August 2004 | Keshub Mahindra

From here to eternity

Keshub Mahindra*, the patriarch of the Mahindra & Mahindra Group, paints a candid picture of the qualities that defined — and differentiated — the pantheon of Tata leaders

It all started with Jamsetji Tata. He laid down the standard for the Tatas, in terms of the pace the group set, the value system it abides by, and the sense of ethics that guides its entrepreneurial instincts. It would not be fair to comment on Jamsetji, but the concept of trusteeship that defines the Tata way of doing business comes from his convictions. This is very much in the philanthropic tradition of the Parsee community.

The Tata kind of mindset cannot be sired by a written code of conduct; it comes from deep-rooted belief. The Tata Finance example is an apt one. Not many companies would have handled this matter the way the Tatas did, openly and transparently. These days there's a lot of talk about corporate responsibility and accountability, about corporate governance. Actually, it's ethics and nothing else.

Jeh [JRD Tata] reflected this value system in abundance. He was a unique personality, never really interested in the nitty-gritty of running a company, occupied as he was with creating a wider idea about what the Tatas should do. Contrary to public opinion, Jeh was basically shy and reticent. But once you made friends with him he would be warm and candid.

Jeh could not suffer fools, but he had this extraordinary generosity of heart. I remember seeing him, during one of those Bombay bus strikes, stopping his car to give a lift to stranded commuters. Then there was this time I went over to his house. There was a hell of a racket going on and, when I asked the reason, he said the residence staff were watching television.

The abiding passion of Jeh's life was flight. Back in 1982, he was unwell in the run-up to the commemorative Bombay-Karachi flight [a re-enactment of JRD's pioneering airmail flight back in 1932]. Everybody tried to persuade him to opt out. I was dispatched to go and talk to him. He greeted me by saying, "Oh, you have arrived. They have sent you." I said I had come only to see him and he replied, "I know why you are here." I went back to Bombay House and I told the people there, "Don't stop him. You will kill him if you stop him. Make sure there is a co-pilot, a doctor and that there is a plane flying next to his." And that's what we did.

Jeh was a great nationalist (though he spoke English with a lousy French accent). He had an intense understanding of the country's problems (consider the interest he took in the population topic) and a wonderful zeal to help India's developmental efforts. Successive government placed plenty of trust in him, but Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi never followed any of his ideas. That was pretty disheartening for Jeh. He was a close friend of Nehru's, but their relationship went a little sour when Jeh objected to the government putting up steel plants. And he was extremely disappointed when his airlines was nationalised.

He was a gentleman, no question about it, an incredible human being, and a great son of India. He cared a lot for people, but not necessarily on the golf course. I had the opportunity to play with him and — I have to say this — he was such a lousy golfer. He thought he knew everything about the game, and heaven help you if you had him for partner. He would after every stroke tell you what you were doing wrong. Then he'd get on that tee and hit 30 yards. I would go 150 yards and he'd say that wasn't the way to do it!

Naval Tata, unlike Jeh, was the kind of person who could get along with anyone and everyone. He had this tremendous capacity to gel with people from different walks of life. I watched him carefully when he was involved in labour relations and I got to know him and the way he worked over the last two years of his life (he forced me to take his position when he retired).

Naval was fantastic social company and he had this brilliant sense of humour. Of course, he was highly intelligent and well respected by labour. He was probably the only businessman that labour respected and had full confidence in. Part of this was due to his ability to get along with them, but it also had something to do with the fact that he was a superb listener.

Personalities aside, my association with the Tata group stretches 43 years. I joined the boards of Tata Steel, Tata Chemicals and Indian Hotels in late 1960s and early '70s, and I continue to be on the boards of Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals. This experience gives a fair insight into the way the group has evolved.

Going back to the 1960s and '70s, despite their immense history, pedigree and credentials, the Tatas did not, I think, move fast enough, though they ran their companies efficiently and ethically enough. Mind you, there were serious problems then, in the '60s and '70s, because it was an entirely different ambience, a different environment. You couldn't do a damn thing without the government's consent.

Then came the mid 1980s — and look at the change that happened in the Tatas. Ratan Tata has to get the credit for this. I don't think we even realise the immense contribution he has made. Consider the expansion of a traditional company like Tata Steel and how far it has come in the last few years. Ditto with Tata Chemicals, Indian Hotels, the whole lot of them. I think it was Ratan who made these people feel that, hold it, it's great to have a Tata name, but you better perform.

Ratan had faith in his own vision. Everybody told him that [Tata Motors] would be a big flop but that's not how it has turned out. His telecom ventures may cost a fortune, but I think he is on the right track here too. These are things that people like the Tatas should be doing.

A lot of Tata money had to be spent in the last few years on consolidating the group's position. This had to be done because it's a different world from the one that Jeh operated in. He picked people he thought were competent and let them run their companies. In the process, he created what I call personal fiefdoms. He didn't mean to, but that's how life goes.

Ronald Reagan made a famous statement when he became the president of America. He said, "My job is not to run the government; I select and hire people to do that. My job is to lead the country." This is exactly what a company leader has to do. Leadership is a general sort of word. If you are the CEO of a company leadership means one thing. The definition changes dramatically when you are a group chairman.

It wasn't easy for Ratan, when he came in, to do it his way. His method of running companies was entirely different. He picked good people and gave them the authority to run the show — but he kept a hold on them. And Ratan has got excellent people. That is a big difference and it is the basis of the transformation that has taken place in the Tata group.

*Keshub Mahindra is the chairman of the Mahindra & Mahindra group of companies. He is on the board of several companies and is associated with a variety of government and industry bodies.