50 years on: I will spend more time on tech and architecture, says Tata

Mumbai: Be your own man, Ratan Tata has advised Cyrus Mistry, who will succeed him at the helm of the $100 billion Tata group two weeks from now.

"I don't think it is right to have a ghost to shadow over somebody," says Tata, dismissing any notion that his larger-than-life persona would linger even after he retires on December 28 when he turns 75.

The Tata patriarch has told Mistry, 31 years younger, "you should be your own person, you should take your own call and you should decide what you want to".

Tata spoke about his 50 years with the group, 21 as its chairman, the highs and lows of his tenure, his equation with Mistry and his post-retirement plans during an expansive interview to PTI in his office at "Bombay House", the group headquarters.

Mistry, currently Vice Chairman of the conglomerate that spans automobiles, IT, hotels, tea and steel across 80 countries, has been working closely with Tata to prepare for the transition.

There is no success mantra

Have you passed on a success mantra to Mistry?, the outgoing chairman was asked.

"No, I told him the same things that I told myself when JRD (late J R D Tata) handed over the mantle to me. The first reaction of anybody is to be Mr J R D Tata because you are filling his shoes. "I instantly told myself, 'I can never do that'. I will never be him much as I try to imitate him. So I took a decision to be myself and to do what I thought was the right thing. I told Cyrus the same thing," he said.

About his passion for flying, Tata, a licenced pilot, said, "The day I am not able to fly will be a sad day for me." AFP

During the transition, Mistry had asked him for approval and validation constantly. He had responded by telling him that he should look at things as "if I were not there because you should be your own person". He had told Mistry, "if you want my inputs I will give it to you but be your own man and be yourself and just be driven by the fact that every act you do and every move you make has to stand the test of public scrutiny".

That, he said, was the test he had given himself. "If it stands the test of public scrutiny, do it....if it doesn't stand the test of public scrutiny then don't do it."

Asked if his counsel would be available to his successor, Tata replied, "Yes, certainly. He knows where to reach me and,we in fact, would talk business and stay in touch after I leave."

He then disclosed that the two of them would have lunch every couple of weeks "over something and we will talk about whatever he wants to talk about".

Need to start thinking like a shareholder, not a chairman

When probed over whether he still had large influence over the group since he would continue to remain chairman at various Tata trusts, he said " I think I would have to wear a different hat of being the major shareholder. The same kind of view that a shareholder might have, not a Chairman's view of the company".

"I should not be involved in the business of the company or how the company goes about its growth. But at the same time I should be concerned about the return I get on my sharesbecause it is the only income that the trusts have."

The dividend from Tata Sons was to be distributed for charity by the trusts. "So I should protect that," he said. Looking ahead to the future of the group, Tata said that he personally believed that it was poised to grow.

Cyrus should define how the company should grow, not me

"Where it would grow, I think Cyrus Mistry should have his space and define where he would like it to grow," he said. His 20 years at the helm was enough time to charter course. Quite often an organisation has played out one course and is ready to go in a different direction, he said. Often, an unwillingness to have that "course correction brings about the demise of an organisation because when you bring fresh blood into it, he sees things in another way," Tata said.

He went on to say that Cyrus will bring new ideas and new things." I feel very confident that the organisation and his leadership will grow."

Tata wanted a flat organisation with informal working relationships

Asked about the changes he had not been able to achieve in the group, Tata said that he had wanted a more open, flat organisation where there is not much hierarchy, where there is much more informal working relationship at all levels.

"We are very hierarchical, not feudal--given to honouring years of experience... We don't touch each other's feet but we still almost bow down every time when one passes."

Flying is what got Ratan Tata closer to JRD Tata

Describing his long tenure as a "journey of great learning", Tata said that he had a role model to look up to in Mr J R D Tata whom he had got to know about six years after he joined the group. He knew him but was not close to him and they had come close together because they were both pilots.

"I have been flying since I was 17 and when he came to Jamshedpur, it was flying which he liked to do and I liked to do. That brought us close and created a friendship between us which grew over the years," he said of the elder Tata.

"So it was a period of learning, a period of frustration also from time to time. Things didn't happen which as a young man I thought should happen.

Tata tried to uphold the values and ethical standards that were there

"As an older person I understand being told as I was at that time that you have to be patient and so on as things don't happen as you might wish them to be." Summing up his life with the 144-year-old conglomerate, Tata said, "On the whole it has been a very rewarding experience. I tried to uphold the values and ethical standards that were there."

Asked about moments of frustration, Tata said that there were many, recalling his first job in the foundries of TELCO where when one asked why something was being done in a particular way, one was told, 'this is the way we have done it and it is the best way'.

Has that changed in the group now?, Tata was asked. "I have tried to change. I have been constantly telling people to encourage people to question the unquestioned and not to be ashamed to bring up new ideas, new processes to get things done.

Some pockets have still not changed

"It has changed to some extent. I would be arrogant and lying if I were to say it has really changed. There are pockets which have changed and there are pockets which continue to be just as they were," he replied.

Tata didn't succeed much on restructuring the group into a more cohesive one

Asked about the goals he had set for himself when he took over as chairman in 1991, Tata replied that one of the fundamental goals he had set was to restructure the group into a more cohesive one with lesser number of activities and companies. But he had not succeeded very much. The first company he had tried to divest was TOMCO, Tata Oil Mills, which at that time had a large market share and was competing with Hindustan Unilever. He had negotiated a sale to Levers which he thought "was very dignified". It was a sale of shares and Lever would give an undertaking that they would not touch any TOMCO employee for three years at least.

"But the banging that I got from the media, from the stock market, from our own people who said I was destroying a tradition. My father who was also an earlier MD of TOMCO was against me.

"That really frightened me as a new chairman and that was the last major restructuring I did. Then I did some movement of shareholding within the company to make it more cogent.... that was possibly one area in which I did set goals to myself and failed."

Tata wants to spend more time on technology and flying planes post retirement

What is it that he wanted to do and has not been able to do?

"I will spend more time on technology, for example, which is quite a passion with me. As an architect I would like to once again go back to it.

"Actually I do it even today but would now implement what I do on the drawing board. Then there are things like piano which I learnt when I was nine years old. I haven't played it since and would like to relearn to play the piano," he said.

About his passion for flying, Tata, a licenced pilot, said, "The day I am not able to fly will be a sad day for me."

Asked about his other hobby of scuba diving, he said he had given it up about four years ago "because I perforated my ear drum too many times".

Which is the best car he had driven, Tata, Chairman of the group that makes BMW and Land Rover, was asked?

I have two or three cars that I like but today Ferrari would be the best car I have driven in terms of being an impressive car," he replied.

No regrets in life

"No, I don't like to look back. There are many things that, if I have to relive, may be I will do it another way. But I would not like to look back and think what I have not been able to."

The legacy he would leave at the Tatas ..

"Apart from values and ethics which I have tried to live by, the legacy I would like to leave behind is a very simple one--that I have always stood up for what I consider to be the right thing and I have tried to be as fair and equitable as I could be.

"I may have hurt some people along the way but I would like to be seen as somebody who has done his best to do the right thing for any situation and not compromised," the Tata patriarch, one of the world's most influential business leaders, concluded.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 14:55 PM

Also Watch

IPL 2018: Royal Challengers Bangalore eye revival against Chennai Super Kings as 'Cauvery Derby' comes back to life
  • Thursday, April 26, 2018 In the Kanjarbhat community, a campaign against 'virginity tests' is slowly gaining ground
  • Tuesday, April 24, 2018 It's A Wrap: Beyond the Clouds stars Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Mohanan in conversation with Parul Sharma
  • Monday, April 9, 2018 48 hours with Huawei P20 Pro: Triple camera offering is set to redefine smartphone imaging
  • Monday, April 16, 2018 Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore interview: Sports can't be anyone's fiefdom, we need an ecosystem to nurture raw talent