Twenty-one years ago, a changing of the guard at Tata Sons would have been of little significance to the UK economy.
But on December 28 this year, the retirement of Ratan Tata will impact more than 50,000 workers in the UK.
Since assuming control of the family company in 1991, Tata has transformed Tata Sons from an underperforming Indian conglomerate into a global brand and Britain’s biggest manufacturing empire.
It has bought steel maker Corus, tea maker Tetley and luxury car group Jaguar Land Rover.
“When we came there was a great deal of apprehension that we were going to close down plants, that we were going to move manufacturing to India,” says Tata during one of his final visits to Jaguar Land Rover’s offices in Gaydon, Warwickshire.
“My first statements to the company were that we were not going to do anything in terms of forcing any kind of fusion towards what we were doing in India and that we wanted Jaguar to be responsible for its own destiny.
“At first, there was almost an inability to deal with their destiny. Somebody else had done it, somebody else had handled the cash flow, somebody else had decided you would have this product, not that product.
“I think the general change that I see in JLR now is that everybody has enthusiasm about what they are doing and has confidence and faith in the direction of the company. We are not the magicians, they are the magicians.”
Feted in his native India – he was born and raised in Mumbai – Tata rarely steps into the spotlight, despite the size of his company. The understated businessman, who will be 75 on December 28, speaks slowly, carefully considering his words.
So his assertion that one of the greatest achievements of his career is driving the recovery of Jaguar Land Rover – alongside developing a small car in India, the Nano, and consolidating the Tata group in India – is not to be taken lightly.
Tata’s work with JLR led the luxury car company to post record pre-tax profits of £1.5bn in its last financial year, driven by models such as the Range Rover Evoque.
The record profits mark a far cry from the events of 2009.
Then, a year after Tata bought JLR from Ford for $2.3bn (£1.43bn), the Government refused to provide state loan guarantees so that the struggling company could refinance.
Such setbacks highlight that it has not all been plain sailing for Tata in the UK. The group has also been forced to cut thousands of jobs in its steel business after buying Corus in 2006 for $12.1bn. And Tata says that while he is “very proud” of the success at JLR, Tata Steel Europe is “going through great pain”.
He added: “We are told that it is silly to have made an investment in Corus. But the economic environment that followed – even if we were Indians, we were not astrologists.”
Tata insists that he does not regret the Corus deal and claims that the benefits of the progress the company has made will emerge once Tata feels able to invest in its steel facilities.
He does, however, have a warning about the attractiveness of the UK for investment.
“The economic situation, the high cost of undertaking manufacturing, the supply chain – which is by the way dying out also as manufacturing undergoes hardship – make the UK not the first place you would look at to make a manufacturing investment,” he says.
From the leading investor in UK manufacturing, that is a sobering assessment of the country’s hopes of rebalancing the economy.
It is also a view that Tata has impressed on David Cameron, given that the Indian businessman is a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.
“There has not been a conscious view of re-energising manufacturing,” says Tata. “So, in some form, someone has to wave the Union Jack in the area of manufacturing.”
By hiring thousands of workers at JLR and expressing admiration for the “talent and capability” of workers in the UK, Tata himself has done a good job in that respect.
However, within Tata at least, he is preparing to pass on the flag to his successor Cyrus Mistry, a construction tycoon who has a degree from Imperial College and an Irish passport.
“What I have said to Cyrus and what I have said publicly is that one of the most important things is that as a group we have built ourselves on ethics and values, and that is something that we should cherish,” says Tata.
“Other than that, I think Cyrus is going to and should be his own man in terms of what he does and how he structures the organisation. He has certain views on what to do. He is much more finance-orientated than I have been. I have been much more intuitive in that sense, it is technical excitement or something that has perhaps driven me.
“So, my advice to Cyrus, is to do the right thing as he sees it.”
Tata says he is “absolutely ready” for retirement and “looking forward it”.
Lord Bhattacharyya, an adviser to Tata who was on the panel that appointed Mr Mistry, said: “Ratan will completely leave him [Mr Mistry] to do things. He is not an interferer.”
However, Tata remains passionate about the companies he will leave behind, extolling the “great potential” of the Jaguar brand.
Next year, Jaguar will launch the F-Type, a new sports car that Tata pushed the company to develop. But he admits that at first he did not even want to buy Jaguar, only Land Rover.
“From the outside we wrongly looked at Jaguar as being a has-been company that was run-down. But instead it was like a racehorse wanting to race – it had never been given the approval to race. I think we are at a very exciting point in the life of this company.”
Tata admits that JLR also faces challenges and threats, particularly from an economic downturn and an increase in fuel prices caused by problems in the Middle East.
He also believes that JLR is still a “niche company” and must grow to a “critical mass”.
“What it will need to do is stand on its own as a pair of brands and that, I think, will be its biggest challenge,” Tata says.
To finance this future growth, sources in India have suggested that Tata could sell a stake in JLR or float it on the stock market. Tata does not rule this out.
“All of those things I think we have never said that we would not consider. But timing is an important part of that. We have nursed this company as a 100pc subsidiary and I don’t think we would be in such a great hurry to dilute ourselves. But at the same time, if it’s the right thing to do, we would consider it.”
- This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph and distributed by NewsCred SmartwireBLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS