Tata names new chief to stabilise group roiled by Mistry ouster

Natarajan Chandrasekaran was announced as Tata Group's new chairman on Jan 12, 2017.
Natarajan Chandrasekaran was announced as Tata Group's new chairman on Jan 12, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI (BLOOMBERG) - For Tata Group's new chairman, restoring order at India's largest conglomerate will be atop his agenda after the ouster of his predecessor Cyrus Mistry triggered one of the country's biggest corporate power struggles in years.

The conglomerate on Thursday (Jan 12) picked Tata Consultancy Services chief executive officer Natarajan Chandrasekaran, head of its biggest unit, as the next chairman of group holding company Tata Sons.

The 53-year-old executive has led TCS, Asia's biggest software exporter, since 2009, a tenure under which profits quadrupled and the stock tripled to become India's biggest company by market value.

The appointment expands Chandrasekaran's role to lead a US$100 billion (S$142 billion) conglomerate with dozens of divisions in businesses ranging from making luxury Jaguar sedans to writing code for Citigroup and selling table salt. The bitter public fight between scion Ratan Tata and Mr Mistry - who continues to battle his ouster in court - has roiled the group for months and divided the nation's business elite, many of which sit on the boards of Tata companies.

"He builds relationships and this will come in useful when he deals with the heads of various companies at Tata Sons," Mr S. Mahalingam, former finance chief at Tata Consultancy, said in an interview. "He won't be a micro-manager."

The new chairman, commonly known as Chandra, will also have to work well with kingmaker Ratan Tata, as he re-asserts his dominance on the group, according to Mr J.N. Gupta, co-founder and managing director of Stakeholder Empowerment Services, a proxy advisory firm. Mr Ratan Tata had handpicked Mr Mistry to succeed him, only to lead his ouster four years later on grounds of non performance.

"Tata Sons met today with a single point agenda to name Chandra," Mr Ishaat Hussain, a director at the parent company and chairman of Tata Consultancy, said by phone on Thursday. "I strongly supported the candidature of Chandra."

Chandra will start in his new role Feb 21. The Tata Sons board will decide on Chandra's tenure later, spokesman Debasis Ray said. Mr Mistry, who is still a director on the board, did not attend Thursday's meeting, he said.

Tata Consultancy named chief financial officer Rajesh Gopinathan to replace Chandra, the software developer said in a statement on Thursday after reporting record quarterly profits.

Chandra is on the board of India's central bank and is an avid marathoner. He led Tata Consultancy's Latin America and Japan expansion as the company sought to reduce its dependence on the US.

Chandra joined Tata Consultancy after completing his post-graduation in computer engineering in India and has been with the group since 1987.

Under Chandra, TCS accelerated overseas expansion and the company became the first among Indian software developers to cross US$10 billion in annual revenue. TCS's market value is now about 30 per cent higher than the country's second-largest company - Reliance Industries Ltd. - and more than double that of industry rival Infosys Ltd.

Chandra's selection was welcomed by some of India's business elite.

"Chandra, as he is fondly referred to, brings to the table an unparalleled track record of value creation and visionary leadership at TCS," billionaire Anil Ambani said in a statement. "Having run many marathons with him, I have the highest regard for Chandra's spirit of endurance, grit, determination and focus."

Yet challenges abound. One will come in the shape of Mr Mistry's accusations of poor governance within the group. The former chairman has filed a case in the National Company Law Tribunal asking the court to restrain Ratan Tata from attending board meetings and appoint an administrator to manage Tata Sons.

In an e-mail to directors after his dismissal, Mr Mistry said the group may face 1.18 trillion rupees (S$24.7 billion) in writedowns over time because of five unprofitable businesses. He cited Indian Hotels Co, Tata Motors Ltd.'s passenger-vehicle operations, Tata Steel's European business, and the group's power and telecommunications units as "legacy hotspots", according to the e-mail.

"The first challenge of a new chairman is setting at rest all the controversies that have arisen in the removal of Cyrus Mistry," said Rishikesha T. Krishnan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Indore. "Secondly, there are large companies and investments in the Tata portfolio that need urgent attention."