Shashank Shah's "The Tata Group: From Torchbearers to Trailblazers"
Chandan Chattaraj, who once worked with the Tatas and is now the global HR head of Uflex, narrated this very interesting incident to me about the Tatas. Chattaraj was then in Jamshedpur, home to India’s first steel plant built by the Tatas, and would occasionally meet Russi Mody who was then the Big Boss of Tatat Steel and ran the show from his office in sleepy Jamshedpur - then in Bihar - and also from Calcutta - it was not Kolkata then - where he had a penthouse at the majestic Tata Centre.
One day, Mody was conducting interviews and one candidate - probably not very proficient in English - walked in. Mody asked him what was his strength. The candidate said he could trigger a lighter under the full blast of a ceiling fan. Mody told the candidate that he will get once chance. The candidate did the near impossible - remember he did not carry a seafarers Zippo - and Mody told him to collect his offer letter the next day.
The incident, explained Chattaraj, a HR exponent, showed the ability of Mody to pick up the right candidate and the confidence of the young person to face any eventuality. Remember, Jamshedpur was not a peace haven and there were routine tensions at the plants where workers were ruled by boisterous trade union leaders and Mody knew there was a need to get some badasses along with the routine MBAs, engineers and graduates from Xavier’s Labour Relations Institute (XLRI).
The Tata Group: From Torchbearers to Trailblazers penned by Shashank Shah is in the display glass boxes of almost all bookstores across India, probably more prominently in Mumbai and Delhi. I did some quick checks and found sales have been decent, could have been great if the price was pegged a little low. Hard covers cost more, publishers keep this in mind while pricing tomes. It is a fascinating read because it shows light, not gossip. It explains what it takes to create a brand and retain confidence of a billion plus nation and among people across the world who often feel there is no brand from India worth a global name. The book also shows what it takes to create a little over 100 companies operating across 150 nations with 700,000 employees pushing growth of $100 billion revenue.
I have always believed books on conglomerates should be great learning exercises for those keen to build companies, and corporate values. But often, books on promoters hide a lot and say nothing. Everyone wants to be cloaked. Only very recently the glasshouses are breaking and promoters are openly sharing their lives, and times. Shah’s book is a tell-all one. He explains why across India, the word Tata means stability, growth, life and happiness. I have encountered it many times across India, every time a conversation has come up about the Tatas, people have just nodded in appreciation. This is an indication that the unputdownable group denotes stability. I am sure those who work in Tatas feel like that, those who don't rue the miss.
The book, in chapters after chapters explains why the Tatas are India's largest and most globalized business conglomerate and is into anything and everything that matters for the rich, middle class and even the poorest of the poor. From salt to expensive cars, softwares that show light to housing and hospitality, the group is a delight for customers. Honestly, I am not too keen to go deep into why and how Tata Motors could not turnaround Jaguar Land Rover at a time when Ford failed, or why was TCS not listed during India’s big information technology boom and why Tata Steel's Corus acquisition triggered sparks and not lucre. This is business, it's like the waves of the seas, there will be up and down, as it happens in life. Didn’t the affable Ratan Tata once said the same about vital sign machines monitoring heartbeats in hospitals? He said if the line is straight, it spells danger, means you are dead.
Shah’s book is almost, almost a definitive one. He lists everything, the ups and also the downs, he is a brilliant critic, a great observer. I thoroughly enjoyed his writings, and could easily recollect tales people like Chattaraj so fondly narrated about his days in Jamshedpur and stories people from UNICEF shared this morning with me at an overcrowded coffee store as to how Tata Trusts was teaming up with the UN body to get CEOs from across India, and also the world, to take care of parent-less children. How lovely, how innovative is that? It is like rolling down the window screens of your car and boldly walking out in busy, blistering traffic and holding high a young, impoverished girl who has just knocked on your car for cash, and food. You are forcing people to think, take notice. No wonder the group is a great one, a powerhouse conglomerate that makes Land Rovers, operates the historic Pierre Hotel in New York and sells the world famous Tetley tea. It's a group laced with nationalism, its founders offered cash to Mahatma Gandhi during his struggle against racism in faraway South Africa, it had the venerated Subhas Chandra Bose - the rebel who could not become India’s Prime Minister - among its employees, actually leader of the trade union from 1928 to 1937. Remember the letter Bose wrote to the then managing director of Tata, N B Sakalatbala in November 12,1928, in which he expressed his deep concern for Indian workers in industries around a time when Britishers occupied all plum seats across all sectors in India? Can you cite one more example?
I am also being told that the group’s patriarch, Ratan Tata, who millions consider a revered figure and a cross between Bill Gates and Warren E Buffet, remains India’s only billionaire who opens the door himself every time someone rings the bell.
It shows his humility, the foundation of the group.