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Sivasankaran, the big newsmaker

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December 24, 2005 14:20 IST

C SivasankaranC Sivasankaran's latest passion is health food. And Siva makes it clear that he is now driven not by the urge to make more money but to make people healthier.

That's why these days he is busy experimenting with 'Aiwo,' a health food chain were low-calorie food cooked in olive oil makes its way to your table on a conveyer belt (like the sushi bars).

The portly Siva, of course, laments that he has not been able to go in on a crash diet in his restaurant (located in Singapore and Chennai) or to his well-equipped gym in Chennai regularly to shed his extra pounds.

Not without reason. The jetsetting Siva (he flies in an out around the globe within an hour's notice) has made three aborted attempts in the last few months to offload his stake in Aircel Ltd, the GSM mobile company which runs services in Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

Industry watchers have been also abuzz with talks of Aircel looking at a merger with Idea Cellular. This week Siva was back in the game when he finalised a deal to sell a 26 per cent equity stake to Malaysian telco Maxis.

Industry watchers say that Siva's earlier attempts to cash out from Aircel hit a wall because of opposition from Department of Telecommunications (DoT) under Dayanadhi Maran -- a one-time friend -- which refused to give him the clearance.

If the Maxis deal goes though, would it mark the end of Siva's telecom ambitions? After all, this is the largest piece left of his telecom empire.

Last year, he had sold DSL-Dishnet, his broadband company, to the Tatas for Rs 270 crore (Rs 2.70 billion). Earlier, of course, he sold the Delhi GSM license to the Ruias to make big money.

Siva does have other interests in telecom but these are at an embryonic stage. His group has taken licences to operate telecom services in eight smaller circles which include West Bengal, J&K, North East, Himachal Pradesh amongst others.

What makes Siva upbeat on these licences is the fact that there is no third or fourth operator at the moment in these circles. And he wants to invest over Rs 1,800 crore (Rs 18 billion) in this project.

But while Siva talks of raising funds for these new circles through an IPO, the project has not moved forward because of the delay in selling Aircel.

Siva is also moving into WiFi in a big way by opening up hotspots across the country. But he is still a long way off from becoming a national player. Says a Siva watcher: "He might build these businesses to a certain size and then sell out as he has done with all his businesses at a profit"

He also has to put his house in order in the foods business. His penchant for the food business made him buy out both Amit Judge and Tatas to acquire the coffee chain Barista last year.

But his plans to quickly expand the business by setting up over 3,000 outlets (some through the franchise route) in 36 months which he announced after taking over is far away from reality. Siva admits that he will give more time to this business once the telecom piece is settled.

Don't be surprised if the consummate dealmaker focusses on the coffee business before selling it to an international chain. And of course you have still not heard much about Aiwo, which in Chinese simply means 'love yourself'.

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BS Bureau in Mumbai