- I owe my success to Luck
- Strength Doing the right things
- Weakness Not brutal enough
- Mentors My three great influences are Ratan Tata, Jamshed Irani and Russi Mody
- Strongest belief In my God
- Biggest setback Loss of my wife
- Sounding board Now, my daughter
- Proudest moment Holding my grandchild
- Favourite quote The Robert Frost poem: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep
- Superhero moment When I became a CA
- Best days of your life Now
- Best advice you ever got Remain humble
- What does success mean Happiness
- Best mgmt lesson learnt Be patient and take a long term view
- Favourite book War and Peace
- Describe yourself in three words What I would like to be described as: He was a good, dependable friend
I was born at a tumultuous time, just a month after India gained independence. My mother’s family, barring her sister, migrated to Pakistan, while my father’s family chose to stay back. I would often hear tales of separation as a child, like how my father’s close friend and neighbour left his home overnight. In fact, a day after he told my father, “I will see you tomorrow,” the servants came and said, “Syed saab toh Pakistan chale gaye!”
It came as a shock to my family. Suddenly the house next door turned into a place for refugees from Punjab. Despite a lot of sadness around the partition, it was a happy childhood because of my parents, who ensured that my two elder sisters and I would never feel bitter about the split.
I grew up in Patna in a very cosmopolitan neighbourhood. There were lots of children around, and even today, I am in touch with them. Many of them excelled in life, a few became ambassadors, one a famous actor, Roshan Seth, and several others reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Patna then was a cosy, comfortable town where I spent some wonderful years. We also had a large ancestral haveli at Arrah, about 45 kilometres from Patna, which we visited every Sunday.
My father, a doctor by profession, was extremely protective of me and I was pampered a lot; and being the youngest of the three, it was perhaps to be expected. I recollect that my school was not too far from where we lived, yet he would escort me to the school gate and stay there till I was out of sight. Even if I sneezed, he would get worried, to the extent that he had my tonsils removed! So, I ended up being a nazuk baccha.
I loved my father deeply, but it was my mother who was the biggest influence in my life. She made sure that I read the Koran and appointed a maulvi to come home daily and teach the scriptures to my sisters and me. I was seven when I read the Koran for the first time. In fact, after I became an adult, she would keep asking me “Have you paid your zakaat?” And I would sheepishly reply, “No, but I have paid my income tax!” Funnily, an enduring memory that I have about my mother is related to her absent-mindedness. She was constantly misplacing her spectacles, and once, after searching every nook and corner of the house, we found them in the refrigerator!
My mother also had a flair for poetry — right from ghazals to qawwalis. She loved bait-bazi, which is similar to antakshari but played with Urdu poetry. She would often take me to mushairas but I never appreciated ghazals; though I loved qawwalis.
I lost my father when I was 15, and my mother was just 42 then. She showed remarkable poise and courage while raising the three of us. Since my father belonged to a family of zamindaars and owned substantial properties in Arrah town as well, we had a real estate department to deal with the tenants who were largely shopkeepers and traders. Since the rent from the estate was the main source of income then, she would also get tough with those who would not pay. She was immensely respected in Patna and was commonly referred to as Begum Saheb.
Since she was the daughter of a politician, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, a senior leader of the Muslim League, she was under great pressure to enter politics to look after the interest of Muslims, especially that of women. But she refrained from doing so and maintained, “Meri izzat nahi rahegi agar mein isme (politics) utar aaoon toh”. She lived on her own terms till her last breath.
I really grew up from a boy to a man under my mother’s tutelage. She encouraged me to be ambitious and would often say “Padhoge, likhoge toh banoge nawab, kheloge, kudoge toh banoge kharab”. I was quite a mama’s boy when I was a child and she would later tell me that she couldn’t have ever imagined that a child who wouldn’t let go of her coat tails would become so independent. Even when I lost my wife, my mother was a pillar of strength for my daughter and me. In fact, I strongly believe that we are shaped more by our mothers than our fathers.
I went to Doon school when I was 11 years old. At my school in Patna, I was in class III, but in Doon, I was admitted into class V after giving an entrance test. This relocation together with the loss of the warmth and security of home, which I subconsciously missed, may have held me back from realising my true potential in my early years at Doon.
