Sangeeta Desai, BS 98

Star Performer

A shareholder mindset and operational excellence form a class act

Sangeeta Desai, BS 98

Group COO & CEO of Emerging Markets, FremantleMedia
London

When “American Idol” crowned its 15th and final champion in April, Sangeeta Desai was unfazed by the show’s final curtain call. It was, perhaps, an unusual reaction given that the company where Desai serves as COO, FremantleMedia, was the show’s producer and owed much of its early success to the hit singing competition.

In some ways, she had been working toward this moment since early 2013, when she joined the London-based subsidiary of RTL Group, Europe’s biggest entertainment company. FremantleMedia leaders had known that the business needed to expand into new markets, new platforms, and new types of content—and Desai is leading that charge.

“We needed more balance,” says Desai, who also serves as CEO of FremantleMedia’s emerging markets business. Other popular titles that the company creates, produces, and distributes include “X Factor,” “America’s Got Talent,” and “Family Feud.” During Desai’s tenure, FremantleMedia has made key hires in the U.S. and U.K., acquired developers of scripted dramas in Scandinavia and Italy, invested in two companies in France, and bought a production company in Israel. FremantleMedia now has a presence in 28 countries.

“We’re by no means done,” says Desai, “but we’ve got a strategy that’s starting to work.”

Born in London, Desai spent her childhood in Dubai, Sri Lanka, and Oman. “Coming from a small place like Oman, which was very sheltered, to a place like Berkeley was mind-blowing,” she recalls.

At Haas, she discovered investment banking and the world of big-ticket M&A. Her first job was with J.P. Morgan in Manhattan. After earning an MBA from Wharton in 2004, she moved to Goldman Sachs in London where she was introduced to the media and entertainment business.

But Desai craved to be more than an outside adviser; she wanted to be the one making investment decisions. In 2005, she moved into private equity as a senior associate at Apax Partners, where she was later promoted to principal. There, she was asked to spend three months working on the transformation of one of the firm’s underperforming assets, HIT Entertainment, owner of the Thomas the Train toy franchise. That led to a full-time job as COO in 2009.

At HIT, Desai reversed a plan under prior management to improve margins by shifting all toy production in-house. Instead, she advocated for third-party manufacturing. She reorganized businesses by brands, not function. And she restructured business teams.

Three years after Desai joined, Mattel bought HIT for $680 million in cash. “People thought I was a bit crazy to leave Apax for a business that was declining,” she recalls. “But I was confident in my decision and it ended up being an incredible turnaround story,” says Desai.

FremantleMedia gave her another opportunity to play a significant role in rewriting a business script for a global audience. Her ability to think like a shareholder and execute operationally proved a winning combination. “I love what I do and the content that FremantleMedia creates around the world,” she says. “I would be far less excited if we were producing golf balls.” —Krysten Crawford

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Sangeeta Desai, BS 98, is helping build the worldwide presence of FremantleMedia, the entertainment company whose titles include “American Idol,” “Family Feud,” and “America’s Got Talent.”