When Ratan Naval Tata took over the reins of the Tata empire in 1991 from the iconic JRD Tata at the age of 54, the Tata Group had revenues of just $2 billion. Today, the diversified group, which has interests in software, automotive, steel, chemicals, retail and telephony, is a over $70 billion behemoth (2010-11 revenues), employing 4.25 lakh people and spread across 80 countries.
Business historian Gita Piramal, author of Business Maharajas, had told FE earlier that every large business group will see people at the helm of affairs who will be tuned into the historical requirements of the group at that point of time. Ratan Tata’s role was no different.
The year Ratan took over was also the year the Indian economy was liberalised, throwing open the doors of several sectors to foreign investment. “Ratan is credited with the global expansion of the Tata Group,” said Ajay Piramal, chairman of the Piramal Group. “He took the group to global leadership in steel, chemicals and other industries.” The group, which consists of 114 companies in eight business sectors, made huge acquisitions globally through group companies, including British-based tea maker Tetley in 2000, Daewoo Motors in 2004, Anglo Dutch-steel maker Corus in 2007 and Jaguar Land Rover in 2009.
The other big change that Tata brought about is to bring in hordes of talent into the group, replacing the coterie that existed then, Piramal said. “Tata has also been able to preserve the values of the group, and has maintained its high ethical standards,” Piramal added.
After Ratan took over, the group witnessed his showdown with Tata Steel managing director Russi Mody, Tata Chemicals’ Darbari Seth and Indian Hotels’ Ajit Kerkar. Tata eventually took control of the situation, easing out these satraps, and inducting fresh talent into the group. “Ratan Tata was a great driver and a great leader,” said Rajeev Kapoor, president and CEO of Fiat India. “The JLR acquisition was the right move and is now adding to the company’s bottomline.”
As time passes, the challenges of business also change, and there needs to be new ways to approach them, say experts. “Ratan Tata was successful in a particular phase of history, his predecessor JRD Tata was successful in a different phase, and so on,” said Gita Piramal.”It may not be right to say that the same person would have been effective and successful in another phase.”