The words used most often to describe Ratan Tata are shy and loner. The 71-year-old chairperson of the Tata Group shuns the media spotlight.
Quiet and unassuming, the Indian business baron drives himself to work in an unremarkable Tata sedan. His beachfront bachelor pad is found in the hippest tip of south Mumbai, but Ratan has only CDs, books and his dogs for company. He does not drink or smoke. His vices revolve around speed: driving fast cars, flying jets and at weekends racing his speed boat across Mumbai’s harbour.
Yet last week Ratan Tata found himself making headlines — and characteristically ducked any interviews. The reason for the attention was that the Tata Group found itself cast as reverse colonialists: an Indian company taking over two of the most distinctive British marques in car-making — Jaguar and Land Rover — for a little more than £1-billion.
A symbol of the shift in power from West to East, Tata is now the ultimate boss of 16 000 British workers, who were until this deal employees of United States giant Ford.
Like the 24 000 people who worked for Anglo-Dutch steel-makers Corus, acquired last year by Tata Steel for £6,7-billion, Britain has become an “insourcing” hub for Ratan Tata: a base for foreign operations of an Indian multinational.
In many ways Ratan Tata is an accidental millionaire, a gifted interloper in a family that had everything but children. The Tatas belong to the Parsee religion, a small, tightly knit Zoroastrian community that originates from Persia and found sanctuary centuries ago in India.
Traditionally Parsee priests, the Tata family fortune was started by Jamsetji Tata, who made the company’s name by opening a textile mill in 1868. Strikingly, the entrepreneur offered workers pensions and paid accident compensation. The Tatas slowly built up a formidable business but by 1917 the family was running out of heirs. Naval H Tata, Ratan’s father, was born with little else than a famous name: his parents died young, leaving him to be raised at an orphanage.
But Naval was destined to win life’s lottery: at 13 he was adopted by the Tata’s formidable matriarch, Lady Navajbai Tata, who had been left childless and widowed at 40.
This chance event was to change history. Naval H Tata rose to become deputy chairperson of the Tata Group. Instead of grinding poverty, Ratan Tata grew up in the lap of luxury at Tata Palace, a white baroque revival-style building in the centre of Mumbai. Attended to by a retinue of 50 servants, he was driven to school in a Rolls-Royce.
The US held a special fascination for the young Ratan Tata, who was born in Mumbai in 1937. He studied architecture at Cornell University and travelled across the country, washing dishes to make ends meet. He took a management course at Harvard.
California, in particular, held him spellbound. Not only did he witness the beginning of the state’s technological boom but he also admired the “easy, warm, casual lifestyle” of the west coast. Ratan Tata admitted falling in love with a young woman in the US, making him a reluctant dynast. But the family’s dearth of talent saw him summoned back to India.
Once in Tata, the young Ratan rose swiftly, although he complained that his name was more of a burden than a boon. By 1982 he was chairperson of Tata Industries and heir apparent, learning at the feet of his uncle Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, who faced down the socialism of an India convinced the Soviet Union would outlast the US. Ratan became chairperson in March 1991, just as Moscow’s communist empire dissolved.
Gita Piramal, India’s leading business historian, said Ratan Tata has never been fully reconciled to being the scion of a family firm.
“I have argued with Ratan over this. The Tatas are a reconstructed family who adopt and cobble together people to make a family. That way they do promote talent rather than blood relations. Ratan was clearly talented, but he resents the implication.” What marks Tata out is its social conscience. In conversation, Ratan Tata appears moved by fairness not money. He owns less than 1% of the Tata Group, a personal fortune of £300-million. More than two thirds of Tata Group is owned by charitable trusts that finance good causes.
With no children, Ratan Tata is supposed to retire in December 2012, when he reaches 75. That will leave the group with a familiar succession problem.
The answer probably lies in “reconstructing” the Tata family. The largest shareholder in the Tata Group is another Parsee businessman, Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry, whose 18% stake is worth £5-billion. His son-in-law, Noel, is also Ratan Tata’s half-brother.
Raju Narisetti, managing editor of business newspaper Mint, says there is only one choice for the Tatas — another Tata. “The Tatas won’t hand over the keys to someone they don’t trust. Noel already runs their retail business and if I were a betting man the odds would be extremely good on him taking over from Ratan.”