Cyrus Mistry: Low-key visionary who led by empowering others
Despite his high profile in the corporate world, Cyrus’s personal style was low-key. He kept away from the celebrity circus and the media, choosing to spend his leisure time with his family and close school friends.
Tata Sons’ former Chairman Cyrus Mistry who died in a road accident on Sunday was the younger of the two sons of Pallonji Mistry who ran the engineering conglomerate Shapoorji Mistry Group. Cyrus Mistry’s death which comes close on the heels of his father Pallonji Mistry’s death this June, is a crushing blow to the USD 2.5 billion group.
Despite his high profile in the corporate world, Cyrus’s personal style was low-key. He kept away from the celebrity circus and the media, choosing to spend his leisure time with his family and close school friends from Cathedral and John Connon. After graduating from Imperial College, London, and a management degree from London School of Business, he joined the family firm and demonstrated his sharp business acumen by turning around the infra company Afcons which his family had acquired from a family friend. When they bought it, the firm was struggling and burdened by negative revenue and disturbing reports of kickbacks and corruption. Mistry, who was always soft-spoken had spearheaded its acquisition.
While he had the backing of the SP Group’s solid balance sheets, the task was not easy and Mistry didn’t hesitate to engage a whole-sale sacking of managers who were dubious before he embarked on new projects. He did consequently struggle with hiring new talent and even lost some projects thereafter, but he rode through the rough times and led the group to greater heights and profits.
He was less conservative than his father in some ways. One of his recurrent themes that played out was including more women in the corporate world. At Afcons which was basically a ‘hard-hat company’ he had inducted women in as many 15 percent women in his management team. Even during his chairmanship of Tata Sons, one of key areas of focus was to induct more women into the workforce. It was something he mentioned in his first letter as chairman for Tata Global Beverages to the shareholders.
Also, unlike his family that preferred to keep the group private, Mistry felt that a listing and going public would support and help their overall profile as well in getting better positioned for international markets. A prospectus was even filed with the SEBI for an IPOI for Afcons but was later torpedoed when the financial markets slumped worldwide around 2008.
Mistry was anointed as Group boss and Tata Sons Chairman in 2012 but the term ran into trouble as a dispute brewed between him and outgoing boss Ratan Tata and led to his controversial dismissal in 2016.
After his exit from Tata Sons, Mistry retreated even further from the limelight, scrupulously declining requests for interviews and public appearances. He grew a beard and moved into a new role as a venture capitalist, launching an investment firm called Mistry Ventures that purported to incubate and fund early stage companies. In parallel, he prepared for a prolonged legal battle with the Tatas.
Publicist Dilip Cherian who knew Cyrus Mistry well, and worked with him during his dispute at the Tata Group said, “He had a rapier-sharp mind and could discern between earnings calls and emotional drivers. “For example, he was willing to see how the new chairman N. Chandrasekaran was running the business and how he would have also liked to do the same things. While he may have had emotions about the role and the position he lost, he was able to work with the fact that performance and earnings were important for all. So, when things had come back to stability, he was the first to acknowledge that the group was righting itself in terms of overall direction.”
On Sunday, N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sonsissued a statement about Mistry’s death: “I am deeply saddened by the sudden and untimely demise of Mr. Cyrus Mistry. He had a passion for life and it is really tragic that he passed away at such a young age. My deepest condolences and prayers for his family in these difficult times.”
Nawshir Khurody, who was director at the SP group companies, recalls how he got called out of retirement by Cyrus Mistry. “A few days after I stepped down from Voltas as its MD, I got a call from him and he said if I was in the vicinity he could send his car to take me to his office. I was half a mile away so I went to see him,” Khurody said. “He told me, ‘Now that you’re retiring, come join me before anyone else approaches you’.”
“I told him I know nothing about his business and he told me but he knew enough.” When Khurody asked Mistry what would he do for him, Cyrus responded saying he should just sit in office. “And then he pushed me to give my answer then and there.”
Of course, Khurody said yes, and in the course of time worked with him on restructuring Afcons. “He was a numbers man, the opposite of Shapur, his brother, who is the big picture man. Shapur was a high-level-thinker who spent time bringing in business and clients as opposed to Cyrus was operationally involved at micro level.”
Khurody describes Cyrus’s work style as that of someone who watched people and when he was sure they were competent regardless of age, gender and he would empower them, sometimes extravagantly so. “Someone with just four years of experience could be handed a ₹600 crore project and when cautioned he would say, ‘It’s fine, I’ll take the responsibility for it’.”
At the same time, when it came to his business review system and analysis, it was second to none down to the last percentage point, says Khurody.
Dr Mukund Rajan, Brand Custodian under Mistry at the Tata Group endorsed what Khurody said, adding that in Mistry’s death, “India has lost one of its smartest business leaders.”
“Cyrus lived up to my definition of a great leader by voluntarily surrounding himself with people with great talent, skills and strong opinions, unlike many other leaders I have seen who feel threatened and become insecure if they have capable managers around them. He was a voracious reader, and kept challenging his senior executives to think differently and more ambitiously. His loss is India’s loss.”
Mistry’s other former colleagues at Tata also expressed their sadness at his death. “Cyrus was a rare human being, deeply thoughtful, highest integrity, genuine humility and smart,” said Nirmalya Kumar - Lee Kong Chian Professor of Marketing at Singapore Management University who had worked with him when he was Chairman. “These qualities combined with his natural charm meant you could not walk away from a meeting with him without being impressed and touched. He will be missed by all and his death demonstrates how life is unfair.”
Khurody talks about Mistry’s bitter parting with the Tatas and how it plunged Cyrus into depression. Soon after his exit from Tatas, Khurody went to meet Mistry and was told to leave. Undeterred, Khurody says, he refused to do so. “I told him that everyone empathised with him but he still had a challenge at hand which was to take the SP group and make it like L&T an engineering and construction giant.” Mistry, ever the gentleman, listened and apologised profusely for his brusqueness, and walked Khurody out to the front gate as he left the office.
While most miss Mistry for his studied approach to business, deeply involved hands-on style and attention to detail what set him apart was his detachment from power, his vision and his knack for empowering others.