Mumbai: The intensely private Ratan Tata exudes warmth and displays an impish sense of humour, given the right company.
At the Nano launch during the 2008 Auto Expo in Delhi, Tata remarked in a lighter vein that before the company decided on the new car’s name, suggestions had included “Mamata” and “Despite Mamata”. The anti-land acquisition campaign led by Mamata Banerjee forced the Nano project to move out of West Bengal to Gujarat.
Behind Tata’s reserved and somewhat austere public image is a dimension to his personality that few people know about. He exudes warmth and has an impish sense of humour that Bombay House executives can sometimes miss as they are in awe of him.
Once at an annual meeting with senior executives at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, Tata used the photographs of a man at various stages of life to show a company’s evolution in his PowerPoint presentation.
He chose N. Srinath, then managing director of Tata Communications Ltd. A baby Srinath was shown, followed by a young Srinath and finally Srinath as he was, as a slightly plump executive. The idea was to have some fun but no one got the joke. Except for Srinath, no one else knew about the plan and after the presentation, everyone was left wondering what Tata was aiming at. Was he hinting at the need to cut down on flab?
A former Tata group executive who worked closely with him said few know that Tata is an excellent mimic and lets his guard down only among people close to him.
Tata hosts a dinner for the young leaders of the Tata group every year. Those who attend vouch for his warmth and the value of the insights about the industry that he shares at these gatherings.
Tata’s fondness for fast cars, airplanes and his pets are well known. He intends to pursue these passions after retirement. He is also fond of the sea, which he can see his from his Mumbai residence in the Colaba area. Besides this, his holiday home at Alibaug is on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Neighbours know when Tata’s coming from the sound of his arriving helicopter.
Tata is never embarrassed at admitting failure and giving rivals their due. He also doesn’t mince words when it comes to business. In 1989, Tata succeeded in breaking a deadlock with unionized labourers on strike at Tata Motors’ Pune plant. He’s supposed to have told plant workers, “If you put a gun to my head, you pull the trigger or take the gun away, because I won’t move my head.” That has become a part of the Tata Group folklore.
He repeated those lines often in 2007 when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress led the agitation over land acquisition in Singur. But this time, he was the first to blink, pulling the plug on the Nano factory and relocating it to Sanand, Gujarat.
The first reaction to many of Tata’s grand plans—including the Nano, the Indica and the Corus and the Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) acquisitions—was one of scepticism and criticism, which manifested itself in the stock price movement of the companies concerned. But Tata stuck to his guns and proved his detractors wrong, as in the case of the Indica and JLR in particular.
Tata is “not frightened to take risks,” said Morgen Witzel, UK-based management writer. “These guys (the Tata Group) don’t give up. They see an idea through to the end.”
Witzel cites the example of a famous Tata Group programme called ‘Dare to Fail,’ in which employees are rewarded for coming up with smart ideas even if they do not work as they were supposed to.