Last Friday, Tata Sons hosted a cocktail party for senior editors in Delhi. Many companies do that almost as a matter of routine. But for the usually reticent and media-shy Tata Group, it was almost a revolutionary break from the past.
"We hope to do it more regularly. We’ll have such a do in Hyderabad next quarter and visit other cities by rotation," said Mukand Rajan, brand custodian, chief ethics officer and group spokesperson, Tata Sons, at the party.
His visiting card, unusually for such a senior executive, carries his mobile phone number.
This openness – the group is now more responsive to the media – is just one of the almost imperceptible changes that chairman Cyrus Mistry, who took over on December 28 last year, has ushered in during his first year in charge of the Tata Group.
Mistry, a member of the search committee that selected him said, had credentials and values similar to predecessor Ratan Tata. And he has used his first year in office quietly stamping his own mark on India’s largest and most diversified business conglomerate.
For one, he has picked a young team that will form the core of the Tata leadership over the next two decades at least. He is believed to have played a big role in selecting N Chandrasekharan as CEO of TCS, TV Narendran as CEO of Tata Steel, N Srinath as CEO of Tata Teleservices and R Mukundan as chief of Tata Chemicals.
Then, he has put in place a Group Executive Council, comprising NS Rajan, Mukund Rajan, Madhu Kannan and Nirmalya Kumar, in which the oldest member is 53, to drive strategies at the group level (see graphics).
He will need their collective acumen and corporate wisdom for sure. Under Ratan Tata in the last decade, the Tata Group’s revenues jumped more than 10-fold to about $100 billion, fuelled mainly by bold global acquisitions of prized assets such as Corus, Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley and several other companies.
Many of these assets were bought at the peak of the commodity cycle. Following the global slowdown, some began to bleed. His biggest challenge: fix Tata Steel and Tata Motors, the two largest Tata firms by revenues.
Tata Steel, in particular, is saddled with debt of about Rs 64,000 crore, mainly on account of its $12-billion purchase of Corus. After reporting a Rs 7,000-crore loss in 2012-13, it has returned a net profit of Rs 917 crore in the latest quarter, signs that things may looking up; but its European operations remain challenging. Mistry has to fix this problem, and fast.
The Tata Group declined to speak to HT for this report, but an analyst who tracks the company said: "Tata Steel is developing dent-resistant steel, electrical steel, railway tracks that reduce sound pollution and other special steels that are immune to business cycles."
But given the slow pace of recovery in West, sources added that Mistry may have to even consider selling some of Tata Steel’s European assets. "He has shown he is not scared of pulling the plug on projects that don’t meet the group’s objectives," a long time observer of the group pointed out.
Tata Steel announced a $1.6 billion (Rs 10,000 crore) writedown earlier this year. Then, he abandoned Indian Hotels’ long and unsuccessful courtship of Orient Hotels and also took the call to withdraw the Tatas’ application for a banking licence as the accompanying conditions would hurt the group’s other interests in the financial services industry.
The good news is that the first phase of Tata Steel’s Rs 40,000-crore 6-million tonne Kalinganagar project is on track to begin production by the end of next year. "By the time the European recovery gains steam, a restructured Tata Steel Europe will be ready to cash in," the observer said.
Then, he has to fix Tata Motors’ domestic operations. The JLR operations, on which the group is spending £1.5 billion (Rs 15,000 crore) for developing a new pipeline of products, is in great shape and driving the company’s profits, but its domestic operations are causing concern.
Its challenges: reliability of products, the absence of new cars and the failure of the Nano. Its passenger car business has lost market share, slipping from No. 3 in the Indian market, behind Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai, to No. 4, behind even homegrown rival Mahindra & Mahindra.
The Tatas have brought in Karl Slym, former chief of GM India, to turn the company around. Tata Motors has lined up a new pipeline of cars up to 2020 and also has plans of relaunching and rebranding the Nano, which suffers from an image crisis. Cars are an aspirational product in India and its tag of the "world’s cheapest car" worked against the Nano.
How these, and other initiatives at Tata Steel, Indian Hotels, Tata Communications and the aviation sector pan out will determine the future of the group.
Morgen Witzel, writer and author of the book Tata: Evolution of a Corporate Brand says: "Continuity is important at the Tata Group, and my reading is that Mistry is trying to put together a team that will work with him for the next decade or more. Leaders don’t work in isolation; they need teams to support them. If they have teams they trust, and who understand and trust them, the job becomes easier."
"He has had to build his identity as the leader of a global conglomerate and earn the respect of veterans in the group," said Rana Kapoor, MD and CEO of Yes Bank.
Mistry has focused mainly on consolidation so far. Today, as he begins his second year in office, he and his team will have to figure out how to leverage the strengths of the Tata Group and take it to the next level. And that, finally, will determine his report card.