The foundation of what would grow to become the Tata group was laid in 1868 by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata – then a 29-year-old who had learned the ropes of business while working in his father’s banking firm – when he established a trading company in Bombay.
A visionary entrepreneur, an avowed nationalist and a committed philanthropist, Jamsetji Tata helped pave the path to industrialisation in India by seeding pioneering businesses in sectors such as steel, energy, textiles and hospitality.
Empress Mills, a textiles venture set up in Nagpur in central India in 1877, was the first of the big industrial projects undertaken by the Tata group. Jamsetji Tata was by this time, though, already gripped by what would the three great ideas of his life: setting up an iron and steel company, generating hydroelectric power and creating an institution that would tutor Indians in the sciences.
None of these ideas would come to fruition while Jamsetji Tata lived, but they were realised in full measure by those who followed him.
In 1892, Jamsetji Tata established the JN Tata Endowment to encourage Indian scholars to take up higher studies. It was the first of a multitude of philanthropic initiatives by the Tata group. Over generations, members of the Tata family have bequeathed much of their personal wealth to the many trusts they have created.
These trusts today control 66 percent of the shares of Tata Sons, the holding company of the group, and they support an assortment of causes, institutions and individuals.
The most dazzling of the Tata enterprises that came into being during Jamsetji Tata’s lifetime was the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, which opened for business in 1903. Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata set his mind on building it after being denied entry into one of the city's fancy hotels for being an Indian.
Today, the Taj Group of Hotels is a byword for luxury and quality, with standout properties across the world.
Following Jamsetji Tata’s death, in Germany in 1904, the chairmanship of the Tata group passed to the elder of his two sons, Sir Dorab Tata, who accomplished the daunting task of turning his father’s extraordinary ideas into reality.
Sir Dorab was the force behind the setting up, in 1907, of the Tata Iron and Steel Company. Seven years later, India's first iron and steel plant, in Jamshedpur in the eastern part of the country, started production. In 1915, the Tata group broke new ground once again, this time by generating hydroelectric power from a site near Bombay.
In 1911, seven years after his death, Jamsetji Tata’s long-cherished dream of establishing an institution where Indians could cultivate their scientific temper was realised. The Indian Institute of Science, set up in Bangalore, would nurture some of the brightest minds in India.
It was the first of a clutch of centres of learning and research that would come up with the substantial and steadfast support of the Tata group.
Tata companies presently employ over 660,000 people worldwide. Taking good care of this large family is a priority for the Group, and it has a tradition to stay true to while doing so.
Tata Steel introduced eight-hour working days in 1912, well before it became statutory in much of the West, and the first Tata provident fund scheme was started in 1920 (governmental regulation on this came into force in 1952). The Tata townships, and the facilities they have, are another example of the manner in which the Group extends itself to care for its employees.
By the time of Sir Dorab Tata’s death in 1932, the Tata group had consolidated in businesses while also getting in new areas, notably insurance and the production of soaps, detergents and cooking oil.
Sir Dorab was succeeded as chairman of the Group by Sir Nowroji Saklatwala. In 1938, following Sir Nowroji’s demise, 34-year-old JRD Tata (left) was appointed as the new chairman. He would lead the Tata group for the next 53 years - with wisdom, foresight and a rare grace that touched everyone he met.
The first of JRD Tata’s big moves in business was born of a childhood fascination for flying. In 1929, he became one of the first Indians to be granted a commercial pilot's licence.
In 1932, Tata Aviation Service, the forerunner to Tata Airlines and Air India, India’s national carrier, took to the skies. The maiden flight in the history of Indian aviation took off from Drigh Road in Karachi, now in Pakistan, with JRD Tata at the controls of a Puss Moth. In 1953, the Indian government nationalised Air India.
During the more than five decades that JRD Tata was at the helm, the Tata group expanded regularly into new spheres of business. The more prominent of these ventures were Tata Chemicals (1939), Tata Motors and Tata Industries (both 1945), Voltas (1954), Tata Tea [(1962) now known as Tata Global Beverages], Tata Consultancy Services (1968) and Titan Industries (1984).
The post-independence era in India, right up to the early 1990s, was a time of tight government controls on business, but despite this the Tata group managed to grow considerably.
The beginning of the 1990s ushered in plenty of change in Indian business. Economic reforms opened up many sectors, signalling increased competition and the arrival of foreign companies. JRD Tata’s death, in 1993, symbolised the end of an era in more ways than one.
Ratan Tata, who took over as chairman in 1991, guided the Tata group in a fast-changing business environment where old rules did not apply and new realities were taking hold.
Mr Tata retired as Chairman of Tata Sons on December 28, 2012.
The Tata group has, over the past decade-and-a-half, changed more than ever before in its long and illustrious history. Rejuvenating existing businesses, entering new ones, manufacturing breakthrough products and expanding into foreign markets are among the initiatives the Group has undertaken with vigour during this period.
In 1996, Tata Teleservices was set up to tap into India’s burgeoning telecom market; in 1998, the Indica, India’s first indigenously made car, was successfully launched; in 2002, the Group acquired VSNL, India’s top international telecom service provider; in 2004, Tata Consultancy Services went public in the largest private sector initial public offering in the Indian stock market; and, in 2008, the trailblazing Tata Nano was unveiled.
The Tata group is now more cohesive and united than it has ever been. This is no accident; rather, it is the outcome of a set of policies that have been emphasised and reinforced by former chairman Ratan Tata and the Group Corporate Centre, the top decision-making body in the Group. There’s more to the new-world Tata.
The pursuit of business excellence has become the norm and there is a focus on innovation. What have not changed are the group’s emphasis on ethical business practices and its commitment to the communities in which it operates.
The new millennium has seen Tata companies looking beyond Indian shores for growth opportunities and a global footprint. Acquisitions of foreign enterprises have been one way of doing this.
The first big acquisition was by Tata Tea of Tetley back in 2000. In 2004, Tata Motors acquired the heavy vehicles unit of Daewoo Motors, South Korea; in 2005, Tata Steel acquired the Singapore-based NatSteel and Tata Chemicals secured a controlling stake in Brunner Mond Group, UK. The largest acquisition happened in 2007, when Tata Steel acquired Corus, the Anglo-Dutch giant, in a landmark deal, and in 2008 Tata Motors added the Jaguar and Land Rover brands to its stable.
The future promises plenty for the Tata group as it sets the agenda for the next phase of its evolution. The words of former group chairman Ratan Tata sum it up best: “One hundred years from now, I expect the Tatas to be much bigger, of course, than it is now. More importantly, I hope the group comes to be regarded as being the best in India — best in the manner in which we operate, best in the products we deliver, and best in our value system and ethics.
"Having said that, I hope that a hundred years from now we will spread our wings far beyond India, that we become a global group, operating in many countries, an Indian business conglomerate that is at home in the world, carrying the same sense of trust that we do today."