Blessed with a very good executive team
13 April 2011
Ratan N Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, one of India's preeminent business conglomerates, joins CNN International's Delhi-based correspondent Sara Sidner in a candid and exclusive Talk Asia interview.
He discusses strengthening the Tata legacy and succession plans, the recent 2G spectrum scandal that also engulfed the Tata Group, his experiences of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 and some never before revealed aspects of his personal life. CNN shares with domain-b its exclusive interview to be aired on Thursday, 14 April at 9:00 am, Friday, 15 April at 11:00 pm, Saturday, 16 April at 9:30 pm, Sunday, 17 April at 2:00 pm and Monday, 18 April at 7:30 am
It's a surname synonymous with business in India. Almost everywhere you look, you can see the name that has become one of the country's biggest conglomerate companies. From its humble beginnings in 1868, the Tata company has been responsible for India's first steel plant, first luxury hotel and first domestic airline. Since then, it's continued to pioneer different markets and made a name for itself around the world.
The man currently at the helm of this sprawling business empire with 67 billion dollars in revenue last year is Ratan Tata. The great-grandson of the company's founder, he's further globalised operations and secured some big-name international acquisitions including Jaguar, Land Rover and Tetley Tea. But unlike many other Indian business powerhouses, the Tata Group is steered but not majority owned by its chairman.
Ratan Tata holds just one per cent of the company while more than 66 per cent is controlled by trusts charitable organisations that support a wide range of educational and cultural institutions across India. This week on Talk Asia, we're in Mumbai for a rare interview with the media-shy, never married business baron as he opens up about succession, the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and shares some very surprising stories about his private life.
Sidner: You and your family have a fascinating history, what is it about the Tata family that has brought so much success in a country of more than a million people?
Tata: Well I guess success is to be judged by others, but I think the one thing the family has done is it created a lot of industries in the early days prior to independence, which were national industries, infrastructure in the form of power, steel, etc. And then, gave most of it away in philanthropic grants. And that's been something that has been carried on by their successors through the years.
Sidner: And you're one of the successors.
Tata: And I'm one of the successors, but I've done very little compared to what they did.
Sidner: You really believe that? You've grown the Tata conglomerate twelve-fold.
Tata: Yeah but, they did much more sort of earthbreaking and visionary things. Days are different now, it's more difficult to do something that is really out in time, but I've tried to do whatever I could, and I think more importantly, I think I have tried to uphold the values and the ethics that they set.
Sidner: Your companies, you have about 98 companies in your conglomerate, 395 thousand employees across the world, you've bought Tetley Tea, Corus Steel, Jaguar, Land Rover. How do you keep up with all this?
Tata: I would say that I am blessed with a very very good executive team that operates reasonably autonomously each of the companies. We have a review system, I am the non executive chairman of, nine or so, of the major companies. And on the nine companies it's a little trying because you jump from one industry to another as the case may be but one has a reasonable knowledge of those nine activities and it's been an exciting job.
Sidner: Where do you get the strength and the stamina to deal with all these different entities that you have to make sure do well? People are looking at you and watching you.
Tata: I think that's the excitement of the job, that's been part of the adrenaline that it gives you.
Sidner: Are you an adrenaline junkie?
Tata: (Laughs) No.
Sidner: But you like a little bit of kick?
Tata: Yeah. Yeah I do. One needs it once in a while. And one needs to be able to get away from it all also.
Sidner: I've been in India for just three years so I'm a newbie, but if you ask the average Indian about corruption they will complain to you that it touches their lives everyday. Do you think in order to do business here that you have to play this game of kickbacks, bribes?
Tata: No, we have succeeded in growing in the manner we have without in fact partaking in this. We have also been I would say that we could have grown faster and could have prospered more as a group but we have never, we have never in fact partaken in this kind of activity.
Sidner: There have been things said recently because of this bandwidth scandal about you, about one of the Tata companies. Did you, anyone in your company or any lobbyist for your company do anything inappropriate or illegal?
Tata: I can say with my hand to my heart we have not in fact partaken in any clandestine activity. I am hopeful that the investigations that are underway will truthfully bring out the position and that the truth will be on the table before too long.
Sidner: When it comes to corruption, do you think the government has been doing the right thing? Have they done what needs to be done?
Tata: I think what's happening now in terms of things being before the courts, I hope will put things in the right perspective. I hope that it doesn't become a nation of scandals and allegations as they are. I think more importantly the media has to be more circumspect and be careful they don't malign or allege or convict people before they've had a fair trial.
Sidner: Is it hard to be an honest businessman in India?
Tata: I think there are many honest businessmen, I think there are many that bend. I'm happy that I have not bent, not that I am dishonest, that I have not bent.
Sidner: Coming up ... we get a guided tour of Ratan Tata's rebuilt Taj hotel ... the scene of Mumbai's terror attacks in 2008. This hotel has a special place in a lot of people's hearts after what happened in 2008. I was standing just outside with a lot of other journalists from around the world, listening to the sound of grenades, listening to the gunfire, seeing the fire… What was your first thought, how did you find out about what was happening inside this hotel?
Tata: Somebody called my home and said that there was shooting here. I called the exchange and obviously there was no reply so, I was also outside that first night. And… I knew quite fast, the police came and said it was a gang war and it became quite clear with the grenades and automatic gunfire that it was not. And then it became clear that we were under some kind of attack, not necessarily, that we were under a terrorist attack, but not where they came from or who they were. That picture emerged the next day.
Sidner: During that 60 hours or so, what were you doing? What were your frustrations?
Tata: Well, we were not allowed to enter here because it was taken over by the commandoes. Actually it was a difficult time because the next day I thought it was all over because there were lull periods; the first night was when the commandoes came in and I issued a press statement basically saying it wouldn't break us down but then it went on for two more days, three more days.
