Speaking Of Asia

A slugfest at the Tata corral

The boardroom battle at Tata has rocked not only the iconic company, but also corporate India at large.

India's Parsis, as former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo once noted, have always sought to sweeten the milk that is their host.

Arriving as refugees fleeing persecution in Iran more than a thousand years ago, the tiny community has thrived in business and the professions, and lent sturdy support to society through generous philanthropy focused on education and health. Dr Homi Bhabha, the father of India's atomic energy programme, was a Parsi. So was its most celebrated post-independence soldier, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

Among the Parsis, once known to send their dead to "Towers of Silence" to be eaten by vultures, no name has stood out more prominently than the house of Tata. The family built India's first steel plant, launched its first airline and is today a conglomerate that towers over the Indian economic landscape. In the Tata corral are salt, electronics, software, automobiles, chemicals, finance, communications, power, coffee, tea, hotels and housing.

Even taller is the group's reputation - for probity, above all. It is as though while most of India wallows in sleaze and corruption, the Tatas are too refined to have muddy knees. In journalist Josy Joseph's gripping book, A Feast Of Vultures - The Hidden Business Of Democracy In India, released this year, page after page lays out the dirty dealings and suspected graft that helped some of India's best known companies rise in fields such as defence and aviation. The Tatas, where they find mention, are seen in favourable light.

It is this storied background, plus Singapore's happy experience with the group from early in its independence, that caused the island to choose to partner Tata when it sought to enter India's aviation market in the early 1990s.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

The Tata group first established its presence in Singapore in the early 1970s when Tata Precision Industries was set up, with assistance from the Economic Development Board, to manufacture tools, dies and moulds. The Tata Government Training Centre, Singapore's first technical education institute, was created around the same time.

These days, Tata owns Singapore's NatSteel and uses the island as a regional headquarters for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the outsourcing company that is its most profitable operation. All this must surely have weighed on Singapore's decision to announce Mr Ratan Tata as an honorary citizen in 2008, even as the airline joint venture suffered a two-decade delay because Mr Tata chose not to grease his way to a licence.

While the affection and respect for the Tata brand continues in Singapore, with wider India, the tables have turned, of course. These days, Singapore's expertise in skills development is actively sought by New Delhi.

The Tata conglomerate consists of more than 100 operating companies that have operations across the globe. More than half of the group's business is overseas, making it perhaps India's most globalised company. It is for this reason that last week's boardroom upheaval in the hallowed Tata Group caused so much noise in India, and around the world. In an unexpected move, the 78-year-old Mr Tata returned to take the helm of the group barely four years after making way for his chosen successor, Mr Cyrus Mistry.

The man he ousted - who is now fighting that ouster with a vigour that has corporate India in thrall - is no ordinary executive. Mr Mistry's family is the largest shareholder in Tata Sons, the holding company, with some 19 per cent of the stock. Besides being a Parsi himself, he has a sister married to Mr Tata's half-brother, Noel.

In one corner of Mumbai, the milk has certainly turned sour.

What caused the boardroom upheaval is not clear. Certainly, Mr Mistry seemed not to have been aware that it was imminent when he attended the board meeting that ousted him by an overwhelming margin. But a terse statement from the group announced the chairman had been "replaced" and that Mr Tata was retaking the reins briefly while a successor was identified.

There are hints that the trigger may have been Mr Mistry's handling of a soured venture with Japan's NTT DoCoMo, a subject now with the courts and one in which Tata may have to pay out a massive settlement fee. A civil engineer by training, he may also have upset the patriarch by taking an accounting microscope and a fresh broom to the Tata stable.

AN OVERDUE CLEAN-UP?

The thing is, few doubt that a clean-up was needed within the group. Barring TCS, the outsourcing arm, and Jaguar Land Rover, many companies in the group are performing unspectacularly, particularly the overseas acquisitions. The biggest, Corus Steel of Britain, ran aground in the wake of the global financial crisis and after China dumped the commodity on the global markets when demand collapsed on the mainland.

Mr Tata, chasing a dream to provide safe transportation to lower-middle-class families that used motor scooters, led the automobile division into making the Nano, billed at its launch eight years ago as the world's cheapest car. Although the car helped give India a global name for frugal engineering - Singapore's Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was shown a prototype, described it as "roomy" - it bombed as a product, partly because no one wanted to be seen in a "cheap" car.

Mr Tata's notable success was Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), which Tata bought off Ford Motor Co. in 2008, for US$2.3 billion. At the time, a friend of mine who worked closely with Mr Tata remonstrated with him that the move went against accepted management wisdom that companies should stick to their core competencies.

Mr Tata's explanation was that quality marques of the likes of JLR become available but rarely and was an opportunity not to be passed over. That inspired hunch proved correct and JLR, which Tata nursed back to health, is immensely profitable today.

Mr Tata later took the decision to build the marques in China, upsetting diehard JLR fans whose favourite wheels had never been manufactured outside England.

It is also possible that Mr Tata took away more from Ford Motor Co. than insights into luxury, quality and branding.

Two decades earlier, Mr Henry Ford II had unexpectedly fired the legendary Lee Iacocca as president of his company even as Mr Iacocca was being feted around the world for bringing in huge profits and as father of the iconic Mustang convertible. Mr Ford later told an interviewer that "sometimes, you just don't like someone". To Mr Iacocca himself, he had only one thing to say: "The name on the building is mine."

As in Detroit, perhaps both factors were at play in the Tata-Mistry relationship as well, although some things will remain the subject of conjecture. In his latest letter, released on Tuesday to the group's 600,000 staff, Mr Tata mentioned the need to uphold values no less than three times, while ethics had two mentions.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the reputation of one of India's most admired business leader will not be undented.

The dog-loving Mr Tata lives an exemplary frugal existence by the standards of his wealth: a comfortable three-bedroom apartment in a city where some of India's richest have built gargoyles that tower over the city's slums. Approaching 80, his interest in technology - he is an avid investor in start-ups - is undiminished. His love for cars and planes is legion.

Indeed, Mr Mistry hammered him on that account in his detailed letter to the board last week, casting a cold look at Tata's decisions to partner Malaysia's Air Asia, and Singapore Airlines in Vistara.

Powerful leaders, when they depart, understandably have an urge to hand over charge to someone they see in their own image. Mr Jack Welch, General Electric's (GE) legendary chieftain, handpicked a young Jeff Immelt for the job in 2000, elevating him from the less-known medical systems division of the sprawling diversified group. But eight years later, after one particularly rough quarter, Mr Welch attacked his successor. Some thought at the time that Mr Welch was attempting to cover up some strategic errors that had come home to roost.

The difference here is that Mr Immelt continues to run and build GE. Mr Mistry, on the other hand, is no longer chairman of Tata Sons, even as he refuses to let go of some group companies. Neither can Mr Mistry's sturdy response to his firing be dismissed easily. The departing chairman has raised several issues that should deeply interest regulators. Shareholders have cause to wonder now if they paid too much for Tata companies and how many write-downs to expect at the group.

Parsis like to joke about their long noses. Mr Mistry, as he exited the group, may well have decided to trim some of his own proboscis in order to protect his face.

Be that as it may, the damage to Tata, and India, has been severe. As Mr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India's most respected thinkers, said last week, Indian capitalism has always been short of icons.

Now, another icon has decisively fallen and, with it, the promise that a more enlightened and better capitalism might at least be possible in that vast and tumultuous land.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2016, with the headline 'A slugfest at the Tata corral'. Print Edition | Subscribe