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Who’ll be the man after Tata says tata?

Who’ll be the man after Tata says tata?

Earlier this week, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, spoke briefly about the search for his successor, a topic that has served as the source material for countless stories in Indian media since the turn of the century. Among the various names that have been aired by the media—Tata himself has remained silent—are those of his half-brother Noel Tata, whose father-in-law happens to be the single largest individual shareholder in Tata Sons; Nusli Wadia, an old friend and confidant of Ratan Tata; and Keki Dadiseth, former chief of Hindustan Unilever Ltd.

Ratan Tata’s interview didn’t shed any further light on the subject, but it did clarify several issues: There is a search; it involved several consulting firms; and it is global.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Several headhunters—how they hate the term—I spoke to say a mandate of this nature is likely to be with one of the big two headhunting firms (don’t know? Don’t ask). One of the headhunters told me that it was also unlikely that a search of this magnitude was being run out of India.

So that means the next chairperson of Tata Sons could well be someone from the UK or the US. Which would only be fitting because the Tata group is now a global conglomerate (I must confess that many of us scoffed in the early 2000s when Ratan Tata said he wanted to take his group global; and, to continue in the confessional mode, many of us also didn’t believe a Rs1 lakh car was possible).

So will the Tata group become the first Indian business entity of any significant size to have an American (or an Englishman) as its head?

There have been other Indian companies—several airlines come to mind—that have had expatriates as chief executives, but these managers have typically worked under an Indian promoter or chairman (and, sometimes, also left because of these very people).

Headhunters say the job itself is definitely attractive.

By virtue of its Indian businesses, the Tata group is part of the India story that foreign investors continue to buy into.

The international firms that are part of the conglomerate— in the UK, the US, Korea and elsewhere—give it a global footprint (and its CEO, a global stature).

And there are enough challenges that need to be addressed and which make the job interesting; many of the Tata group’s global acquisitions have been made with an eye on the long term, not on the following quarter or year.

In his 18 years at the helm of the Tata group, Ratan Tata has surprised people time and again. First, by bringing to heel (and eventually easing out) the powerful patriarchs who ran several of the group’s companies when he took over. Then, by making the group locally and globally competitive. I have a feeling that his (and the board’s) choice of a successor will, again, be a surprise.

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