The Mysore way of making KKR soar

“It has been a pleasure working with Shah Rukh. He has not only been smart, he is smart enough to be hands-off. The latitude that he has given me as a CEO to run the business is appreciated. Therefore, it’s contrary to what normal people might think that he is always into it. It’s not the case,” says Venky Mysore.

Venky Mysore (right), the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Kolkata Knight Riders, with star players Robin Uthappa and Yusuf Pathan. Though they are celebrities, the players in the team have no airs about them, says Mysore.   -  IPL/SPORTZPICS

As the Kolkata Knight Riders players trained hard at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on a rather sultry afternoon, there was one gentleman who kept an eye on them.

He was not a coach or a member of the support staff. But he is the man, who has been running the Knights’ show for the last seven seasons. Venkatesh Mysore, alias Venky, is often credited for turning around the Shah Rukh Khan-owned franchise’s fortunes in the cricket business.

The KKR CEO started speaking about the brand Knight Riders and its plans and in a free-wheeling chat with Sportstar in Bengaluru, he dwelt on a range of issues.

Excerpts:

The Indian Premier League (IPL) over, your caravan will move to the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), where you have a team — Trinbago Knight Riders. What is the reason behind this expansion?

Look, the fundamental objective is always to first grow your business. Then you start thinking about how to grow the business. We have always believed in that. And, I have always believed that there are two pillars on which a franchise is built — the brand and fan base.

Everything gets linked back to it. Be it how you monetise or how you grow — all depends on this. Therefore, the question is how do you grow your brand, and how do you grow the fan base? In a tournament like the IPL, which has got a limited window, there are certain limitations on how much you can grow your business.

So, that’s the genesis of this whole strategy. Wherever we felt there is a Knight Rider platform on which you could build your business, and has a potential to grow your business, we have attempted to expand there. The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) is one in that direction. It extends our brand Knight Riders. It gives us a chance to build our fan base in another hemisphere, which is also another great opportunity. So, that’s the thought process. Anything that fits into that strategy, we will continue to pursue.

How would you maintain the resonance in both the IPL and the CPL?

Are you talking about how we built the commonality? Frankly, we have had many such opportunities. Sunil Narine plays for KKR here (in the IPL) and also plays for Trinbago Knight Riders in the CPL. Hashim Amla plays for us there. Colin Munro plays there (he was previously with KKR too), Darren Bravo… The systems are different but you are trying to build in a way where you are trying to see how much commonality you have. The coaching staff is more or less the same. Jacques Kallis comes in as an assistant coach there, while Simon Katich is the head coach. Srikanth, our analyst, joins there too. When it comes to marketing, branding, merchandising — our team here in KKR supports the local team there. It’s not easy but we orchestrate that strategy.

The Shah Rukh Khan brand and the superstar-owner’s presence at most KKR matches have been a big boost for the team.   -  IPL/SPORTZPICS

But then, don’t you think that had some of your Indian players been there in CPL, Trinbago Knight Riders would have had more gloss?

It’s a bigger subject and needs a bigger discussion. To be honest, that’s something we will have to leave to the powers that be. I am sure they have their own reasons. We have to respect that. At the same time, would that be a good idea? Why not? It would be excellent if that’s also possible. Let’s wait and see. Maybe, sometime sooner than later…

Many in the sporting business feel that KKR follows the Manchester City model of having one seamless brand, towing in the likes of Melbourne City, New York City…

(Laughs) I am very proud with the way the franchise has evolved. I think having a huge brand like SRK (Shah Rukh Khan) behind us is a massive advantage.

At the same time, it’s there for the people to see that we have managed to invent KKR as a brand to reckon with — not only in India, but globally. We have a global following, we have a pan-India following. That’s very unique of our brand. If you see the kind of brands that associate with us — we are very unique in that way. There are multiple types of categories and brands from different segments and hemispheres who come to work with us. That’s a huge advantage.

So, basically the goal is to build a big ‘Knight Riders’ brand, where all the entities would flow in. Isn’t that what you are saying?

