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Q&A: Russi M Lala, Tata Group insider, chronicler

'It's a vast, complex, now global enterprise...a relief the tension is over'

Arijit Barman  |  Mumbai 

Russi M Lala, 82, celebrated chronicler of stories, has seen the top leadership for two generations very closely. He was JRD Tata’s biographer and also director of Tata’s premier foundation, the Dorabji Tata Trust, for 18 years. He spoke to Arijit Barman on the new leadership and what it means for the Group. Edited excerpts:

Finally the announcement has come. How does it feel?
It’s a relief that the tension is over. They have kept the deadline.

What do you think was the key reason behind the decision?
I had a feeling that Noel Tata would get selected. It must have been a tough one. Especially for Pallonji. Noel Tata is Pallonji Mistry’s son-in-law, while Cyrus is his youngest son. This must have played on everyone's mind as well. Ratan Tata also hinted at the fact that Noel was not experienced enough. Cyrus has been on the Tata Sons’ board, closely associated with RNT and has business experience. He’s been involved with other I guess that must have worked to his advantage. JRD was a genius of consensus. Ratan is more independent and strong-minded.

But, the Pallonji family has always been a passive shareholder?

I agree. Cyrus’ father is the largest shareholder. The combined Tata family holding in Tata Sons has been less than three per cent. I am not talking about the Trusts, where the picture is very different. But, they have always been at the background. During JRD’s lifetime, his brother, Dorab, and sister sold their shares to Pallonji Mistry. The Mistry family have been very big builders themselves. Shapoorji built the Brabourne Stadium. His son, Pallonji, took the business to the Gulf. When it came to the Tatas, they were always a support system.

And, now? The Tata name will no longer be there.
Yes, something will be missing. But the Tata family is a small one. So, there is not much left to choose from. As long as there is no dilution of the core Tata ethos of profit with principles, it should be fine. There are enough leaders in the pipeline...Ravi Kant, Ramadorai, Muthuraman. They can handle operational challenges… they are still very competent.

Cyrus himself will get a year under Mr Tata to groom. How important is that?
Oh, very important. Ratan was lucky to have JRD around. Cyrus will get Ratan for a year and also R K Krishna Kumar for two years. There are others in the Tata Sons’ boards who’re well aware and very competent. Tatas are a vast and complex enterprise. It’s now also global. So, grooming is critical.

Exactly…There was talk of even roping in a foreigner for the top job.
That would have been unwise. The ethos is Indian. You may have a global empire, with global revenues and global brands like JLR, Tetley, Corus…But, that doesn’t make take away the fact that you are an Indian company at heart and soul.

First Published: Thu, November 24 2011. 01:14 IST