IT is said of Alexander the Great that he conquered the world when he was 33, before being himself conquered by a mosquito. Alexander’s teacher Aristotle, who taught him till age 16, but himself became a pupil of Plato at 17 years of age, lived till the then ripe-old age of 62, dying a year after Alexander.
History has seen numerous conquerors leaping on to the world stage rather early in life, carving their names on stone, before burning out in a flicker. And then, there have been sages of their times throughout history like the Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, and more recently, Tagore, Gandhi and Mother Teresa, who wizened with age, maturing like the good old wine, spending long formative years till midlife acquiring skills and knowledge, to carve their names across people’s hearts.
Ratan Naval Tata should have been the Alexander of our times, launching India’s biggest corporate raids and takeover battles across the globe. Instead providence chose him to be a sage, ripening at his job, winning the respect, admiration and gratitude of ordinary Indians.
In my 25 years in the trade as a business journalist, I am yet to sit across the table with Ratan Tata, exchanging notes on what made him what he was till he signed off on Friday at the not-so-old age of 75, leaving his mark on the world’s corporate history, as few others did. And like no one else conceived in India other than the founder of the Tata Group Jamsetjee Nussrenwanji himself over a century ago.
Yet, I have observed Tata quite closely from the sidelines over the years, noting his contribution to India’s corporate history and culture, not to speak of his huge transformation of the 100-year group. I have attended his public discourses, and the launch of Indica and Nano. At times, I have written about him, and occasionally through the years, commented on his achievements and failures alike.
May be, this New Year, I should resolve to meet him in person to delve deep into his mind and gauge how he acquired his huge skills over the first half of his long and winding career, before applying them over the next half to literally script a story of epic proportions.
You will read much of that story, along with the stories of the other Tata titans over the next many pages of this special collector’s issue. Suffice to say that Ratan would not have been the Tata he is today, had he not spent 30 long and laborious years — of which the first two were spent on the shop floor of Tata Motors (then Telco) — honing his skills just as a craftsman would take to mastering his tools before deploying them to sculpt a perfect statue out of stone.
Through those three-decades of internship, Ratan Tata was fortunate to have a mentor in JRD Tata, the wise old man of Indian industry who oversaw the group’s transition from colonial rule to a democratic republic, only to be shackled by the licence-permit raj, before the country, and with it the Tata’s, eventually gained economic freedom in 1991.
Yet, to understand Ratan Tata, it would not be enough to delve into his past 21 years as chairman of India’s biggest industrial empire, just as it would be insufficient to study his entire career starting 1962, or beginning with his architecture class at Cornell, still earlier. To know what made Ratan the Tata he is today, we have go back to the roots of the group’s history when, way back in 1857, in the wake of the First War of Independence, a certain young Parsee lad fresh out of Bombay’s Elphinstone Institution, joined his father’s business of trading in the Far East.
From there, Jamsetjee Nusserwanji went on to trade in cotton, before setting up India’s first modern textile mill, and eventually dreaming up giant steel and electricity plants at the turn of the century, laying the foundations of India’s textiles, iron and steel and power industries.
Though Ratan Tata grew in the shadow of JRD, in many ways, he emulated the life and thinking of the group’s founder Jamsetjee, aligning himself with the founder’s vision, and adapting his cutting-edge entrepreneurial drive to the modern times. Which is why RNT himself had to say this of the founder: “Jamsetjee Tata was looking at the new frontiers of Indian business, when he launched the first ventures of the group... Jamsetjee Tata took a national view and so, inevitably, we were in basic industries and infrastructure.”
Over a century later, Ratan would transform JNT’s vision of a modern Indian steel plant by taking over British steel giant Corus, and in laying the foundation of India’s first modern indigenous automobile industry.
His gritty fight to make that happen, at any cost, comes across eloquently in the story of the world’s cheapest car Nano, that he delivered despite the many sneers and opposition, by relocating an entire manufacturing plant over 1,000 km across the entire breadth of the country from Bengal to Gujarat.
Ratan Tata’s dedication and devotion to completing his task is best exemplified in his choosing a successor, outside of the family, sporting a non-Tata surname, with young Cyrus Mistry taking over the helm of a $100-billion global enterprise on Friday. A good decade earlier, before he was to originally demit office as executive chairman, Ratan Tata had said that he had still not found a successor to hold the reins after him. He spent the next 10 years hunting the right man for the job.
But then, what made Tata hand over the reins to rank outsider, who did not sport his famous surname. In many ways, Tata seems to have transcended the identity question in the interest of universal good. In doing that, the surname, family, statehood or even nationality had little relevance, perhaps, though possibly the Parsi identity still lingered. Which is why, the House of Tatas is no longer an Indian entity today, with most of the group’s $100 billion turnover coming from its overseas operations.
But more than the identity question, what possibly made Tata renounce control to Mistry was his deep sense of fairplay to the family that actually owns more shares in the group holding company Tata Sons than any other single entity does. That Tata himself has remained a lifelong bachelor and had no vested interest in effecting a dynastic succession would have also contributed to his brand of professionalism.
In a way, Ratan Tata, having fashioned himself as an old-school corporate patriarch, belongs so much to the 20th century India that signifies all that is wrong with this country against which the 21st century generation has pitched tent on Raisina Hill, as yet another year passes into history. Yet, at a grand 75, Tata has laid the foundation of a modern corporate giant that so many NextGen Indians must be proud of.
Today, India boasts its own manufactured cars and is the world’s top IT services provider, because the vision of a forward-looking gentleman focussing on five decades of hard work made it happen. And that man refused to be shackled by the chains of an oppressive state that restrained citizen’s creative freedom.