That’s what I was about to say. The platform is a Knight Riders brand. In India, we call it KKR. In the Caribbean, we call it TKR. If there’s an opportunity elsewhere, we might call that something else, but the word KR will be there. It has given us a nice template for expansion and growth. In an ideal environment, it would be great if I have four or five of such assets which operate round the year. For me, that’s my ultimate goal to have four to five assets. The ‘KR’s will happen, and at the same time, if I can convince my brands here and have a common group of brands working with us, that will be a huge advantage. Then, I will be giving them multiple windows of opportunity to associate and activate. That’s something we would love to do. We are moving in that direction.

There are two more leagues coming up in England and South Africa. Is there a plan to have teams in those leagues as well?

Rather than asking is it in the plans, let’s admit that expansion is always in the plans. The leagues have to convince us that it makes sense for a marquee brand like Knight Riders to come in there.

I don’t want to sound very arrogant but we add a lot to the league we go into. Therefore it is important to determine if they are as keen and make it attractive for us to come. I have rejected several proposals, just because they didn’t make sense financially.

At the end of the day, it’s business. Passion only takes you that far, but you also need to remember that somebody is writing the cheque at all times. I am very cognizant of that. It needs to be a viable business from day one, because if it’s not, then what happens is that one might wake up one day and say, ‘What are we doing in this business?’ That becomes a problem, and I don’t want such a situation.

There is talk that the Knight Riders may explore other avenues like the Pro Kabaddi League or the Indian Super League…

Gautam Gambhir, the captain of KKR, has his role defined and the administrative officials of the team ensure that the players have no hassles off the field.   -  IPL/SPORTZPICS

 

I think every league recognises the importance of having a Knight Riders in it, because they know what we bring to the table. They know about the seriousness with which we come. They know we have a lot of resources, and also a model that’s working. We will put all our minds behind it. That’s good for the league. Therefore, whatever league it is — badminton, kabaddi, football, Premier Futsal — all of these proposals come. When the proposals come, we evaluate, we take a hard look. Many a time, we feel that it doesn’t fit in for us, so we pass it. Sometimes for obligations’ sake, or novelty’s sake you may get in and then figure out. But we can’t do that. My brand is too valuable to put on anything and everything. Tomorrow, if things go wrong, I have to pull the plug. I can’t do that.

Then, are you ruling out such a possibility?

That’s not what I am saying. At one point of time or the other, all these opportunities have been evaluated, and for a variety of reasons, we have passed them at that point of time. That doesn’t mean it’s a no for ever. So, it is a matter of whether the circumstances have changed, the market has changed and is interesting now. If it is, we can still get in. We never shut the door on anyone; we always keep the doors open.

But, why is the focus only on cricket? Is it because of Shah Rukh Khan’s proximity to cricketers, or just because cricket brings in the money?

Well, there’s a natural affinity towards cricket. We have figured it out. We have a successful model that’s working. So, there is a natural inclination to look at that point. It is, however, important to see that the leagues also get attractive for someone like us to join. There may be many people who have joined in the other leagues. We are a bit more hard-nosed about evaluating it. We feel there’s too much at stake. Once we enter, we are putting our brand name on the line, and we have to be possessive about it. And rightly so, because that’s my most valuable asset, and I can’t take chances.

Over the years, KKR has been one of the major money-making brands in the IPL, and that too consistently. So, as you talk, it feels as if it’s the boy, who has stood first, is talking…

(Laughs) Well, I don’t want to be arrogant about it. We are not an arrogant team, we are pretty low-key. We go there and quietly get our job done — be it on the business side or on the field. What’s important for us is we work hard to build our business. In the process, everybody starts saying, “Oh, you guys are doing this, doing that”; it makes us feel good. We are not on the roof top, tooting our horns. We have done something interesting and others acknowledge it. They emulate it also at times. That’s a good thing for us.

How tough or easy is it managing so many players from around the globe?