Sidner: You were able and gracious enough, you spoke with our Fareed Zakaria during that time and you said some things to him about law enforcement, you were very upset. Have things changed any since then?
Tata: I don't know enough to answer that honestly, it's not. One thing I do know is that they're better equipped today than they were then in terms or arms, in terms of logistics, etc. But training is an important part of being prepared. Being trained to deal with these situations is an important part of total preparedness and I don't know whether that is happening or not. I have no way to know, I hope I don't need another way to know.
Sidner: Do you have any regrets either from before the days that the attacks happened, do you have any regrets how you or your company handled it?
Tata: No I feel very proud of the way the staff dealt with the situation. For me it had meant more than anything else, because here are a group of independent people, some waiters, some chefs, some porters all of whom put their own lives, you know after that of the guests and the wellbeing of the guests, and in many cases lost their lives to the bullets of these terrorists but succeeded in serving their guests with pride and at great cost to themselves.
Sidner: How much time, effort and money has it taken to restore this since the attack?
Tata: It took over a year because we had to rebuild some of the floors. We had to build through most of structure because of water damage from the fire department. We really didn't want to undertake a renovation that was only skin deep so we really did a total renovation and ironically it was a few years after we had renovated this whole wing.
Sidner: It must have been heartbreaking to see what had happened to your hotel?
Tata: Yes, it was, it was. We were very lucky it wasn't more. There's a great pride in the place. And in some ways I am glad we re-did this block better than what I was. But the other places like the restaurants etc have all be refurbished differently so you don't walk into a restaurant and say ''I remember''. It's different.
Sidner: I have to say, I remember the scene from the security cameras.
Tata: This is the same. It hasn't changed. Our intention was to rebuild it the same way. The rooms are better than what they were and the restaurants are different. They don't give you a sense of nostalgia.
Sidner: Do you ever hear from your guests that it also gives them a bit of sadness, just knowing what happened?
Tata: Oh yes, we do. And some are very grateful for how they survived in the, or supported in those hours of crisis. But most of them are sad that what happened, happened.
Sidner: Are you proud of this? I mean the restoration is impeccable.
Tata: I am proud of what they did and really proud to have been a part of the hotel as it was in the spirit that existed. The day we re-opened this whole staircase was full of employees. The whole staircase full of employees who were shouting with great spirit on the fact they we were re-opening again.
Sidner: Coming up. This is a difficult question, this is one of the ones that my mother would be a little worried about me asking.
Sidner: Your family has been likened to the Rockefellers. The Tata's in India have been likened to the Rockefellers in America. Do you think you would have been as successful had you not been born into this dynasty?
Tata: I think there are similarities in the sense that the Rockefellers are, have given so much to the United States and have done so much for the poor sections and done so much for the arts and the sciences that there are great similarities in terms of what we believe we should support.
The early Rockefellers made their wealth from being in certain businesses and remained personally very wealthy. Tata's were different in the sense the future generations were not so wealthy. They were involved in the business but most of the family wealth was put into trust and most of the family in fact did not enjoy enormous wealth.
Sidner: I have to ask you this and I know you've been asked this a million times, who will succeed you? Because you have no heir and a lot of people are used to companies, especially family run companies in India having the heir take over the company.
Tata: There is a committee that's been established that committee is mandated with looking at internal candidates, external candidates, Indian expatriates, they have a short list of people who they're examining today and who they are meeting. I've stayed away from that committee because I think that committee should operate independently without the force of someone who is looking over their shoulder and I hope that by first half of this year, we'll be able to define a suitable candidate with who one can overlap for a short period of time before I move away.
Sidner: What are the chances that that person does not have the last name Tata?
Tata: See I'd have to say that that's something I wouldn't like to comment on, my step-brother is one of the candidates that is being considered and I don't think it's my lot to, to say whether it's fifty percent, or ninety percent or ten percent so..
Sidner: Would that cause family strife? Do you guys talk about this?
Tata: No I don't think it, it may, I have no way to know.
Sidner: What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
Tata: I think what I would like to do is to leave behind a sustainable entity of a set of companies that operate in an exemplary manner in terms of ethics, values and continue what our ancestors left behind. Not my legacy alone but a continuation of the legacy that extends over the last over a hundred years. I hope my successor will be as committed to that as I have tried to be. My only regret is that I am not 20 years younger because I think India is going through a very exciting period in its history.
Sidner: Ok, this is a difficult question, this is one of the ones that my mother would be a little worried about me asking. Have you ever been in love?
Tata: Oh yeah.
Sidner: How many times?
Tata: Seriously, four times.
Sidner: Can you tell us anything about that?
Tata: Well, you know one was probably the most serious was when I was working in the US and the only reason we didn't get married was that I came back to India and she was to follow me and that was the year of the, if you like, the Indo-Chinese conflict and in true American fashion this conflict in the Himalayas, in the snowy, uninhabited part of the Himalayas was seen in the United States as a major war between India and China and so, she didn't come and finally got married in the US thereafter.
Sidner: Sir, I have to ask you since you did bring up the word married, why have you never gotten married?
Tata: When you asked whether I'd ever been in love I came seriously close to getting married four times and each time it got close to there and I guess I backed off in fear or for one reason or another. Each of the occasions was different, but in hindsight when I look at the people involved; it wasn't a bad thing what I did. I think it may have been more complex had the marriage taken place.
Sidner: Were any of the people you were in love with here are they still here in the city?
Sidner: You're being very coy, are you going to tell us?
Tata: Oh well I'd certainly because of the people that are here, of course, this may be aired in the US so I'd be in trouble, whatever I do, so I think I'd better stop here.
Sidner: Excellent. Thank you.