Not Just Boys With Toys

The Economic Times

October 15, 2021

The common man does not generally rejoice when a national asset passes into private hands. But when the Tatas won the bid for Air India (AI), the truism turned on its head. But along with the excitement of AI returning to its stable, there are hushed conversations if the Tatas can indeed nurse its progeny that was snatched from a heartbroken JRD Tata back to health. Many privately fear that the Tatas may have overstretched itself this time. Was it foolhardy? Was it a case of the patriarch, Ratan Tata, taking an emotional decision, driven by his undying passion for flying that he shared with his mentor, JRD? In- dubitably, the decision has an underlying emotional component to it, and why not? But, more than anything, the determination to get the airline back is emblematic of the steely resolve and confidence the group's leaders have historically displayed, turning challenges into success stories. It was a hallmark of the founder of the group, Jamsetji Tata, his two child- ren, Dorabji Tata and Ratanji Tata, and later Jehangir Ratanji Dadadbhoy a.k.a. JRD and Ratan, who headed the group. They took challenges that most would have shied away from. What exemplified it most was the decision taken by the founder to start his first enterprise, the Empress Spinning Mills, in a swampy area of Nagpur: The location was chosen as the land came cheap, but most thought the enterprise would sink in the quagmire. However, Jamsetji proved all his skeptics wrong.

(Tisco)-now Tata Steel was facing imminent death, in a decision that Ratan said saved the group's flagship company, Dorabji pledged the family's Jubilee diamond that was bigger than the fabled Kohinoor. It was a gift that the moonstruck scion had presented to his wife. And Ratanji, the father of JRD, declared that he would not let the company be wound up as long as he was alive. For the family, no sacrifice was too big to save the companies that fund Tata Trusts. Later, Ratan challenged the advice of McKinsey to wind up the steel company. He then worked with its MDs, JJ Irani and B Muthura- man, to turn it into the most efficient.

It was awarded the coveted Deming Grand Prize in 2012, the first to be won by an integrated steel company. For JRD, flying was an undying passion. And it is no less for Ratan. He began his flying lessons in Bombay while still at school. He went on to get his pilot's license while studying at Cornell, buying flying time by washing planes. Getting his license faster than many would, he flew his friends around the US, charging nothing as pilot fees. They paid for the fuel and hiring charges, and he got his thrill for free. His friends still marvel at his presence of mind when he landed his aircraft, evading an oncoming aircraft speeding towards them.

They said their prayers while all that Ratan uttered was, 'Oops', as he sharply steered his single-engine aircraft right, just in time. During his chairmanship of the group, Ratan reminded tea-drinking Britain that they were sipping Tata Tea (by acquiring Tetley Tea) and drove home the point that India owned the British steel companies whose products had once built defense wares that intimidated the citizens in South Asia. He is happy, too, that the British royal family enjoys driving the Indian-owned marquee Jaguars and Land Rovers. Ratan also personally chose some of the carmaker's models that became a hit in the market and helped design their dashboards. In the process, he micromanaged, perhaps, the most dramatic turnaround story of the automobile industry where the mighty Ford buckled. And, by the time he hung his boots in 2012, he made Tatas India's first transnational company, with 60% of its revenues coming from abroad, compared to 24% less than a decade back.

Ratan has a vision beyond the vision range. Tridibesh Mukherjee, one of the world's leading metallurgists, for instance, said that Ratan had strongly advocated using hydrogen more than a decade back as an alternate fuel. He had nudged him to use it at Tata Steel, which was done. Meanwhile, today, there is a growing realization that hydrogen's moment has come at last. So, will this shy 83-year-old man spin his magic again? With the protégé of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) CEO-MD S Ramadorai, N Chandrase- karana. k.a. Chandra at the pilot's wheel, and Ratan fuelling the engines, the Maharaja is sure to pamper its passengers on a flying carpet again.