x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Newsmaker: Ratan Tata

The retired magnate, who brought Tata cars to global prominence, has just been announced as a judge for next year's Zayed Future Energy Prize.

Ratan Tata. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
Ratan Tata. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

It was August 2010, and Ratan Naval Tata, one of the most powerful businessmen in the nation, was being celebrated as India's Businessman of the Decade by the Federation of Indo-Israeli Chambers of Commerce in Mumbai.

He was the very "personification of honesty, integrity and inspiring leadership," said Kateekal Sankaranarayanan, governor of the state of Maharashtra, presenting the award.

"The Tatas freshen our mornings with their tea, they bring taste to our food with their salt ... the Tata Group touches the life of every Indian in one way or the other."

When it was finally his turn to speak, Tata waited for the applause to die down, lent in to the microphone and said: "I wish I could find a hole in this hotel to crawl into."

The reaction was typical of a man who has somehow managed to maintain an endearing humility and low profile while building one of the most powerful and outward-looking companies that India has ever seen.

When he retired in December, he left behind a modernised, international business empire - "a symbol of Indian capitalism," according to the Financial Times, "with a rare reputation for combining fast growth and ethical conduct in a nation still bedevilled by corruption" that had "come to embody its nation's adventures with globalisation".

The group's most profitable business is no longer steel, but information technology and, with a foothold in more than 50 countries, it has a turnover of US$100 billion (Dh367.3bn), some 58 per cent of which comes from outside India, compared with just 5 per cent only 20 years ago.

Ratan Naval Tata, known affectionately throughout the Tata Group as RNT, was born in 1937 in Surat, India, and raised by his grandmother after his parents separated when he was just seven.

As a young man, he did his best to turn his back on the company business, which had been founded by his great-grandfather Jamsetji Tata, the legendary "Father of Indian industry" who had built his first textile mill in the late 19th century, laying the foundations of what would become the Tata Group.

The young Ratan had his heart set on a career in the States and at the end of the 1950s, after attending boarding schools in India, he left to study architecture at Cornell University. That dream ended - and a job offer from IBM evaporated - when he returned to India in 1962 to take care of his ailing grandmother.

It was a decision made inevitable by his family's adherence to the religious tenets of India's ancient and close-knit Parsi population. It was also a decision that would not only change the course of Tata's life, but would also play a leading role in India's economic transformation.

Back in India, Tata joined the family firm, starting in 1962 on the shop floor at Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. According to a celebration of his 70th birthday published in The Times of India in 2007, he set about learning the business from the ground up, "shovelling limestone and handling the blast furnace".

He steadily worked his way up the corporate ladder. Nevertheless, it still came as a shock to many of the old guard when, in 1991, his uncle, Jehangir "JRD" Tata, named him as his successor as group chairman, passing over several more senior candidates.

"I chose him because of his memory," JRD reportedly told Tata Group historian RM Lala a few days afterwards. "Ratan will be more like me."

Ratan certainly never forgot his company's origins, nor his nation's history.

"I think the Tata Group's greatest contribution to the growth of the Indian economy and Indian industry probably happened in the pre-independence era," he said in a 2007 interview.

"The group's investments in industries such as steel, textiles, power and hotels were certainly driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, but they were driven even more, I think, by a desire to make India self-sufficient and independent of its colonial masters."

Ratan would go on to confound the company sceptics.

At the time that he took over, India was undergoing economic reforms, opening the country to internal foreign competition that could have spelt disaster for companies such as the Tata Group. Instead, he thrived on the challenges.

"I've never believed protectionism will lead us anywhere," he once said. "There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that when you open an economy you should do it in totality."

Foreign investment, he believed, "adds a sense of competition; we should see this as a wake-up call to modernise and upgrade."

He embarked on a series of sensationally ambitious acquisitions that emphasised just how far in the past India had left its colonial history.

