Ratan Naval Tata has been called many things. Quiet. Reticent. Humble. A businessman par excellence. Tenacious. And a tiger, when pushed to the wall.
As we all witnessed when it looked like the controversy about Singur, where the Tata Nano was to be manufactured, looked like escalating instead of dying down.
The 70-year-old roared,
“If people say that that we will protect our investments irrespective of anything then they are wrong. I will not bring in my employees to Singur if there is threat of them being beaten up. Tata will do whatever necessary to protect its employees.”
It was a statement, not a threat — a statement that Ratan Tata will not hesitate to execute.
Here are some more inspirational words of wisdom from a titan of India’s business world.
On courage: I am, unfortunately, a person who has often said: You put a gun to my head and pull the trigger or take the gun away, I won’t move my head.
On successful people: I admire people who are very successful. But if that success has been achieved through too much ruthlessness, then I may admire that person, but I can’t respect him.
On leadership: It is easy to become a number one player, but it is difficult to remain number one. So, we will have to fight with a view to remain number one.
On Nano: This project (the Nano) has proven to everyone that if you really set yourself to doing something, you actually can do it.
On the need to think big: We have been. . . thinking small. And if we look around us, countries like China have grown so much by thinking big. I would urge that we all, in the coming years, think big, think of doing things not in small increments, not in small deltas, but seemingly impossible things. But nothing is impossible if you really set out to do so. And we act boldly. Because it is this thinking big and acting boldly that will move India up in a manner different from where it is today.
On risk: Risk is a necessary part of business philosophy. You can be risk-averse and take no risks, in which case you will have a certain trajectory in terms of your growth. Or you can, while being prudent, take greater risk in order to grow faster.
On risk: I view risk as an ability to be where no one has been before. I view risk to be an issue of thinking big, something we did not do previously. We did everything in small increments so we always lagged behind. But the crucial question is: can we venture putting a man on the moon or risk billions of rupees on a really way-out, advanced project in, say, superconductors? Do you restrict your risk to something close to your heart?
On today’s environment: I think it’s a tougher environment from what it was about 15 years ago. The demands are far greater, many of the sectors are moving faster, and technology change is quicker. The luxury of having time to make decisions no longer exists. Decisions need to be taken faster and, unlike in the past, they have to be based on more on information and less on intuition. The impact of wrong decisions is greater today. Furthermore, people today are, if I might say so, more opportunistic, materialistic and rebellious. So you are managing a different type of environment: less protected, less feudal, and more demanding in terms of speed, in terms of technology.
On employees: The way to hold employees today is to make their work and their day-to-day activities in the company exciting enough for them to stay. Not everyone will stay, but I think if we can empower more people and are willing to pass on the responsibility for that, and if people are satisfied and motivated, there’s less chance of them wanting to leave and go to a competitor.
On low-cost products: It should not be, cannot be, that low-cost products come to mean inferior or sub-standard products and services; definitely not. The aim is to create products for that larger segment — good and robust products that we are able to produce innovatively and get to the marketplace at lower costs.
On customers: We should be treating the customer in the same way that we would want to be treated as customers.
On feedback: Market feedback is very important, but it has to be stripped of its colour. You have to be able to strip away the vested interest or the bias that sometimes comes in. You have to view it objectively, not defensively.
On business:Business, as I have seen it, places one great demand on you: it needs you to self-impose a framework of ethics, values, fairness and objectivity on yourself at all times. It is easy not to do this; you cannot impose it on yourself forcibly because it has to become an integral part of you.
On innovation:Barriers to innovation are usually in the mind.
On customers:There was a need to re-focus and look at how your customer sees you, and to pay more attention to what the customer wants rather than what you think she wants. Are you really the most cost effective producer? Are you aggressive enough to grab marketshare? Will you endeavour to dip your toe in the water and do something that you haven’t done before?
On innovation:If you are a little innovative or a little bit of a gambler, and you make a product which is either ahead of its time or has an evolutionary design, or has features that work into a person’s perception, then you have an acceptable product.
On questioning:I kept saying, please question the unquestionable. I tried to tell our younger managers just don’t accept something that was done in the past, don’t accept something as a holy cow. . . go question it. That was less of a problem than getting our senior managers not to tell the younger managers, ‘Look young man, don’t question me.’
On speed:Today, the world does not afford you to luxury of being a slow mover. Nor are there any holy cows. We have to be aggressive, be far-sighted enough to look into the future and we also have to be pragmatic enough to say that if we really are not in a leadership position in a particular business, we should look at exiting that business.
On retirement: I do not want to go out on a wheelchair. You achieved something, it is successful, it’s a nice time to leave because you may not have the luxury of being able to do that (later). And you don’t want ever to have a situation when somebody sort of whispers, when is he going to leave?. . . You don’t want to fade away by hanging in there too long. You would love to go on the back of something that is exciting or a great achievement.
On icons:The kind of company one would want to emulate is one where products and technology are at the leading edge, dealings with customers are very fair, services are of a high order, and business ethics are transparent and straightforward. A less tangible issue involves the work environment, which should not be one where you are stressed and driven to the point of being drugged.
On introspection:All companies need to keep looking at their business definition and, possibly from time to time, to see if that definition needs to be redefined. If you take the example of Tata Steel, they could say that they are a steel company and find themselves in a shrinking market where steel is under threat of being replaced by some other material. The question is: what do we call ourselves? One view was that steel is a material, so can we be a materials company? We don’t have to be in all materials, but can we be in composites, can we be in plastics, laminates, etc? The automotive business needs to think similarly, and so does the chemicals business. We have to keep looking at ourselves and asking: what is our business?
On customer retention:Very often it is said about several companies that they take a lot of pains to make a sale. However, once they get the order, customers cannot even get anyone to answer their calls. I would like the customer to say that the next product he buys will also be a Tata product because of everything that he experienced. That is really what customer retention is about.
On innovation: My outlook on R&D is that it is an absolutely necessary thing for us to do. And I don’t think we are doing enough. The point is not just spending money; it’s how many patents you file, your innovation rate and your product development. . . If today you were to give everybody a mandate that they can spend 3 per cent of their revenue on R&D, assuming they can spare the money, I don’t think many companies would know the what, where and how of spending that kind of money, other than to put up an R&D place and buy lots of equipment.
On customer relationship: Where we have direct dealings with our customers, it is important that, at the middle-management levels, they are shown courtesy, dealt with fairly, and made to feel that they are receiving the attention they deserve. The interface with the customer should be a seamless one.
On risk: There have been occasions where I have been a risk-taker. Perhaps more than some, and less so than certain others. It is a question of where you view that from. I have never been a real gambler in the sense, that some successful businessmen have been. . .
On ethics: What worries me is that the threshold of acceptability or the line between acceptability and non-acceptability in terms of values, business ethics, etc, is blurring.
On success: I would not consider myself to have been tremendously successful or as having failed tremendously. I would say I have been moderately successful because there have been changes.
On survival: The strong live and the weak die. There is some bloodshed, and out of it emerges a much leaner industry, which tends to survive.
On Tata Group: At Tatas, we believe that if we are not among the top three in an industry, we should look seriously at what it would take to become one of the top three players — or think about exiting the industry.
On Tata Group: We were a group that would not work in a particular way for many years and we weren’t fully sensitive to the changing environment around us. So anything that was new, we felt it was better to be where we were, tested and tried, I think, that’s changed.
On Tata Group: Without being critical, it is true that many of our companies had their heads in the sand and were resting on past glories. In the course of time, the view gained ground that we were less nimble than others, more resistant to change and more set in our ways. What we needed to do, of course, was benchmark ourselves against the best, get away from doing things the way we were, and put certain processes in place.
On Tata Group: We should ease out of certain sectors, but do it in a dignified way that protects our employees and all our stakeholders. We should dispassionately look at exiting certain sectors, businesses or companies and embrace new opportunities when they come. It is possible that this strategy may result in a drop in earnings, because when you get into an industry that is still in its gestation period your enterprise is going to suck out cash.
On innovation: Like many of our counterparts and businesses we are not too innovative. That’s fine in the Indian context, but we need to move a lot faster and expend more funds on innovation and technology upgrading in our companies than we are doing.
