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‘Terrified’ Tata leaves the ladies starry-eyed

‘I would like to be remembered as somebody who didn’t hurt other people’
Ratan Tata surrounded by members of the Ladies Study Group at ITC Sonar, Calcutta, on Wednesday. Picture by Rashbehari Das

Rapid fire with Ratan Tata

Favourite car: Ferrari. You’d expect it to be from Tata Motors… but it’s Ferrari.
Favourite hotel: That is the Taj. But it’s an unfair question because the Taj Group has never permitted me to stay in somebody else’s hotel so it’s not like I have anything to compare with!
Favourite Taj property: I’m not saying this hypocritically but for many years my favourite Taj hotel was the Taj Bengal.
First crush: Ummm… in the United States, when I lived there. (Pauses) You don’t need to know any more (smiles).
A childhood memory: A long-living memory would be of my grandmother, who I remember a great deal in terms of the values she made me adhere to.
Favourite moment: I can’t define one favourite moment… (“I thought you would say sitting here with all of you,” quips Mukul Agarwal). No, I mentioned I was more terrified today than I can remember so it would be certainly contradictory of me to say that this was my favourite moment!
Most embarrassing moment: Now can I say sitting here?

If there was ever a case of he had them at hello, it was on Wednesday evening at ITC Sonar, Calcutta, where over 500 members and guests of the Ladies Study Group gathered for “an exclusive evening” with Ratan Tata.

Even before the proceedings began, the audience went into raptures when LSG president Mukul Agarwal mentioned in her introduction that not only does the former chairman of the Tata Group drive his own car, he in fact flew his own plane (a Falcon 2000) into Calcutta from Mumbai that evening!

Seated on stage with four accomplished and evidently starry-eyed ladies — Nayantara Palchoudhuri, Madhu Neotia, Rita Punwani and Mukul Agarwal — Ratan Tata answered questions about everything from his professional challenges to his personal favourites, even a rapid-fire round!

Excerpts from the Ratan Tata show.

Initial challenges

I became the chairman about the same time when India opened up its economic boundaries (1991). The economy became open, investment was allowed, India seemed to be catapulting itself into a new era....

Many of the companies were still operating as they had in times of protection and about the only thing that I probably could say I caused to happen is to tell the company that there was a world outside, a bigger market outside that they needed to relate to... that Indian companies should not be shy to address. And I was blessed with a very active and reactive team that did much more than I had expected them to do in that period of time.

Difficult decision

There were so many, I don’t know which one to talk about! May be the one that caused me the greatest anguish was, when I took over, I had announced that I would restructure the group to be in lesser number of businesses, not spread in the manner that it was. The first target, if I may say so, was a company called Tomco, Tata Oil Manufacturing Company, which produced soaps and toiletries. It was losing money and had a very small market share and I thought we needed to divest ourselves of this company and picked the company’s greatest enemy, Hindustan Lever, to be the buyer.

I thought I did a very dignified thing, the shareholders got a very good share in Hindustan Lever, we had a standalone agreement that they couldn’t dispense with any workers or distributors… it seemed like a very fair kind of divestment. The day after the announcement was made, it seemed like the ceiling just descended on me — the share market went after me, our own employees went after me, the people within Tata considered this was being done just for the sake of making change... and with it went my total plan of restructuring. I didn’t have the courage to do any of the other things I had wanted to do.

Closest to his heart

I think, without a doubt, Telco, which became Tata Motors, was the company that I spent the most time with. It always was in a strong position for commercial vehicles but there was excitement in introducing cars into the portfolio. And there was great excitement in taking over Jaguar Land Rover, which was bigger than Tata Motors. As I said at that time, either history will show us to be very courageous or very stupid. Right now it’s being viewed as very courageous, a few years ago it was being termed as being very stupid.

His mentor

I think that would be an easy one, compared to the other questions! I owe a great deal to J.R.D. Tata. We had a relationship which changed over the years from being someone relegated to a few comments thrown in my direction when we first met to a very warm relationship, partly created by the fact that we were both pilots. That formed a common bond. Then, towards the end, a very fatherly, sort of senior statesman kind of approach… I learnt almost everything from him.

I often used to tell him when we were working closely together towards the end of his life that I wish that both of us were 10 years younger, we could’ve enjoyed this relationship for a longer period of time.

I remember the day I took over as the chairman of the Tata Group, I walked him back to his office and he said to his secretary, ‘Well, we’ll have to move out now because there’s a new chairman.’ And I said, ‘No Jay, this is yours as long as you are here.’ Inwardly I was petrified that if he sat in the office, then he would continue to run the group! But he never did. He was always available to you when you wanted his advice, but he stayed out of your way. He made his comments, he got angry with you if he thought you did something wrong but it was always your call. I learnt a great deal about how to let go also from him, because he did that in such a decent and dignified way, which probably was far more difficult for him to do than running the whole group. So I think he would stand out as the mentor in my life.

Message to youth

The only thing I think I could say as they go into life, which we all do at some stage, is that they should be driven or motivated to do what they think is the right thing for the right reasons, rather than be driven by something subversive. They should go to bed knowing they did the right thing, however difficult that right thing might be.

Glass ceiling

If I am to take this evening into consideration, I’ve never been more terrified (the audience bursts out laughing) being in the presence of so many ladies.... But seriously, I think in India we haven’t done enough to recognise the contribution that ladies can make at senior levels in a company. I think we have broken the glass ceiling, as you put it, in the case of women engineers in companies, or women marketing people in companies but at the board level and at top ranks… there are some very successful women in managerial positions but we don’t have as many as we would like to see. Not having them is not the fact that people are loathe to have women in those high positions but I think there are less career women who remain in careers as they do in their families than there are elsewhere in the world. So I think it’s an evolutionary thing that will take its time, it will happen.

Just to add something, we talk of the corporate world, but when we talk of the political world, we’ve done more with women (audience laughs) than many other countries. So I think the question might be which glass ceiling you are referring to (more laughter).

Retirement days

You know, when I knew that I was going to retire, I had these visions of this wonderful feeling of not having to do anything, of having time to myself and going back in time to my childhood. There were two things that I felt I had lost, one was I used to play the piano, which I had forgotten how to and wanted to relearn, and I enjoyed painting and wanted to do that too....

As that day came closer, I became more and more concerned that I would have nothing to do and conjured up this image of this idle mind that degenerates… and you start to add things to what you will do.

And now, I find myself travelling about 180 days a year, I have less time at home than I did and now I am going in reverse, trying to see what I can withdraw from in terms of my leisure, to spend more time at home, which I do want to do. I have decided to go into office later every day, I want to take three-day weekends… but it doesn’t always work out that way.

To be remembered…

Well, not with a marble tombstone! The only thing I would say is I would like to be remembered as somebody who didn’t hurt other people, who did what he thought was in the best interest of others. One may succeed or not succeed in other people’s lives, so it’s a question that I can’t answer, it has to be others that answer this after me. So you’ll have to wait a few years (audience laughs out loud).