Home / Opinion / Columns /  How Cyrus Mistry fought a lonely battle

Cyrus Mistry was the chairman of India’s largest and globally best-known conglomerate. He came into the limelight, which he had instinctively shunned until he took on this mantle. Even as chairman of Tata Sons, he did not give any interviews to the press, preferring to let his work and business to speak for itself. His style was down to earth and affable, not stress-inducing for either his subordinates or peers. One incident might illustrate his quiet, unassuming-yet-effective style of working, which this author witnessed first-hand. Mistry was appointed as co-chair of the Indo-US CEO Forum by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had to play host to a high-profile visit by US President Barack Obama to India. The conference agenda had to be finalized, a joint statement had to carefully crafted down to the last comma, and a meaningful action plan had to be formed. All this in coordination with government folks at the highest level, as well as working with some of the biggest chieftains of Indian industry. As co-chair, Mistry got everyone on board, and the CEO conference, attended by both the Prime Minister and President, was a grand success. What many might not have known was that behind the scene, he worked tirelessly with the team for weeks prior to the meet. Even to the extent of going over every micro detail, well into the night before the conference, to ensure that everything worked flawlessly. His attention to detail did not mean that he was a micro manager. He was not charismatic in any sense, nor did he display any flamboyance. But his energy was infectious and inspired his team as well. If this incident is any indication, the Tata Group lost a very promising business leader when it sacked him in 2016.

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Some of Cyrus Mistry’s early actions when he took charge as chairman of Tata Sons are also telling. The Tata Group was anyway known for its high standards of cor-porate governance, but Mistry took it up several notches. For instance, he insisted that his family firm, the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, be kept away for any construction contracts with the Tata Group, a favourable treatment that Mistry family-owned companies had conventionally enjoyed for decades. He also was instrumental in discontinuing some long-term contracts which gave preferred treatment to SP Group firms. He was thick-skinned enough to be unfazed by rumours about his alleged misdeeds or motivations.

One of the bones of contention among the Tata top brass was how much information could be shared with elders who were not officially on the boards of listed Tata entities. The Securities and Exchange Board of India’s norms against insider trading had become stronger. Not only was there a prohibition against the use of insider information for private profit, but even if no profit was sought, no information could be shared until it became public. Surely, this was a much stricter and higher standard that Mistry wanted the Tata Group to follow. This was the higher notch that Mistry insisted upon. That surely ruffled several feathers that eventually led to a gathering storm, leading to his eventual downfall. Some people were not pleased about the watertight control on info leaks that Mistry had instituted. Ratan Tata who persuaded an initially reluctant Mistry and appointed him as chairman had advised him, “If you want my inputs, I will give it to you, but be your own man and be yourself and just be driven by the fact that every act you do and every move you make has to stand the test of public scrutiny." Mistry followed this scrupulously. He was also instrumental in codifying the first official manual of corporate governance in the Tata Group, which was prepared and ready just before his exit. One of his legacies is perhaps the adoption of those standards, and their further strengthening. He also appointed the first Brand Custodian for the Group, a role meant to reinforce the twin pillars of good governance and the Tata reputation for giving back to society.

Mistry’s ouster in that infamous board meeting of October 2016, was indecorous and rather unfair. Like Yudhishthira lost his two inches of high and pristine status in the Mahabharata, this incident too took some sheen off the Tata Group. It is ironic that one of India’s most bitter legal fights over corporate governance happened at the highest levels of an iconic group. The final verdict from the apex court was only a partial validation for Mistry, but he fought mostly a lone battle till the very end. To this author, he appears more wronged against, than being wrong himself. In his death, India Inc lost a promising and down-to-earth leader. When he took charge as our biggest group’s leader, he had probably mentally committed the next two decades of his young life. His style was change with continuity. He was unafraid of reviewing past decisions and taking corrective action, in a non-disruptive way. Alas, that was not to be.

The Tata Group is probably the only business entity in the world that at its top is two-thirds owned by non-profit trusts, which are mandated to give all their income to charity. This is an astounding model, and we owe this unique structure to the late Jamsetji Tata and his two sons Dorab and Ratan.

Mistry surely understood and was aware of the weight of this amazing legacy that he had to shoulder. He tried in his own quiet and unassuming way to take it much further. But fate cut short his tenure with the ultimate crown, and now even his life.

Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist

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