On new industries: Leapfrogging into new areas did not seem a bad idea because those are areas which nine out of ten people would tend to ignore. And, in all likelihood the government might even encourage such a step. So I decided to explore the frontier industries.
On challenges: If there are challenges thrown across and those challenges are difficult then some interesting, innovative solutions will come. If you don’t have those challenges then, I think, the tendency is go on to say that whatever will happen, will take place in small deltas.
On planning: We never really plan big. We are not in keeping with what is happening around us. When you go to other countries around us you see it visibly that we are just back in time. And yet we have so much to offer.
On commitment: We have to clamp down on deviations from commitments. For ensuring greater commitment to performance, we also need to have a system which rewards performers and punishes those who don’t perform.
On risk: We have is to be less risk-averse. We have been a very conservative house and we have been applauded for our conservatism but today we need to take more risk. We don’t need to be flamboyant or cavalier but we need to be less conservative than we have been.
On the future: One hundred years from now, I expect the Tatas to be much bigger than it is now. More importantly, I hope the Group comes to be regarded as being the best in India. . . best in the manner in which we operate, best in the products we deliver, and best in our value systems and ethics. Having said that, I hope that a hundred years from now we will spread our wings far beyond India.
On resistance: You will probably find the resistance (to change) more from those who haven’t been doing well.
On change: Change is seen to be needed, and fast, so long as it does not affect me. We want to see change but if you suddenly tell me that I am the company that has to go, or has to be cut in half, or three of my businesses have to be hived off, then all of a sudden, the very person who made the noise about change is now saying, ‘You don’t have to do this.’
On resistance: We do have resistance to some of the changes, it is easier not to do, but we have to change in order to be in keeping with the changing times. Our inability to do that effectively will be one major threat.
On globalisation: Global companies are differentiated by their strong global position, global assets, capabilities, brands and their relative resilience to shocks and even to the business cycle.
On globalisation: A company does not become global by simply participating in a certain number of geographic markets. In that sense, it is not a sum of parts. It is its ability to become globally competitive, leverage global opportunities and have the required global capabilities that make it global.
On globalisation: The objective of globalisation is to move towards becoming globally competitive and to expand your market. The globalisation strategy itself could be asset-based, capability-based or opportunity-based. It also includes global employment. It implies an organisation which employs people with no national barriers.
On CEOs: The CEO has to be compassionate, fair, self-critical and humble, and yet have the tremendous drive it takes to make his company the best there is.
On CEOs: It gets a bit dangerous when the CEO has no system and his personality drives the organisation, which he runs like his personal fiefdom. In these circumstances its actually the CEO who is the role model and not the company.
On the ideal CEO: An ideal CEO is not found everywhere. One way to do this is to benchmark him against his targets and against the best performers in his industry, and hope that this does not demoralise him, but, rather, that it makes him strive to do better.
On CEOs: There are many competent professionals in the country who have not been given the chance to operate at CEO levels. If you look around, you see companies run professionally by people who 15 years ago were virtually unknown. Therefore, though there are a lot of managers around, the question is whether you are willing to take a chance with someone you don’t know well.
On CEOs: When I came on to the scene, I was very young in comparison to other CEOs in the group, a number of whom were in their 70s and a couple even in their 80s. I saw ageing CEOs who didn’t leave their offices, seldom interacted with people, never visited the plants and certainly didn’t visit the market place. I felt that it was a very great weakness that we had. So, despite some turbulence, we reintroduced our retirement age and put that into force.
On competition: Foreign investment adds a sense of competition; we should see this as a wake-up call to modernise and upgrade. Companies that don’t will undoubtedly die.
On competition: This fear of competition is something that one needs to break, because it is the single largest element that stands between the true potential of what India can give to the world and where it is today. It’s a mistaken feeling that competition will kill Indian industry. In fact it will make Indian industry much more successful and much more innovative in terms of how it deals with its problems.
On competition: It’s only when you are in a competitive field that you realise competition is the greatest and most exhilarating force you can face as you move forward. If you succeed, there is nothing that pleases you more when you go home at night than to know that you have succeeded against your competitor in a fair and just manner, rather than through devious and underhand means.
