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The okay Tata

As the hunt for Ratan Tata's successor kicks off, Noel Tata, his half-brother, seems to have emerged as the frontrunner. And with reasons, writes Sumant Banerji.

business Updated: Aug 07, 2010 22:47 IST
Sumant Banerji

On the face of it, there is very little that differentiates the incumbent from the successor — Ratan Naval Tata and Noel Naval Tata. Both belong to the same family, the House of the Tatas. Both are introvert and extremely reclusive. And both are leaders not by choice but by circumstances, or as some say, compulsion.

Bloodline

Ratan is the son of Soonoo and Naval Hormusji Tata. He is is the great grandson of Tata group founder Jamshed Tata. Noel, Ratan's half-brother, is the son of Naval and Simone Tata.

Ratan is a bachelor. Noel is married to Aloo Mistry, daughter of Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry, the single largest shareholder in Tata Sons outside of the trusts.

Noel will be around the same age as Ratan Tata if and when he takes over the mantle at Bombay House. Ratan Tata was 54 in 1991, Noel will be 55 in 2012-13.

Tata's success with Westside was the key factor in raising him from a lesser-known candidate to the front of the list of candidates.

Noel is as reclusive as RNT and remained steadfastly away from the limelight for much of his career — neither attending the in-house parties nor the out-house social dos.

If not for the Tata group, RNT already had an offer from IBM at his disposal back in 1964, which he refused at the behest of a certain Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata.

In a similar fashion, if Noel Tata had really wanted the top job, he would have probably got it in a flash. He will be around the same age as RNT when he takes over the mantle at Bombay House (RNT was 54 in 1991, Noel will be 55 in 2012-13). As the son-in-law of Pallonji Mistry, the single largest shareholder in holding company, Tata Sons, outside of the trusts, he has the backing of the stakeholders. To top it all, he has the Tata surname.

Noel is as reclusive as RNT and remained steadfastly away from the limelight for much of his career — neither attending the in-house parties nor the out-house social dos.

Both love speed but in different ways. RNT is a keen aviator and takes to the skies often. Noel is more grounded and regularly zips around on the Mumbai Pune highway.

The only aspect that perhaps separates the two half-brothers are their mothers and the fact that while RNT is a bachelor, Noel is married to Aloo Mistry, daughter of Pallonji Mistry.

Insiders to the house of Tatas say Noel was always the outsider. A top-ranking executive with a prominent Tata company back in 2006 had rubbished any speculation of Noel taking over from RNT.

Though Noel has been around since 1997, he was not on the radar even when he became a director at Titan and Voltas in 2003. It was only in 2008 that this executive heard his name uttered for the first time in the board rooms of Bombay House. And that name has stayed on till date.

"For the better part of our lives, we did not think Noel would take over from Ratan, even though, logically, that was always possible," says the executive. "Part of the reason could be that either because he was always invisible or that he is actually so different from RNT as a leader."

The beginnings of the two siblings in the corporate world has also been distinct. While RNT's first two ventures, Nelco and Empress Mills, stuttered to life under him but bombed ultimately, Noel on the other hand developed and nurtured Tata's retail arm, Trent, which owns Westside, making it a profitable venture.

Besides, RNT is considered to be a very forthright and aggressive leader masked by a calm exterior exemplified by the Group's multifarious acquisitions in the last 10 years. Noel is the proverbial tortoise. Though the Westside story has been criticised for its slow growth, the meltdown in 2008 showed his foresight when it was the more profitable of all organised retail ventures.

Though he himself chooses to stay in the background, Noel's career graph within the group has soared. He began his career with Tata International, was recently announced to take over as the managing director of the company along with being appointed as the chairman of Tata Investments in June this year. He also holds the position of non-executive vice chairman at Trent where he will no longer be the managing director. He also remains on the boards of Titan and Voltas.

Many see these moves as Noel's baby steps to his brother's throne. Some believe that RNT himself has paved the way for it. "Look at the constitution of the selection panel. It has at least two candidates who may have had hidden ambitions of becoming chairman themselves," said a prominent industry leader. "By inducting them into the panel, where there is no doubt RNT had a role to play, the big brother has ensured Noel will not face the challenges of rebellious leaders he had faced in 1991."