It’s fantastic. I always tell people that one of the perks of my job is that I am constantly in the company of high-performance people. Not many people get that opportunity. Having said that, the key here is that you realise when you get past the glamour and the visibility of a celebrity, that they are decent people. They are professionals who want to do what they are doing. You have to treat people like you want to be treated. It’s very simple. It may sound clichéd, but that’s the fact. My endeavour with my team in terms of administration is always about trying to create an ambience that’s competitive. That respects individuals, and takes care of all little headaches that might come their way, to allow them to go out and do their best. It’s easier said than done, and my team works very hard to get all these things done. When that happens, after a while of interacting you forget that these are superstars in their own way.

According to Mysore, the foray of the brand Knight Riders into the Caribbean Premier League, has proved to be a success. The team participates there as the Trinbago Knight Riders.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

But there have been times when even superstars had to be axed from the side. As a CEO, how do you take the tough calls?

That’s what one needs to understand. Though everybody says that we are used to success, it is important to understand that these individuals who achieve success and are seen as heroes have had their share of failures. The ability to cope with the failure and turn it back to success is what sets them apart. It’s not that we have only achieved success and never failed. We have. We learn from that and move on. The other part of it is about how you treat people in both the situations — failure or success. You don’t try to go over the top when you are succeeding or beat yourself too much when you are failing. That balance and being able to remain in a sensible space — whether things are going well or are not going well — is the key. That’s the kind of environment we have tried to create.

In the last 10 years, what have been the highs and lows of brand KKR?

The most visible thing is when cricket is played out there and the whole world watches it. When you are not doing too well, perhaps the first three years, you are the butt of all jokes. People will make fun of you, and you can’t stop them from doing so. It’s part of life. When you are succeeding, people are praising you to the skies also, so when you take that, you have to be prepared for this (criticism) also. The visible thing is there. But I think we are proud of creating a brand Knight Riders, which has taken a certain space, and speaks for itself. It’s a huge high for us. We are recognised worldwide, and we are only 10 years old. There are other franchises which have been there for 80 or 90 years. So, imagine the scope we have some 20 or 30 years later. We might not be there but someone will carry this legacy forward. The foundation we have laid is a big high for us.

Many in the business believe that KKR’s business strategy should ideally be taught to management students. Despite casting off local hero Sourav Ganguly, KKR has been able to come close to the people of Kolkata. What has been the strategy behind it?

That’s how business is. Some of the commonalities that are there in most businesses or brands are that we are out to build team KKR. It is not about individuals, it is about the team. The whole idea of having locals in your team is something that virtually nobody has been able to do, because it’s tough.

And, if you do that, it would be a quota system. So, the bottom line is what is that we have achieved and what is it that we are proud of. We have built a real team concept. It’s never been about the individuals, but about the team. No individual is bigger than the team. All the 11 individuals on a match day, or the total 20-21 players in the squad gel well and perform as a team, and that’s what we are proud of.

What is the road ahead for Knight Riders?

We have very exciting times ahead. We have built a solid foundation and we will only grow from here. God willing, our business will also grow and our extension plans will fructify in a way that it takes us just three or four more years for us to own another four-five assets, and become a portfolio of brand KKR. That, to me, is a medium-term strategy. What happens in the long term? Let’s see!

Is it difficult to have someone like Shah Rukh as the boss, and Gautam Gambhir as a captain?

It has been a pleasure working with Shah Rukh. He has not only been smart, he is smart enough to be hands-off. The latitude that he has given me as a CEO to run the business is appreciated. Therefore, it’s contrary to what normal people might think that he is always into it. It’s not the case.

On the other hand, Gautam Gambhir has been given a role as a captain and that latitude. It works that way. It’s not something I lose my sleep over. I have my own views and whenever I feel that there is a certain deviation on occasions, I have those conversations with everyone to get things back on track.

So, everyone understands that we have been entrusted with a job and nobody takes that as a permanent mandate, including me. So, when it is given, you have to respect it and do that to the best of your ability.