As India’s largest business conglomerate prepares for a change of guard at Tata Sons — the main holding company for the Tata Group — Russi M Lala, the chronicler of the 143-year-old group, is keen that the retiring generals pen their memoirs, lest stories from the trenches on the pinnacles of success and troughs of learning get lost in the crevices of the group’s archives.
Frail and ailing, Lala retains a sharp mind. The 82-year-old business historian told ET from his bedside at his home in Cusrow Baug, an enclave of the Parsi community in South Mumbai’s Colaba, that he is hopeful about Tata Sons Chairman Ratan Tata writing a book charting his life and the group’s history after he retires.
"Ten years ago, I requested Ratan Tata to write his autobiography because young people should know the inside story," Lala said. "He could write not only about the successes but also the failures. He has spent decades in distinguished service and it will be a guideline for young people aspiring to be leaders. I wrote to him this year to do it after retirement. He is a very good writer. I have a feeling he (Ratan Tata) will do it," he added hopefully.
Ratan Tata’s intentions are not known but others are beginning to follow the advice of Lala.
The TCS story:
The most recent to wield the pen is group veteran S Ramadorai, vicechairman and former CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) — the 200,000-people strong, $8-billion information technology services giant.
His memoirs — The TCS Story and Beyond — delves into the challenges tackled by the pioneering Indian company paving the path for the Indian IT industry that now generates over $50 billion in export revenue.
Many More Managers may Write:
Not writing the book would have been one of the biggest regrets in life, Ramadorai confessed during a recent event promoting his book. What he didn’t mention in the book was, however, his other regret, of the company letting go of industry stalwarts, notably Lakshmi Narayan — now vice-chairman Cognizant — an emerging giant in the Indian IT arena.
Had they been retained, TCS would have lesser rivals to compete against, Ramadorai said. Waiting on the sidelines for long is Ramadorai’s former boss and mentor FC Kohli, who is still trying to finish a tome that aims at capturing a longer period in Tata history.
Kohli spent over 40 years in the group, including a stint at Tata Power, from where he was handpicked by JRD Tata to lead the then-fledgling TCS, a business that no one in the Tatas believed would in the future turn out to be a cash generator for many of the group’s other businesses.
There are other veterans too who are literally pregnant with a book. JJ Irani, another group veteran, is toying with the idea of writing his memoirs.
Irani, who retired recently from the boards of Tata Sons and Tata Steel, is remembered for having stood behind Ratan Tata when insider Russi Mody tried to challenge his appointment as JRD’s successor in 1991.
Later a botched attempt in 1993 by Mody to clip Irani’s wings at Tata Steel, or Tisco as it used to be known then, led to a bitter boardroom battle which eventually culminated in Modi, once the uncrowned king of India’s largest private sector company, stepping down as chairman.
Irani, then the managing director, succeeded Mody. In a biography published in 2008, Mody asserted that he was no longer bitter about the past. Irani’s account of these events, if he ever chooses to write, will be eagerly awaited by business historians.
In a media interview after retiring from Tata Sons, Irani said R Gopalakrishnan, his longstanding colleague and fellow member on the board of Tata Sons, was urging him to pen his memoirs. Irani will be greatly helped by the fact that during his term with the Tatas, he religiously maintained a diary, setting aside some time from his busy schedule to write copious notes on daily events.
Close to 30 red leather-bound Economist diaries containing a treasure trove of information occupy a pride of place in his office. Morgan Witzel, author of Tata: Evolution of a Corporate Brand published in 2010, said recording the group’s memories is important to "keep its own values and ideals alive". "Most global companies are really bad at this (recording their history)," Witzel said.
"Rare are the organisations that see their own history as a rich source of insight and inspiration that can help guide managers in the present and in the future." According to sources, Ravi Kant, vicechairman at Tata Motors, is another potential author considering he witnessed two remarkable turnarounds in the company, now India’s largest automaker.
"Tata Motors is a missing link. All the research is in a trunk, but nobody has done anything yet. It is a story waiting to be done," said Lala of a company that has stepped on to global centrestage with the acquisition and turnaround of British automaker Jaguar Land Rover and the production of Nano, the world’s cheapest car.