Some months back, Shantanu Naidu, the Cornell-educated MBA who assists Ratan Tata, the Chairman Emeritus of the Tata Group, was quoted in the media on his experiences of working with the legend. The online financial portal, moneycontrol.com, reproduced bits of Naidu’s in-house interview with a Tata colleague on the occasion of Ethics Week 2022: “Firstly, Ratan Tata’s acts of kindness are completely selfless. Naidu elaborates that Tata does several good deeds in a day and helps people but never does he have the expectation of getting anything back in return.”
“Do it for people who can do nothing for you. Who cannot return it in any form of favour? Acts of kindness should not have an expectation of return. He (Ratan Tata) will just help so many people each day and then totally forget about it,” Naidu said.
Secondly, Ratan Tata always keeps his promises. “He keeps all his promises and never goes back on that. He will always deliver when he has given his word, no matter what,” Naidu adds saying that these are two of the most important takeaways from Ratan Tata.
While this innate decency and simplicity reflect the real Ratan Tata, his remarkable stewardship of the House of Tatas will be best known– infact, this will ultimately define his legacy—are the two battles he fought through the last quarter century. The first was when he took over from JRD Tata (Jeh) Tata in 1991 and the second when he ousted his chosen successor Cyrus Mistry from the corner office at Bombay House.
In 1991, when he succeeded JRD, it was an empire of satraps – Rusy Modi (Tata Steel), Darbari Seth (Tata Chemicals), Nani Palkivala (ACC), Ajit Kerkar (Indian Hotels) – who had complete control over their companies with the holding company Tata Sons having little or no say in the matter. Systematically with a laser-like focus, Ratan Tata dismantled the satrap model brought forth greater cohesion within the group, groomed new leaders and put in place a policy where the old had to make way for the new and included himself as part of that package.
It was also a time when he was belted in the media for behaving like an upstart and attempting to destroy the legacy of Jeh with his outlandish succession plans. A lesser man would have wilted under the onslaught. After all, it isn’t easy to take on the combined might of storied managers with proven track records in dividend-paying companies. In the end, his single-minded determination to reinvent the group and prepare it for the 21st century was an idea that overwhelmed his opponents. By the turn of the century, Ratan Tata was the unquestioned leader at Tata Sons. The outposts had been conquered, new leadership nurtured and positioned across the entire Tata landscape.
Fortunately for Ratan Tata, he was at the helm when India entered the era of liberalisation under the Narsimha Rao-Manmohan Singh combine. He was quick to realise that the Tatas must have a greater shareholding in their companies and think as one in strategic and policy matters. As R Jagannathan writing in the Swarajaya says, ‘’It is this larger-than-life promoter involvement that drove the Tatas to seek global glory with the purchase of Tata Tetley (now well digested), Corus and Jaguar Land Rover. In the last two, Tata got lucky with the latter, but unlucky with the former.’’
While Tata Steel failed, Ratan Tata succeeded beyond his wildest imagination at Tata Motors. While the Indica and the $2000 Nano failed, the EV revolution in India is spearheaded by the singular vision of Ratan Tata and his desire for the group to think at least a decade ahead.
More than the business acumen and his leadership of the House of Tatas, what defines Ratan Tata consistently is his almost karmic disconnect with wealth or ostentation and protocol of any kind. He lives in a two-bedroom flat at Colaba, worries when his dogs are ill and prefers a low-key life. His strong defence of privacy and his willingness to fight the battles right up to the Supreme Court is no surprise to colleagues in the Tatas. “That is the man,” said one of them. Clear, committed and willing to walk the last mile.
But if there is a golden arch that defines his legacy, it is his composure and stewardship post the 26/11 horror in Mumbai. His rebuilding of the Taj and his handholding of each and every Taj employee who was impacted by the tragedy should be compulsory course reading in management schools on how companies and leaders ought to behave when the chips are down.
Another trademark is that once he makes up his mind, he stays the course; an ability to go where others tread to walk—Singur in West Bengal is a classic example. He went there in spite of many warnings to avoid the region. If only Mamata Bannerjee (then a firebrand opposition leader) had had the vision to not oppose the Tata Nano plant, West Bengal would have been a vibrant automobile hub today. She spewed fire and Tata exited to Sanad in Gujarat, which is now what Singur could have been.
It is also this staying-the-course attitude that has seen him battle Cyrus Mistry and sour his deep friendship with Nusli Wadia. He couldn’t care less though. The brand, its essence – humility, service and a commitment to the common man – outweighs all else.
When JRD Tata passed away in 1991, almost everyone wondered if Ratan Tata had it in him to succeed Jeh. Three decades later the only question is whether Ratan Tata’s successors can match his accomplishments. That he was a worthy successor to Jeh is no more a question.