a Mitsubishi Diamond web machine, which will give the group an output of over one-lakh 16-page formes an hour. Davar states, "We do everything". And so, the group creates the content, sells ad space, and prints and distributes more than 40 custom magazines, some of which are JetWings, The Chartered Accountant Journal, Apparel, Solitaire, First Update, Imperia, @TCS, Priority Pages, Milestones, Shubh Labh, – and a newsletter for Bombay Gymkhana.

In the consumer segment, Spenta has  six magazines: - Hair, Marwar, The Smart Manager, Adorn – Luxury Jewellery Magazine, Liquid and India Boating. At times, this means sweating the editorial equity with boating events and a cross-country Marwar marriage trade exhibition. Davar says, "Spenta Multimedia is a proprietary firm and our funding is through internal accruals and bank borrowings. The key is to ensure that the debt is in a very healthy proportion to the physical assets and receivables.

Spenta is a Zoroastrian word and means "the fount of everything that’s good".  This is Davar’s philosophy too. In this day and age, he is unfashionably Gandhian. Yet Gandhian does not mean inertia.  Davar’s to-do list includes "25% growth, clean budgets and no hanky-panky, loyalty among the 200-strong Spenta family, and sensible working hours". He adds, "I don’t believe in my team working late after-office hours.  There’s more to  life than work." Saying so, he exits for a Kala Ghoda arts council meet  which he will be chairing.


THE LOWDOWN

Where do you live  Babulnath, Chowpatty, Mumbai.
How do you relax  In the company of my wife and friends
Favourite magazines The Economist and Fortune.
Gadgets iPhone and iPad
Always in the fridge Juices and cheese
Motto Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta. This is the basic tenet of the Zoroastrian faith and translates as good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

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