Be your own man, Ratan Tata has advised Cyrus Mistry, who will succeed him at the helm of the $100-billion (Rs 550,000 crore) Tata Group in two weeks.
“I don’t think it is right to have a ghost to shadow over somebody,” says Tata, dismissing any notion that his larger-than-life persona would linger over the group after he retires on December 28, when he turns 75.
Tata has told Mistry, 31 years his junior: “You should be your own person, you should take your own call and you should decide what you want to do.”
Tata spoke about his 50 years with the group — 21 as its chairman — the highs and lows of his tenure, his equation with Mistry and his post-retirement plans.
Mistry, currently vice-chairman of the conglomerate that spans automobiles, IT, hotels, tea and steel across 80 countries, has been working closely with Tata to prepare for the transition.
On his success mantra for Mistry, Tata said: “I told him the same things that I told myself when JRD (late JRD Tata) handed over the mantle to me. The first reaction of anybody is to be Mr JRD Tata, because you are filling his shoes.
“I instantly told myself, ‘I can never do that’. I will never be him much as I try to imitate him. So I took a decision to be myself and to do what I thought was the right thing. I told Cyrus the same thing.”
Asked if his counsel would be available to his successor, Tata disclosed that the two of them would have lunch every couple of weeks “over something and we will talk about whatever he wants to talk about.” Mistry asks him from time to time, ‘is this ok, that ok’. Tata would tell him to look at things “if I were not there because you should be your own person.”
“Every act you do and every move you make has to stand the test of public scrutiny.”
That, he said, was the test he had given himself. “If it stands the test of public scrutiny, do it....if it doesn’t, don’t do it.”
Tata will remain chairman of the various Tata trusts, which hold 66% shares of Tata Sons.
Asked whether this would not give him a large influence over the group, he said: “I think I would have to wear a different hat, being the major shareholder. The same kind of view that a shareholder might have, not a chairman’s view of the company.”
Looking ahead, Tata said he believed the group it was poised to continue to grow, adding “I think Cyrus Mistry should have his space and define where he would like it to grow.”
Asked about changes that he had not been able to achieve in the group, Tata mentioned the company’s feudal nature. “We are very hierarchical — not feudal — given to honouring years of experience... We don’t touch each other’s feet but we still almost bow down every time when one passes,” he said.
Describing his long tenure as a “journey of great learning”, Tata said of his life with the 144-year-old conglomerate: “On the whole it has been a very rewarding experience. I tried to uphold the values and ethical standards that were there. I feel satisfied that I have done my best.”
Asked about moments of frustration, Tata said that there were many, recalling his first job in the foundries of TELCO where, when one asked why something was being done in a particular way, he was told, “this is the way we have done it and it is the best way”.
“I have tried to change (that approach). I have been constantly telling people to encourage questions ... It has changed to some extent. I would be lying if I were to say it has really changed. There are pockets which have changed and there are pockets which continue to be as they were,” he said.
On life after retirement, Tata feels people want to do things that they have always wanted to do.
“I will spend more time on technology, for example, which is quite a passion with me. As an architect I would like to once again go back to it. Then there are things like piano which I learnt when I was nine. I haven’t played it since and would like to relearn to play the piano.”
The chairman of the group that makes Jaguar and Land Rover is a fan of the Ferrari. “I have two or three cars that I like but today Ferrari would be the best car I have driven in terms of being an impressive car,” he said.