Mumbai: Sir, please allow me to leave early as I have to go and attend the Trent AGM after this!" said an anxious shareholder at the Tata Motors Ltd annual general meeting (AGM) held on 10 August. Trent is also a Tata company.

“Why are you torturing yourself?" asked Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons Ltd, as the audience broke into peals of laughter at Birla Matushri Sabhagruha, a popular venue for shareholder meetings in Mumbai.

There has been a lot of humour on display these past weeks as Tata addresses his final shareholder meetings before hanging up his boots as chairman of Tata Sons, the group’s holding company, in December when he turns 75. He will be succeeded by Cyrus Mistry, 43.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 1991, when he took over as chairman of Tata Sons, he was overshadowed by the satraps who then ran the Tata group—Russi Mody at Tisco (now Tata Steel Ltd), Darbari Seth at Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages Ltd) and Tata Chemicals Ltd, and Ajit Kerkar at Indian Hotels Co. Ltd. His early years, and the early shareholder meetings were all about establishing control.

Indeed, the relaxed demeanour Tata has displayed in recent weeks comes at the end of a successful career that has seen him fight several tough battles, sometimes in shareholder meetings crackling with undercurrents of tension. Some involved face-offs against the powerful men who ran the Tata companies during the reign of J.R.D. Tata.

Others involved the tough decisions to sell several businesses when he restructured the group and risky bets in automobile manufacturing. And still others involved explaining steep losses in some of the flagship companies during the last downturn. Finally, in recent years, the meetings have been dominated by the theme the Tata group has made its own in the past decade: globalization.

On Wednesday, Tata will address the shareholders of Tata Chemicals. It will be his final AGM at a big Tata firm.

Still, even these hosanna-filled meetings have provided glimpses of the drive, energy and vision that have helped Tata expand the business empire from $5.8 billion in revenue in fiscal 1992 (Rs 14,092 crore then), after taking over as chairman in 1991, to $83 billion (Rs 4.61 trillion) in revenue in 2011-12.

And so, in between wisecracks, he has tackled irate shareholders, nudged the group’s car maker to do better, entreated the shareholders of Tata Steel and Tata Power Co. Ltd to be patient, politely refused hefty retirement packages as well as demands for special dividends, and stared back stolidly when a few chest-thumping shareholders prodded him to celebrate a recent court ruling on Singur, from where Tata Motors moved its Nano car factory in the face of local protests.

Early days: A 1992 photograph of Ratan Tata, a year after he took over as chairman of Tata Sons. India Today

“The future (of the power sector in India) is great, but the challenges are also daunting. And the private sector can’t address it alone," Tata told the shareholders of Tata Power on 17 August. Referring to the steep rise in the price of imported coal from Indonesia—a key fuel supply agreement Tata Power was depending on to fire its 4,000 megawatts Mundra power plant—that forced the firm to report losses in fiscal 2012 since it couldn’t pass on this cost to electricity buyers, Tata said, “This is totally beyond our control. Treat it like a force majeure."

The Mundra plant will continue to report losses and be a drag on the company unless it can either switch to a cheaper fuel source or is allowed by the government to charge higher prices—and Tata was not mincing words in communicating this predicament to shareholders.

He was equally candid when he told Tata Steel shareholders earlier the same week, on 14 August, to be patient with the loss-making European operations.

“We are in abnormal times. You don’t feel it as much here as it is felt there (in Europe). Please bear with us. There is only so much the company can do and we are doing all we can," he said, adding that tightening costs and increased product differentiation were “all we can do without shutting plants, which other manufacturers are doing". The steel maker is facing dwindling demand across Europe and is struggling to turn the operations around.

When Tata Steel had acquired Corus Group Plc—rechristened Tata Steel Europe—in 2007, the European steel maker was already suffering from a lack of investment, a problem its new owners have been unable to fix fully because of the financial meltdown in 2008-09 and the ongoing euro crisis, admitted Tata.

These events had eroded the management’s ability to make heavy investments, but Tata said he believed Tata Steel had the “fortitude to see itself through". “You’ll share the glory if there is any," he said pointedly.

His remarks at the Tata Motors AGM were an antidote to the euphoric mood. After a presentation by the company’s chief financial officer—“25 years back, hundred shares of Telco (as the company was known then) cost 57,000. Today, they are worth 20 lakh," he had said—Tata punctured the general celebratory mood by expressing “sadness" that rival Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd (M&M) had surged ahead (in passenger vehicles).

“We should do a great deal of introspection as to why M&M is ahead of us. I have great respect for that company. But we should look at this in sadness that we let that happen," he said.

A day later, M&M’s chairman Anand Mahindra tweeted that “Mr Tata’s comment is extraordinarily humble and generous" and that he “takes it as a pat on the back from a big brother".

Tata is like a good parent; he levels it out by telling the outperformer to improve and cajoles the lagging offsprings.

Contrasting how differently the tales of his two biggest acquisitions—Corus and JaguarLand Rover (JLR)—were panning out, Tata said, “With respect to overseas operations (of Tata Motors and Tata Steel), there is a virtual reversal. Tata Motors is doing well with JLR reporting rise in revenues, here (Tata Steel) it is the other way round. Please bear with us."

At the shareholder meetings, Tata is, as he has always been, exceedingly polite.

He introduced three union leaders who had come for Tata Motors AGM.

Tata stands up while calling the next speaker on the podium and answers their queries point-wise. A battery of company officials are seated behind the board members in these AGMs, assisting in answering these queries.

“I remember his (Tata’s) first AGM 14 years back. He was shivering, but he was absolutely confident the next year onwards," recalls Shailesh P. Mahadevia, a Tata Power shareholder of 15-18 years, adding that Mistry, too, will get the chills next year.

Another Kolkata-based shareholder, Tamal K. Mazumdar, who travels to Mumbai for these AGMs, said Mistry has a “Herculean task" ahead of him, but expressed comfort in the entire Tata group’s support for him.

Tata will be a difficult man to fill in for. And Mistry probably feels the scrutiny. He hasn’t spoken at any of the AGMs. Even when requested to do so earnestly by one of the shareholders, he side-stepped the request.

Tata has been at his wittiest best in handing quirky shareholders. When suggested that he should get a hefty retirement package, he said, “No thanks, no need for it. The company has looked after me very well." One shareholder sang a victory marching song for him and another gave a Shakespearean-like arms spread speech when Tata said, “I’m looking for a hole to fall into. You are embarrassing me so much."

When one of the women shareholders asked how he would react to M&M’s outgoing chairman Keshub Mahindra’s comment that without Parsis, “there would be no Bombay", Tata said, “If there were no Parsis, there would be no dhansak." Another one asked him for a special bonus as a parting gift in Tata Consultancy Services Ltd’s AGM and he refused: “You can remember me for being stingy!"

When a few shareholders brought business disputes (with Tata companies) to him and turned belligerent, refusing to leave the podium, Tata firmly told them to keep it off the AGM platform and that an independent arbitrator would be appointed to resolve their issues.

And then there are the overcurious kind. “Sir, do you wear specs?", asked one. “No", Tata said. “Sir, then you have amazing eyesight..and foresight." “What watch do you wear?" said another. “Titan", he answered.

He assured shareholders that he wasn’t going to disappear and was “looking forward to sitting on the other side and being able to look at the dais", but shrugged away requests to continue.

“I want you to relax now...can you please continue as the chairman emeritus?" said one Tata Steel shareholder. “..., but I thought you just asked me to relax," answered Tata.

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