Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata broke his silence Tuesday on a painful phase of his career when after being named to succeed the JRD Tata he was unfairly judged as coming up short.
JRD was a tough act to follow.
“He was a legend in the Indian business community,” said Tata at an event hosted here by Rockefeller Foundation to honour his achievements.
Since being named JRD’s successor in 1981 and taking over as chairman of Tata Group in 1991, Ratan Tata has turned the conglomerate into a global powerhouse.
It has 100 companies across seven businesses, operating in 80 countries. Its revenues totalled $83.3 billion in 2010-11, with 58% coming from operations outside India.
When named to succeed the great man, who was also a close relative — and uncle, Ratan Tata said he found it daunting as those were “very large shoes” to fill.
“You feel suddenly you have been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. I think the greatest dilemma in mind was how to mimic him and follow in his footsteps.”
But, Ratan Tata said, he soon realised “I could never be him”."I should try to be whoever I was and that was read by those in the media, which had been less than friendly, as someone who would destroy the group, who didn’t have his (JRD’s) competence, his capability."
JRD’s Tata was a federation of powerful satraps such as Tisco chief Russi Mody, hotels boss Ajit Kerkar, tea and chemicals head Darbari Seth and ACC’s Nani Palkhivala.
When Ratan Tata took over these aging satraps expected the JRD system to continue. But their new boss had other ideas. And a showdown was just around the corner.
Russi Mody pressed for one and he lost in a bellwether showdown settled by JRD weighing in on the side of his successor. The other satraps fell in line, and would leave soon.
Ratan Tata was then seen as harsh. And officials, possibly speaking on his behalf, had blamed press for portraying him as a “harsh guy” when he was only “firm and committed”.
Tata make it official on Tuesday, blaming the media for creating that impression, saying it was not friendly anyway. So, how did he finally beat back the satraps, and the sceptics?
Tata said he “realised fairly soon it was not you but the entire workforce that you count on”.
And there was a team with a spirit JRD had built and it was now available to the younger Tata.
“I think I have only achieved what that force of 400,000 people had been able to support me to do,” Tata said, dedicating to them the recognition accorded to him Tuesday night.
When asked what he would advise younger achievers being honoured the same night, the Tata group chairman said, “they should be themselves”.
That’s how he won his wars.
Tata is retiring end of 2012, when he turns 75, making way for a much younger Cyrus Mistry, 43, whose father Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry owns 18% stake in Tata Sons.