On protectionism: We need to move away from the era of protectionism to an era of competitiveness — and by that I mean global competitiveness, not just competitiveness within the country.
On responsibility: Industry needs to be concerned with stopping the flow of citizens to the urban areas and creating livelihoods in the rural areas for them. They need to understand that they have a responsibility that goes beyond just making their products and producing a good bottom line. They have a responsibility that covers the 60-odd per cent of the population that is not industrialised and that is in the rural community.
On corporate duty: In a country like India, in which the government perhaps has done less in the area of creating infrastructure and is now in the process of catching up, I think industry has to take a key role in moving in this direction as we progress.
On India: I am proud of my country. But we need to unite to make a unified India, free of communalism and casteism. We need to build India into a land of equal opportunity for all. We can be a truly great nation if we set our sights high and deliver to the people the fruits of continued growth, prosperity and equal opportunity.
On trust: We do very little amongst ourselves. We trust each other little. Unless we become India Incorporated we may not succeed in becoming a global entity.
On change: My feeling is that in a developing country such as India we should, perhaps, be more active in shedding some of the old baggage and embracing new opportunities. That’s easier said than done, because of people, emotions and an unwillingness to change, or be confronted with the question: why me?
On the vision for India: The vision I have for India in the next decade is of a nation with vastly improved connectivity in communications providing education, personal interaction, e-commerce, and telephony contact for the overwhelming mass of its people. I see our country being connected through major highway networks, thus shrinking the time required to move goods to the marketplace. I see our consumers exercising an unprecedented degree of choice, with the Indian marketplace becoming a vibrantly competitive arena, fully integrated with the world. Equally, I foresee that the ambitions of the Indian entrepreneur will not be confined to domestic boundaries and our immensely valuable human capital will leave its mark in the global marketplace.
On employment: We have to create more jobs, we have to create levels of education, provide basic necessities, drinking water etc. These are the tasks ahead of us. I think that there should be a commitment that this needs to be done, not just statements; but we need to be on the ground and make this happen. Otherwise, we are a tremendous country, with great talent, great raw materials and natural resources; we can be a very successful country.
On India: The country is now universally recognised as a nation on the move and takes its place amongst the successful economies in the region. The future potential is enormous but the country’s destiny is in our hands. The time has come to move from small increments to bold, large initiatives. The time has come to stretch the envelope and set goals which were earlier not seen to be possible. The time has come for performance to be measured and for allocated funds of the government to reach the people for whom they were intended.
On problems: There are solutions for most problems. The barriers and roadblocks that we face are usually of our own making and these can only be demolished by having the determination to find a solution, even contrary to the conventional wisdom that prevails around us, by breaking tradition.
To students: I would hope that you would go in to the world — whichever area you are in — first and foremost, driven by a sense of integrity. . . I would hope that you also have a sense of social responsibility, so that you give back to the people and build the country on the basis of your skills.
On leadership: I would hope that most of you will in fact strive for leadership in a principled manner with values, because that would be the foundation that this country needs to have if it is to take its place in the world.
To management graduates: Most of you I imagine will be deeply engrossed in your careers and I hope that each of you will have a tremendously exhilarating and rewarding life in the business community, but it is not business alone, I would feel that a class like yours would go into the world in India or elsewhere. That you would leave your mark not only amongst your colleagues in industry, but for future generations who would look back on you and look to you at the contribution you have made that lives on after you.
To graduates: I would hope that each of you would lead by example and that each of you would live by the principles that you espouse. . .That you will have a sense of vision, because one of the things that this country has had has been an inability to look into the future, our business leaders have sometimes been followers rather than leaders.
On humility: I would hope that as people who might take an elite position, would be considered amongst the elite in the country, you will always display humility in the manner in which you deal with your fellowmen, both in your company and in the country and you will continue to have passion in the areas in which you will work.
On doubt: On many, many occasions you would have doubts on whether what you are pursuing is the right thing. But if you do believe in what you are trying to do and you pursue it and stay with it in a determined manner, I am quite sure you will succeed.
Complied from rediff.com