J R D Tata: It’s more important to be nice

By M S Neelakantan in Expressbuzz.

The cover pages of all leading dailies on July 29, 2009, carried an advertisement paying tribute to a great man on his 89th birth anniversary. A visionary and a leading industrialist but more importantly, humane in his interactions with his staff, J R D Tata’s reputation preceded him as the man who flew in a Puss Moth plane alone from Karachi to Bombay in 1932 and who founded India’s first commercial airline — Tata Airlines in ’32, which in 1946 became Air India. He was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in ’92 for nation building, with the United Nations Population Award for innovative ways to curb population growth and the Prestigious Guggenheim Medal for aviation in ’88 in addition to several other national and international recognitions.

My mind could not but rewind 22 years when one interaction with him left an indelible impression on my life. Hosur, 1987, saw the inauguration of the Titan factory. We, at the Taj West End, Bangalore, were to cater for the event. Being the senior captain-banquets, it was my task to oversee the catering at the event where this great man, whose legendary man-management skills anecdotes I had heard from my cousin working at Bombay House magnified his image in my mind. I made sure there were French, Italian and Spanish wines, in addition to the regular stock of spirits and beers. As his mother was a French national, he had spent his early childhood in France — his place of birth. The wines had to be the best of French wines — crème da la crème. I would check whether the wines were at the right temperature, and that everything was like it should be at least twice every minute. And then I saw him walking down towards us. In attendance were senior officers while he glanced at the buffet, momentarily.

Suddenly, without notice, he veered course towards the bar, heading straight towards me. The benign smile, him dapper in his cream suit, polished brown shoes and burgundy tie with the matching burgundy silk in his upper suit pocket, is still clear in my mind, as if it had happened last evening.

I wished him the time of the day in Gujarati, the Parsi greeting of ‘Sahebji’. He asked me my name reciprocating the greeting warmly, slightly surprised as to how this South Indian lad knew Gujarati (an advantage I enjoyed born and brought up in Ahmedabad) with his eyes scanning the bar. I offered him his choice of beverage, adding we had some excellent wines with us. He asked me for a glass of wine. I was prepared and rattled off the names of the Italian, French and Spanish wines in our cooler. And then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he asked me “Indian milega?”

I froze. And he knew it. The lively eyes and the smile said it all but without a murmur, he was going towards the food counter when my banquet manager bailed me out with, “In a moment, sir.” And dug out an Indian wine bottle (which he was carrying, just in case) and pushed it in a bucket of ice. Within 60 seconds we had the satisfaction of not letting our guest, in this case our company’s chairman down.

Planning for the unexpected was indeed the lesson, but the greater lesson he epitomised: ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice’.

Original article here.