Having steered over 100 companies of the Tata Group for more than two decades, Ratan Tata, who retires later this month as Tata Sons chairman, says he has always tried to do the "right thing" but rues that Indians have a tendency to harp too much on the dark side of things and pull down those with the ability to progress.
He believes that in the business environment outside India there is genuine and greater appreciation of the good that a person does and the success that he or she has achieved. "In my interactions with business leaders in India, as against elsewhere, there is this feeling that they are looking for cracks in your armour in order to pull you down; this happens not just to me but to everybody," Tata said in an in-house interview to Christabelle Noronha, chief of group corporate affairs at Tata Sons Ltd.
Following is the first part of the full text of the interview as published on the group's website:
You have been at the helm of the Tata organisation for more than two decades. If you were to reflect on this period of your life, what would be your most satisfying memories?
This period has probably been one of the most important in my life. At the same time, it has also been the most demanding that I have experienced. There have been several satisfying memories and some disturbing ones, too.
Perhaps the most satisfying is that during this period one was able to weld the organisation together in a more cohesive way than it had been in its past, that it was able to identify itself more as a group, and that we took bold and, in some cases, rewarding decisions in terms of growth, including the making of acquisitions overseas.
It would have been tremendously satisfying if economic conditions globally had continued to be buoyant. This, unfortunately, has not happened and that reality has affected the satisfaction index.
Ratan Tata has always seemed to be a contemplative kind of person, an introvert who appears to be most comfortable away from the glare. How have you been able to manage the attention and the limelight that came with the chairmanship? What kind of defence mechanisms have you had to employ to deal with the expectations and the unrelenting scrutiny?
When I took up the position of chairman, I had an underlying dilemma in my mind on how to fill the shoes of a very great person [the late JRD Tata]. The decision I made was to just be myself. That, I think, carried on to the interactions with media and in public life. I decided to be myself.
I am an introvert, kind of a private person, and I tried to remain that way. Some of the media glare I could not escape, so I faced up to it as part of the job. But in every other way, maybe to some extent to the detriment of the group and myself, I stayed away from the media unless I had to. I avoided being an easily accessible person and, as a consequence, the group has probably not had the visibility and the public relations positives that it should have garnered.
Would you have liked to do things differently?
No, I would not. As I said, I wanted to be myself and I did not make the sacrifice that is demanded if you are to be seen as a public figure.
When you were appointed chairman of Tata Sons, did you doubt your ability to provide the group with the kind of leadership it required? What were your main concerns?
That's a difficult question to answer. JRD Tata [the late chairman of Tata Sons] had around him a team of senior managers, all of them people of substantial standing in their respective spheres. They had high public acceptance and were people with proven track records. While they may have acceded to his wish that I take over the chairmanship — and this happened suddenly — I must confess that I did not feel any sense of joyousness on their part, because some of them had aspirations to have that job themselves.
It was a period of tightrope walking: on the one hand, trying to continue the cordial relationships I had with them, not as chairman of the group but as one of their colleagues, and at the same time trying not to avoid taking the decisions on change that I felt were needed to be taken. The first five years of my being chairman were spent in negotiating and in trying, as diplomatically as I could, to achieve what I was convinced had to be achieved, in some instances to the annoyance and even anger of some of these stalwarts.
How has the responsibility of being chairman over such a long period of time changed you as a person? How different is the Ratan Tata of today from the Ratan Tata who studied to be an architect and then reluctantly plunged into the world of business?
To say what I would have been as a practising architect is too much in the distant past; that career ended a year or so after I left college. So, I think, to draw a comparison with my days as an architect would be inappropriate. I can only say that I came out, perhaps, as a visually sensitive person who had a good education in all the facets that the architectural curriculum provides, which, incidentally, is a surprisingly good grounding for a general manager of an enterprise.
Over the years leading up to becoming chairman, I think I formed views on what the group could do and accomplish. I exchanged notes with JRD on how, from a strategic standpoint, the Tatas should operate. JRD did not, in fact, endorse many of my views. When I did take over the chairmanship, I had a strong desire to implement those changes. As time went on I became more realistic that everything cannot be changed overnight, that change cannot happen by force or diktat, and that you have to carry people with you. I believe I am a softer person today, maybe less decisive than I was when I took over, less idealistic, more pragmatic about what can be done and what cannot, and much more aware of the need to communicate.
