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Lunch with BS: Mukund Rajan

Tata brand custodian and chief ethics officer, Tata Sons, on how he is setting about fulfilling his mandate to make the Tata brand touch a quarter of the world's population by 2025

Surajeet Das Gupta 

Mukund Rajan

It does not take rocket science to figure out where Mukund Rajan prefers to lunch in Delhi. A 20-year company man since starting out as a Tata Administrative Services officer, it had to be someplace in the Tata hotel chain. Varq, the Indian restaurant at the Taj Mahal Hotel (Mansingh Road) has not been able to scale the culinary heights of Maurya's Bukhara. It happened to be the second time I was hosting someone there for Lunch with BS, the previous occasion was with PepsiCo India's boss D Shivakumar, another vegetarian.

I first met Rajan years ago to help him with a television interview. Tough questions on the telecom sector were being thrown at him as part of a training session, and he had to answer without losing his cool. Rajan was then handling the telecom business in Ratan Tata's office. As we warm up, I ask him about changes in the group over the two decades and what it means to work with Ratan Tata.

As an executive assistant in Ratan Tata's office for over a decade, Rajan has had a bird's-eye view of the group's businesses as well as its culture. It is no surprise Cyrus Mistry appointed this soft-spoken Chennai-born Rhodes scholar as brand custodian and chief ethics officer and spokesperson for the group, with a membership of the elite group executive council of Tata Sons.

Rajan says he missed the initial years of dramatic change in the country. When he first went to study at Oxford, his friends and family would give him a list of things - from Walkman sets to Nike shoes - to bring back. By the time he returned with a D Phil degree in International Relations, these were all available in India. The Ambassador and Maruti were competing against international car makers. He decided to join the party, understand the changes taking place in the world, and if things did not quite work out, go back to teaching. Nervous during his first interview with Ratan Tata, Rajan confessed he did not possess an MBA. Ratan Tata told him simply that in business you don't need an MBA, just a lot of common sense.

Mukund Rajan
The steward arrives and we order drinks - fresh lime soda for me and orange juice for Rajan. So how did the Tata Group respond to liberalisation in the 1990s? He says Ratan Tata, swimming against "Bombay Club" thinking, welcomed foreign competition. The group tried to give itself a new competitive culture through the Tata Business Excellence Model, loosely adapted from the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the US' answer to the Japanese quality onslaught in the 1980s. This helped companies such as Tata Steel and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) embark on a journey that has stood the group in good stead. Of course, there were tough decisions to take, such as reducing the employee strength in Tata Steel dramatically through voluntary retirement.

The drinks are served and I ask Rajan how his former boss saw the dotcom boom.

Rajan has an interesting anecdote. A senior finance executive once sent a note to the Tata leadership team saying that Amazon was valued more than the US steel industry. The executive pointed out if the same valuation matrix was used and TCS, then a division of Tata Sons, were to list, every other Tata company could delist. But Ratan Tata said that would mean exploiting a temporary phase, and it would mean letting down shareholders who had huge expectations. Ratan Tata let the opportunity pass, the dotcom bust happened, and TCS listed in 2004 at a handsome premium.

The Tata Group benefitted from the bust - it bought Tyco Global, a submarine cable network, cheap. In fact, Rajan says, many of the business plans drawn up in 2001-03 are relevant today, such as its blueprint for e-commerce.

We order the main course: I go for the non-vegetarian thali with chicken. Rajan, not a fussy eater, settles for the vegetarian offering with mushrooms. Alongside, we both order dal tadka and naan.

It is time to ask Rajan how he is going about making "Tata" a global brand. Mistry has set him an ambitious agenda: the Tata brand name should touch a quarter of the world's population, and it should become the 25th most admired brand in the world by 2025. He admits it is tough. Tetley reaches only tens of millions of people abroad and within India, Tata Salt reaches 400 million people. Rajan says the big task is to build the Tata brand overseas. Armed with market research, inputs from reputation advisory firms and stakeholder feedback, Rajan has whittled it down to three messaging corridors.

One, the Tata Group is a global entity. Despite being of Indian origin, a third of its workforce is not Indian and 70 per cent of its turnover is generated outside the country. Two, like in India, Tata is a trusted brand that has built its reputation over 140 years and is inherently committed to business excellence, product and service improvement, and ethical conduct. Three, the group is a good citizen. It might sound like a cliche, says Rajan, but this is becoming increasingly important, as scepticism grows around big businesses after the 2008 banking crisis and, before that, by scandals in firms such as Enron.

The food is served and we have to be quick because Rajan has another appointment. The chicken is passe, and the dal tastes like it is home-made. Rajan says the initial markets for building the Tata brand are also the two largest markets for the group, the US and UK. Apart from advertising, the group will associate with thought leadership, sports and interesting properties. This year, Tata Ltd was the lead sponsor of the Hay Festival in the UK, one of the world's largest literary and creative arts fêtes. Where does the money come from? Partly from Tata Sons - it earns Rs 450 crore from companies using the Tata brand - and partly from group companies.

The steward asks if we need more rotis, we decline. Rajan is nibbling on a mushroom. As chief ethics officer, is he making any changes? Yes, he is refreshing the code of conduct - it was changed in 2008 to reflect the group's international face. In some European countries, there is a negative connotation attached to whistle-blowers, he adds, a legacy from the contempt for Nazi collaborators during World War II.

We skip dessert. Lunch over, Rajan rues he cannot play badminton more often - he represented his college - but last year he fulfilled a dream to play a game with Prakash Padukone at the Tata Open. He "spot jogs" for 20 minutes, even though his family thinks it is weird. A movie buff, he sometimes catches a show with his brother, Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan. He has also switched from novels to biographies, and is just finishing one on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk he picked up on a rare holiday to Istanbul.

As we say goodbye, I ask whether the Nano story is over. The last word, says the company man, has still not been said.

First Published: Fri, December 19 2014. 22:32 IST