Being the point person over a large geographic spread for a business enterprise as multifaceted, sizeable and singular as the Tata group requires the knowledge of a polymath, truckloads of tact, and a feel for people, places and politics. It’s this special kind of ability that unites Anwar Hasan, the UK- based managing director of Tata Limited, Raman Dhawan, the managing director of Tata Africa Holdings, who operates out of South Africa, and James Zhan, the chief representative for the group in China.
The similarities do not extend a whole lot further, given the particular nature of the responsibilities each of these consummate professionals has, and the distinct challenges their respective portfolios present. What Mr Hasan, Mr Dhawan and Mr Zhan do share in significant measure are a commitment to the Tata heritage and a keen understanding of how to fulfil, while functioning under a common canopy, the different requirements of different Tata companies.
‘We have revisited Africa and are now in 10 more countries’
Mr Dhawan completed his chartered accountancy course and did stints with Delhi Cloth Mills (better known as DCM) in Kota in Rajasthan and with ICI in Calcutta before becoming a member of a different kind of business family. “I saw an advertisement from Tata Exports [now Tata International] for people with an accountancy and finance background — this was end-1978 and the company was looking to set up overseas — and I responded,” he recalls. “They replied, saying they were looking for people for the Middle East and Africa, but I had just become a father and I did not want to travel.”
That would have been that but for Tata Exports’ persistence. A few months later the company approached Mr Dhawan again. “They said they wanted a person for Africa and asked whether I would be interested. One thing led to another and I said I would try it for a two-year period. I was giving up a good job with ICI, and I considered this something of an adventure.” The exploratory journey has blossomed into a voyage of discovery now into its third decade.
The setup that greeted Mr Dhawan on his arrival in Africa was rudimentary. “It was not quite a planned establishment because, I think, the people there had little overseas experience,” he says. The group had just started to export some Tata Motors vehicles to Africa, more to get a business feel of the continent than anything else. The Tata ‘office’ of old gave way to a company, Tata Zambia, and the group was up and running.
Mr Dhawan remembers those early days as ‘extremely difficult’, but Tata Zambia began making profits within two years of being formed. That and other developments spurred several changes within Tata Exports and a strategy for expansion was put in place, leading to the setting up of Tata companies in other African countries.
South Africa became the destination of choice for the group, and its corporate headquarters for the continent, after the abolition of apartheid in the country and the elections there in 1994. A period of consolidation followed, but over the five years, says Mr Dhawan, “we have revisited Africa and are now in 10 more countries”. It’s a presence that gives the group a unique African footprint, adds Mr Dhawan. “No other Indian company has such a presence.” The Tata business in these 11 countries owes much to Tata Motors. “We have distribution networks in the 11 nations and it has been a good and rewarding relationship. We have grown the market substantially and our business many times over.”
A robust and long-term approach to doing business in the continent has led to the group, and the Tata brand, being viewed as good and genuine investors. “Also, we have been able to build our brand to reflect the many businesses the Tata group is involved in,” says Mr Dhawan, who adds that Tata Africa Holdings, the consolidated face of the group, is an “ideal platform for Tata companies to launch their various plans, in terms of distribution of their products as well as manufacturing”.
The success of the present has been built on the back of numerous challenges faced and overcome. “Many African countries had one-party governments, democracy was not common and there was plenty of official control,” says Mr Dhawan. “Fortunately, in the last decade or so democracy has taken root in most of Africa. We also find that businesses have it much better; it’s pretty much like what you can do in any other country.”
South Africa, with its superior infrastructure and skilled manpower, is the mother lode in this continental equation and many Tata companies are betting big on it. “We have Tata Motors in both passenger and commercial vehicles segments, and the company is now looking to put up an assembly plant,” says Mr Dhawan. “Tata Consultancy Services’ business is increasing in South Africa and it is looking to expand its operations in West Africa. Tata Steel has huge investments in Mozambique.” Tata Communications and Indian Hotels, too, are getting entrenched with their businesses.
“South Africa is a great foundation and great platform for Tata to go to the rest of Africa,” says Mr Dhawan. “The potential that exists in Africa is fantastic.” The task of realising that potential for the benefit of the group, and the communities it operates in, rests with a team of committed and dedicated professionals. “Our people, those in our corporate office and our country heads, have been of tremendous help.”
Mr Dhawan, who unwinds with golf and family, says the experience of establishing the Tata name in Africa has been a very rewarding one. “I have no regrets; I would not like to change this for anything.”
‘Tata values are at the core of what drives our business in any country’
Mr Hasan was with Tata Steel for over 25 years — a period during which he managed the administration of Jamshedpur with the said title of Lord Mayor — before packing his bags and heading to London to take charge of Tata Limited, the first overseas office established by the group (back in 1907).
“Tata Steel had a terrific policy of giving its young managers opportunities to get experience and hone their skills in various departments,” says Mr Hasan. “It makes you a better manager, trains and tempers you to take on higher positions.” The experience came in handy when Mr Hasan arrived in London, not quite expecting to make any fortune in a city where, legend had it, the streets were paved with gold.
He wasn’t expecting, either, to have his plate as full as it has turned out to be over the past decade. “It was, I would say, a sleepy old office in London, acting as a trading outfit,” he recalls. “Our business was primarily to act as a buying agent and trading partner of Tata companies.” All that changed with the Tata Tea-Tetley deal in 2000 and, in the years that followed, the acquisitions of Brunner Mond by Tata Chemicals, Corus by Tata Steel, and Jaguar Land Rover by Tata Motors.
The acquisitions brought to the fore Mr Hasan’s skill in dealing with people and his capabilities in networking and liaising. He has been instrumental in creating a platform for Tata organisations operating in the UK, in getting them to discuss common interests, share best practices and help one another, especially in financial affairs and with interactions involving government agencies and officials.
“Tata has a big presence in the UK and the government recognises that,” he explains. “I work to get our company heads together and meet important people. This is a two-way interaction and it provides us the opportunity to ask questions we think we need answers to.” The Tata presence in the country has grown from two companies till a few years back (Tata Limited and Tata Consultancy Services) to 16. “When you have that kind of presence, you need to do something about building the brand and utilising its collective strength.”
Mr Hasan has helped introduce group practices on corporate sustainability, climate change and more to the individual Tata companies in the UK. “Somebody had to take the lead. This is not mandated or strategic; it’s just something that has evolved.” Doing business in what is now his part of the world is not all that different, adds Mr Hasan. “There are certain fundamentals that don’t change regardless of the geography. The Tata values, for instance, are at the core of what drives our business in any country. We have been able to bring that to the UK as well.”
Culturally, though, there are some differences. Weekends are sacrosanct, reserved for family and pleasure, and so is the lunch break at work. “You have to distinguish between people time and company time and respect the distinction,” says Mr Hasan.
Mr Hasan is happy that his time with the Tata group has corresponded with its worth and its reputation getting enhanced. “People now understand that the group has a long-term view, a strategy in place; that we are not venture capitalists. I think that will help us get more talent to stay with us.”
That should be a benefit given that the Tata group has about £16 billion invested in the UK. Beyond business there is the people philosophy that Mr Hasan likes to emphasise. The Lady Tata Memorial Trust has since 1950 been contributing nearly £250,000 every year to cancer research, but Mr Hasan believes there is scope for more to be done.
Brand-building is another area that Mr Hasan sees as critical for the group in the days ahead, and this means being brand visible in the right places and being networked within the British business community and with members of parliament. The networking bit gets easier for Mr Hasan thanks to his love for and expertise with golf, a game he grew fond of during his Jamshedpur days. “People think big deals are discussed on the golf course; that’s not true. The game gives you a reason to socialise outside of the boardroom.”
Life in London — and food is the highlight here — has been more than good to Mr Hasan, a bon vivant heavily inclined to praise the British virtue of drawing a thick line between work and personal life. His only regret is not having got the international exposure he now savours much earlier in the day. But, then, making it to a mayoralty on your home turf is no mean achievement.
‘Tata is not just a company but a community’
“We need to develop personal relationships that will lead to investments and trade,” says Mr Zhan, who grew up in different parts of China, completed his masters in engineering in Shanghai and studied business management in the US. “The American experience changed the course of my life.”
Mr Zhan was working in Hong Kong with Bechtel Enterprises, a subsidiary of the engineering and construction giant Bechtel, prior to joining the Tata group as the head of its Beijing office. Severing the 13-year-long association with his previous employer was not an easy task for him. “I was settled there; I had built so many connections.”
Before joining Tatas, he travelled to India to get to know and understand the group, visiting the organisation’s headquarters in Mumbai and the steel city of Jamshedpur. The encounter has stayed with him. “I realised that Tata is not just a company but a community,” says Mr Zhan.
What really excited Mr Zhan, though, was the group’s increasing global footprint and its plans for China. His initial months were spent on visiting Tata companies in his home country and understanding their views and plans. He then “began to connect the dots”, even as he became more aware of the group and its history, its ethos and its culture.
The main issue confronting Mr Zhan was that the Tata group was not perceived in China as big or credible enough, and the brand lacked in recognition, too. Everyday Chinese did not see the different Tata companies as being part of the same group. Most people did not know that Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley and Corus were Tata enterprises.
This shortfall in comprehension became, for Mr Zhan, the starting point of an extensive endeavour to build the Tata brand, that embraced government officials at the state and central level, potential partners and customers.
“China is still old-fashioned; trust and relationships are critical attributes while conducting business,” says Mr Zhan. “When you make a promise, you need to fulfil it. You also need to build a relationship before you create a partnership. Once that happens, business flows.”
Faced with questions such as how large or old the group was, or how long it had been in China, Mr Zhan was happy to talk about Tata’s history and culture, and its Fortune 500 standing. “It certainly helped establish our identity, and the group’s focus on ‘leadership with trust’ struck a chord.” Fortuitously, at that point the group was deep into acquiring international brands such as Corus and Jaguar Land Rover and the media coverage helped. “The timing was good.”
Mr Zhan contends that Indian companies, Tata enterprises included, are not paying enough attention to China. But he also acknowledges that doing business in China is tough. The same effort would, he feels, probably get better returns in India, though he believes the opportunities are greater in China.
One difficulty that Mr Zhan highlights is the trouble foreigners have in adapting to life in his country. “If you don’t know the language, it can become tricky,” he says. “Many times we need a technical person or an expert, so we move people to China, but in the long term you have to have people with language capabilities, who can understand technical jargon and local nuances so that a problem can be resolved at the first level and not when it has escalated. Food is another issue, primarily for vegetarians.”
The negatives are outnumbered by the bright spots, though, and Mr Zhan — for whom the five-day working week can usually extend into the weekend — considers the future to be full of potential and possibilities. “What I would like to see five years down the road are good young managers from India working with Chinese managers in China and regarding the country as their home.”