For instance, on the communication front, I have changed. I have realised that you cannot carry people with you through public proclamations of what you want to do; there is a lot of behind-the-scenes convincing and cajoling that's needed. I still don't do enough of that, but I have come to recognise the necessity of such an approach and I have improved my communications with others prior to effecting any change that I would like to effect.
But do you really dictate to or mandate people to follow you?
I think it may have been viewed that way at times; at other times it may not have been viewed that way. There have been instructions, guidelines, and expectations expressed by me. These have, in some cases, been viewed as a command, in other cases as direction. Within the Tata Group there has always been, in my view, this situation where if something that has been put out from my office upsets people, then it's a diktat; if it suits them, it's a guideline. So the same instruction can mean different things to different people.
You appear to be a person who is at home in the world, more comfortable in a global business environment than in your 'Indian business leader' skin. Is that a correct impression?
I am, to an extent, very comfortable in the United States, where I spent 10 years of my life. In my interactions with business leaders in India, as against elsewhere, there is this feeling that they are looking for cracks in your armour in order to pull you down; this happens not just to me, but to everybody. There is a tendency to look at the dark side of everybody and everything, every situation and every government move. Outside of India, in the business environment, there is genuine and much greater appreciation of the good that a person does and the success that he or she has achieved.
Some element of this thinking has led me to foster closer relations with business leaders from abroad that I like.
It is said that just as JRD had a soft corner for Tata Steel, you have one for Tata Motors...
I wouldn't say that. Automobiles are a passion with me and so it was with JRD, except that he handed over operations at Tata Motors [Telco at the time] to Sumant Moolgaonkar and thereby reduced his involvement with the company. He retained his interest in Tata Steel and I think the two of us, if you take away the frills, had an equivalent interest in Tata Steel and Tata Motors, respectively. Tata Steel has been the flagship company of the group and JRD had far greater involvement in its growth and development than have I. Similarly, I have had closer association with Tata Motors, both in commercial vehicles and passenger cars.
It's inevitable that people say you have a soft corner for a business concern when you are more deeply involved with it than with others. Coming back to Tata Steel, a great deal of the company's progress happened during JRD's time, but more recently there has been a significant involvement on my part in its growth and evolution. So I don't think it's fair to infer that I have a soft corner for Tata Motors. That said, the automotive business is more lively and intriguing — it's not a commodity business — and I have to confess that my personal interest in automobiles is high and I enjoy being in that business.
You have often, over the past few years, made clear your intention to step down as chairman when the time comes. What are the thoughts that gather in your mind as that time approaches? Could you share some of the details of your post-retirement years as you have them mapped out? How much space will there be for Tata in this scheme of things?
You will recall that I reintroduced the retirement age criterion in the group and this was done as a set of guidelines. It was considered an edict by some and welcomed by others. While some people have suggested that the retirement policy should not apply to the chairman, I have always believed that you don't make exceptions for yourself. So I took the view that the rule should apply to me too, that I should not be treated differently from everyone else in the organisation in terms of the application of that policy and the content of that policy.
The retirement age was implemented after I took over as chairman. The retirement age I had suggested was 70 years for all directors and 65 years for senior executives. It was then revised to 75 years for directors. More recently, it has been revised back to where I had initially put it.
I welcomed the extra five years because it gave me the opportunity to do many of the things I wanted to. If I had stepped down at 70 I would have had fewer years as chairman and that would have meant an unfinished agenda. But I was certainly not keen to see any new modifications to the rule. I realise that I have to live by the rules I have set and step down when the time comes. And that time has come.
Do you have an unfinished agenda still?
Oh yes. I would be a hypocrite if I said I did not.
So what is it that remains to be accomplished?
I think it would not be correct at this point in time to talk about what one would have liked to do; it would not be fair to my successor for me to say. I think he has to have his arena to perform in.
What about the veterinary hospital that you have said you would like to be involved with?
If I were a private citizen I would still be interested in establishing a world-class veterinary hospital. It would be in India and in Mumbai, specifically and selfishly, if I may add. Anybody who is an animal lover can see the complete void and lack of investment in facilities for the care of animals. You have to painfully watch if your pet is afflicted one way or another, without the necessary medical facilities or the expertise at hand to deal with the case. I believe all of us who have pets have experienced this.
This is not how it is in other parts of the world, where the investment has been made for the care of animals and birds. The amenities and the capabilities can leave you surprised. So, yes, one of the issues I have been chasing is to spearhead the move to establish a first-rate, international-grade veterinary hospital in the country.