Suresh Krishna, the dynamic chairman and managing director of Sundram Fasteners, India’s leading maker of high tensile fasteners, is an independent director on the board of Tata Steel. Honoured by the central goverment with the prestigious Padma Shri last year, Krishna was also a director of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) from 2000 to 2006. He has also been a member of the advisory council to the prime minister on trade and industry. Krishna was the sheriff of Chennai in 1992 and 1993.
Born in Madurai, the 70-year-old Krishna graduated in science from Madras Christian College in 1955, did an MA in literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1959, and post-graduate work in literature at the University of Munich, Germany. He has won a number of awards, including the All India Management Association’s JRD Tata Corporate Leadership Award for the year 2000 and the Ernst & Young ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ Award for 2001.
He spoke at length with Christabelle Noronha about his decade-long
association with Tata Steel. Excerpts from the interview:
Jamsetji Tata envisioned Tata Steel 100 years ago as a critical input for building a strong and self-reliant India. Do you think his dream is realised?
Definitely. At that time, most things were imported, and now to a large extent India has become self-reliant. However, I would like to point out that if everyone becomes self-reliant, there won’t be any more world trade. But I think he achieved whatever he set out to, not only for Tata Steel but for India as well.
As a director on the Board of Tata Steel for a decade now, would you say the company has evolved into a global company?
Becoming global is also a function of how much the government and RBI agree to loosen the purse strings; 15 to 20 years ago, if you had to pay $2 billion for Corus, there was no way you could get the nod. It was called ‘precious’ and ‘scarce’ foreign exchange, adjectives that have thankfully disappeared now. After liberalisation, policies have evolved and though it may have started very late, Tata Steel has caught up very quickly.
It’s not only a global company, but a true Indian multinational. One thing I’ve always held is that you have to be 100 per cent Indian to become an Indian multinational.
What are the qualities and the attributes that contributed to the exponential growth of Tata Steel?
First, Tata Steel has been a leader in the domestic market; it has a brand name and a substantial market share domestically. It has developed skills to manage its people. The company has realised that you cannot manage Indians using Japanese methods or vice versa. They have learnt to manage an Indian mind with an Indian mind. That is why it has had no industrial relations problems at all.
All this gives you the confidence to say, if I can do it here, I can do it elsewhere. Only then can a company become a multinational. It’s a very logical progression going from a strong position of a domestic market leader to aspiring to become a global market leader.
What do you see as the challenges that lie ahead for Tata Steel?
Operating a multinational, multicultural, multiracial company requires time, and a great deal of competence. It’s a matter of learning — going from one level to another level of learning. But the Tata Group itself — through not just Tata Steel but Tata Tea, Indian Hotels and others — has a lot of capabilities.
The second is integration; however well it is worked out, integration requires time, and a lot of energy input; thinking about where one is going right or wrong. It is a continuous exercise. Each country has its cultural strengths and weaknesses.
Have you at any point in time felt that Tata Steel was making a wrong move in trying to go global through the acquisition route?
If you have aspirations then the domestic market is only a start, the world is your market. When Tata Steel spoke about wanting to be in the global market, I thought it was a very logical step — I am a very strong proponent for such decisions. I think India is in the take-off stage of becoming global.
How involved are you with the company as a member of the board?
I’m involved in whatever comes before the board. Tata Steel Board meetings are very lively. It’s a very transparent board. Everything is logically presented and discussed, and we come to logical conclusions. Over a period of time, one develops trust in the facts and figures presented by the management, and when you see the company going in the right direction, it becomes easy to contribute.
What is your dream for Tata Steel?
It must be among the first three steel companies in the world, not only in revenue but in technical skills and competence, as well as new product development and customer acceptance. The power to shape the world steel industry: that is my dream for Tata Steel.
What do you think is lacking?
We are too young. We haven’t had time. It’s been only 14 years since India opened its markets to the world. As far as M&As and going global is concerned, we’re only five years into the game, and I think we’ve done fantastically well.
The Corus acquisition puts Tata Steel in a different league altogether. Do you think it has bitten off more than it can chew?
I don’t think Tata Steel has bitten off more than it can chew. I’m not a
proponent of incremental growth; your aspirations should be much greater than your resources, and that is exactly what Tata Steel has done. Only when you have a problem can you find solutions. If you don’t create problems for yourself, there is no great compulsion to look for solutions.
Is there something you would like to say to the stakeholders of Tata Steel?
I think they are extraordinarily competent people. I’ve been going to
Jamshedpur since the early ’60s — mostly as a customer but sometimes as a supplier to Tata Motors — and I’ve seen many managements. I’ve always admired the way Tata Steel runs its plants at Jamshedpur; the way they manage the townships. There is a lot of deep-rooted Indian-ness in Tata Steel that is extraordinarily good.
The management has indigenously evolved its competencies — in
marketing, steel making, repair, etc. I have a lot of respect for its technical abilities and productivity and its other competencies in running a township, schools and medical facilities, among other things. The company has a lot of disciplined and capable people and an array of skills which normal companies do not have.
Tata Steel’s balance of giving back to society is fantastic. I’m a great believer in giving back, because the only way you can earn respect is when society perceives you as someone who gives back. No less important is the high sense of ethics and integrity. It may not give quick results, but there is a saying: “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone shall triumph.)Also see: