Mumbai: Ratan Tata is set to retire on Friday after 21 years as the group Chairman of the diversified conglomerate Tata Group. He has been responsible for making Tata Group a $ 100 billion empire. When he took over in 1991, the group had a revenue of about Rs 14,000 crore.
In March 1991, JRD Tata, an icon of the Indian industry, stepped down as the Tata Group Chairman to make way for a 54-year-old handsome, tall, over 6 feet, Cornell architecture graduate with the same illustrious surname, Tata.
Ratan Tata had left India at the age of 15 and returned 10 years later in 1962 to join the Tata group - working in the group's ailing textile mills, in the furnaces of Jamshedpur, reviving Nelco and 29 years later taking over as chairman.
Former Telecom Minister Arun Shourie says, "I remember that 20 to 25 years ago the Tatas were a collection of fiefdoms. These were very good people, but they were powers in their own right. Mr Darbari Seth was a formidable figure. Mr Rusi Modi, Mr Nani Pankhiwalia, these were wonderful people, but this was not a group. Ratan Tata slowly changed that or rather rapidly changed that nature of the group by bringing in persons of his own age group."
Those who know him describe him as a pioneer, a visionary and a leader passionate about technology. Ratan Tata proved that when he introduced the first 'made by India' car - the Indica and 11 years later the people's car - the Rs 1 lakh Nano.
But the fear of failure has never stopped Tata from giving his best. In an interview in 2007 he said, "I'm the one who took the big risks. You have to have a belief and see it to the end."
That journey began in 2000 with Tata tea's purchase of Britain's iconic tea brand Tetley - a company twice its size. The next overseas acquisition was in 2003. 2004 closed with two and 2005 saw 14 buys. In 2006, the Tata group went shopping in Germany, Switzerland, UK, Thailand, Czech Republic, USA and South Africa. The next year it spent what no Indian company had ever spent before on an acquisition - $ 12 billion - for Anglo-Dutch steel maker Corus. But the 608 pence a share purchase has yet to pay off. 15 months after Corus, Ratan Tata bought Britian's Jaguar Landrover for $ 2.3 billion. Iconic brands, super technology, but there were no profits.
Former MD of Tata Steel JJ Irani said, "Corus still continues to be a challenge. We wanted to expand overseas because we had problems in expanding domestically like many other companies and this opportunity came our way. Unfortunately it proved to hindsight the timing was not right because immediately after we acquired it the steel industry and the economy of the world in general tanked and therefore we cannot make the maximum use of the acquisition. This was quite different from the JLR acquisition which has worked well from the word go."
Ratan Tata's 21 years as chairman have helped grow the group to $ 100 billion in revenue, 60 per cent of which came from overseas. "I'm often misunderstood in our companies for being too critical. But it's because I want to hold my head high and say we are world-class," Ratan Tata says.
That mission will continue as Ratan Tata leaves Bombay House to head the key charities that control Tata Sons - the group's holding company. Figuratively and literally, he's just around the corner.