First to fall was Tetley, founded in 1837 by Yorkshire, UK tea merchants Joseph and Edward Tetley, who made their fortune from the tea trade introduced into the subcontinent by the East India Company. Tata bought it for US$450m (Dh1.65b) in 2000, India's biggest overseas acquisition.

In 2007, that was dwarfed by the purchase of Corus, the Anglo-Dutch steel giant, for $12bn.

If Tetley was hugely symbolic for India, then Tata's acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 was a massive injection of national pride - with a personal element. Ratan's father, Naval, had been one of the first Indian owners of the Jaguar XK120 in the late 1940s.

Ratan's retirement in December last year was long planned, and the hunt for his successor as Tata chairman culminated in the appointment of Cyrus Mistry, only the second non-Tata to run the organisation, was in effect part of the process of transformation and modernisation that Ratan set in train in 1991.

"I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise," he said in 2007. "What I have done is play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the 'I'."

That modesty, in part, explains the low profile of a man who, noted The Times of India on his 70th birthday, had done it all "without experimenting with his hairstyle, riding fancy motorbikes or dating Bollywood heroines ... In a recent interview, he confessed he 'never had the desire to own a yacht'."

It may also explain the extraordinary respect that he commands among those who have crossed his path. In January, Anirudha Dutta, a columnist for Forbes India, wrote: "In today's world of bloated and fragile egos," Ratan's humility was a largely unsung exception and "a lesson ... for all of us".

The article prompted a flood of anecdotes paying tribute to "a great man and philosopher", "a rare gem of a business leader from India", a "role model for all young people and other industrialists" who was "on the pedestal with Mother Teresa".

Never married, Ratan has no heir. "I came seriously close four times and each time I backed off in fear or for one reason or another," he told CNN in 2011, in a moving interview.

He went on to hint at heartbreak; a cruel combination of world affairs and his devotion to the ailing grandmother who had raised him.

"I was probably the most serious when I was working in the US and the only reason we didn't get married was that I came back to India and she was to follow me," he told CNN's Talk Asia.

That was 1962, the year of the Sino-Indian War. "This conflict in the snowy, uninhabited part of the Himalayas was seen in the United States as a major war between India and China," said Ratan, "and so she didn't come and finally got married in the US thereafter."

Notoriously private, "Tata keeps away from Mumbai's party circuit, dresses conservatively, and gets to work early in either his black Mercedes or Tata Indigo, sitting beside his driver," Rediff reported in 2007. Nevertheless, "Yes, I think I am lonely," he admitted to Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi earlier this year. "And what's worse, I'm too diffident to do anything about it."

For company, he has his beloved pet alsations, and, in retirement, he will swap a book-filled apartment for a relatively modest, modern three-storey seafront house at Colaba, 20 minutes from Tata HQ. He hopes to improve his piano playing, spend more time pursuing his passion for flying and focus on his philanthropic interests. One such interest links Ratan to Abu Dhabi: this week he was announced as a judge on next year's Zayed Future Energy Prize.

"I do not know how history will judge me," he once said, but one epitaph had been written two years earlier, when Ratan was named Forbes' Asian Businessman of the Year, and the magazine declared:"His $14.3bn family conglomerate is a picture of what was and is India Inc."

Ratan was "probably one of the three or four best business leaders I have ever met," Henry Schacht, the former chairman of Lucent Technologies and Cummins Engine, told Forbes. His genius was that he "understood what needed to be done and he understood how it needed to be done in India".

Biog

December 29, 1937 Born Ratan Naval Tata in Mumbai

1962 Graduates from Cornell University with BSc in architecture and structural engineering; joins Tata Group

1991 Succeeds JRD Tata as chairman of Tata Group

2000 Acquires Tetley tea

2005 Named Forbes’ Asian Businessman of the Year

2007 Buys steel giant Corus; awarded Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy

2008 Buys Jaguar Land Rover

2009 Given honorary knighthood by UK; launches budget car the Nano

2010 Receives Legend in Leadership Award, Yale

2012 Retires on December 28, his 75th birthday

2013 Named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year – Lifetime Achievement

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