On October 24, after unseating Cyrus Mistry as chairman, the board of Tata Sons Ltd issued a statement in which it said a new chairman would be named within four months (by February 24). It added that the chairman would be chosen by a selection committee comprising five members: Ratan Tata, interim chairman; Venu Srinivasan, chairman of the TVS group; Amit Chandra, managing director of Bain Capital; Ronen Sen, ex-diplomat; and Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharyya, founder of the Warwick Manufacturing Group.
Some analysts said the holding company of the $103 billion Tata group already had a candidate in mind. That wasn’t the case, although several names, including some that had previously done the rounds before Mistry was named chairman in 2011, did the rounds again.
Three people familiar with the goings-on in the Tata Group over the past few months said that at least in the initial days following 24 October, the board was busy strategising its response to Mistry, who, contrary to expectations, refused to go quietly.
Apart from the selection committee, they added, NA Soonawala, vice-chairman of Tata Trusts, which own a majority stake in Tata Sons, and RK Krishna Kumar, an old-time Ratan Tata confidant and a Tata Trusts trustee, were closely involved in discussions on the next chairman.
None of the three wished to be identified given the nature of the discussions.
A Tata Sons spokesperson said no one other than the selection committee was involved in the process.
The discussions revolved around whether the group should pick a local candidate or a foreign one and possible internal candidates, one of the three people said.
Krishna Kumar had been maintaining a low profile since Mistry’s ascent to the top, but he played an important role in the selection process, a second person said. Both he and Soonawala suggested names, this person added.
Tata and Krishna Kumar were keen on a professional candidate, internal or external. Among the names discussed were Ralf Speth, the CEO of Jaguar LandRover, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the CEO and MD of Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, and Harish Manwani, the non-executive chairman of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL). The selection committee thought any of them would be a good chairman, two of the three people said.
Manwani was a strong candidate, the third person said, but he lost out on account of age, and the fact that he wasn’t an internal candidate which both people on the selection committee as well as Soonawala, and Krishna Kumar, thought would help, especially given the controversy surrounding Mistry’s exit and its fallout. Tata was very keen on a (relatively) younger chairman, this person added. Chandrasekaran is 53, Manwani, 64.
“The selection committee unanimously chose Mr. Chandrasekaran. The question of a contender does not arise. Neither Mr Soonawala nor Mr Krishna Kumar expressed any views at all,” the spokesperson added.
Ultimately, Chandra’s track record at TCS, his equation with Ratan Tata, and the almost unanimous feeling that he wouldn’t rock the boat like Mistry did, worked in his favour.