In fact, just a decade ago I was cleaning up our Patna house, when I stumbled upon the correspondence from the school to my parents. Many of my progress reports had remarks from the headmaster, John Martin, which read, “Ishaat has tremendous potential but it is not being realised”. Besides Mr Martin, there were many other outstanding teachers at Doon, but the two who left the greatest impression on me were Mr Gurdial Singh, my geography teacher, and an accomplished mountaineer and well-known mathematician, Mr OP Malhotra. Some of my batchmates at Doon became well-known politicians such as Sanjay Gandhi, Kamal Nath and Naveen Patnaik. However, my best friend in school was Kobad Ghandy, who was at the other end of the political spectrum — a leader of the Maoist movement. My dear friend has been languishing in jail now for perhaps over a decade. It pains me that I am helpless to do anything for him. At Doon, the motto is to be part of the aristocracy of service and not one of wealth, privilege or position. It was about being the best in whatever you do. The emphasis was on doing the right thing, and that learning has been the guiding principle in my professional journey as well.
At St Stephen’s, I pursued economics as I was always inclined towards mathematics and science. In retrospect, I am disappointed at my attainments in college. I was more an observer than a participant. I would go to debates, but not participate in them. I would attend a play but not act in it. During college politics, I would campaign but nothing more than that. Again, it was a certain lack of confidence, which I eventually overcame when I went to England.
I had considered engineering as a career seriously but did not get guidance in pursuing it. Then I thought of joining the IAS, but opted for chartered accountancy as I had a way with numbers.
I was partly influenced by Kobad’s father, who was the finance director of Glaxo. As things turned out, I think it was a good decision, as many of my bright friends, at the end of their tenure in the civil services, became a frustrated lot!
After my BA, I did one year of articleship at AF Ferguson & Co in Bombay. But a lot of my classmates had gone to the UK to do CA and were goading me to join them. At Ferguson, I met Keki Dadiseth, whose constant nagging of “don’t waste your time here, go to London” persuaded me to take the plunge to set sail.
I was 21 when I got a break to go to the UK, and boy, was it a huge culture shock. Moving out from a fairly conservative household — where we were told “namaz padho, roza rakho, stay within the limits” — to find a carefree society, was really a gulf too far. On my first day in London, I had to meet someone at the tube station. There were girls in minis, young couples walking arm in arm, it seemed like a pleasant dream! It was such an open society, and here I was, a teetotaller who didn’t drink or smoke, but all that changed.
Back then, there were no emails, and making calls to India was difficult and expensive. Initially, I wrote to mum once a week, which became once in two weeks, then once in three weeks and eventually, almost non-existent! My flatmates in London were my friends from college and we had a good connect with each other’s parents. So, I would get a letter from my friend’s mother asking, “How is my son?” and my friend would get a letter from mum asking the same question!
Life was quite difficult in the first two years. One had to live on 10 shillings a day, and wash one’s own clothes and cook. But what made it all bearable was the fact that London was an exciting place and it was the centre of the world in the ’60s. The Beatles’ studio was bang opposite my place of work on Old Burlington Street. That’s around the time when the band was recording the all-time classic ‘Get Back’. Though I used to see John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I wasn’t really an obsessed fan rushing for autographs. But I loved their music.
The first tipple I ever had was in May 1969. It was at a farewell of a friend of my roommate and I got dead drunk — mixing beer with whisky. I was so knocked out that I had to be carried home, which I didn’t remember, and woke up a good 12 hours later. After that I swore that I would never ever get drunk again!
While weekdays meant a lot of hard work, weekends were fun. I used to play soccer at Holland Park and went to movies in the evenings. But the crowning glory for me was when I cleared my final CA exams in 1973. I still remember the date: January 29, 1973, when the results were announced. After spending a sleepless night, I anxiously watched as the postman walked up to the door. He was on time – 7 am sharp. If you received a thin envelope, it meant you had failed, since it would be just a curt letter informing you “had failed to satisfy the examiners”. But if you had made the grade, then the letter would be a meaty one with lots of forms to be filled out for membership of the institute. When I got my envelope, it was a fat one, and indeed, it was the most memorable moment of my life. I was over the moon and the first person I wanted to share this news with was my mother. Since getting through to Patna was impossible, I got through to my sister in Mumbai and asked her to inform my mother that I had made it. Then we had an over-the-top celebration. I also got a huge bump in my salary — from 1,200 pounds to 2,500 pounds per annum. After a couple of years, I decided to come back to India even as my friends kept telling me that I was making a big blunder. I wanted to be with my family, and at heart, I was a desi. I have never regretted my decision.
I believe that my stint in the UK built my tenacity. Working in a foreign land, visiting and talking to clients on sensitive, and sometimes controversial issues, sharpens one’s communication and inter-personal skills immensely. In fact, a multi-cultural society in India provides this experience and I believe the success of Indian managers in global companies is partly because of this skill that we develop. One did experience racism. When we went to pubs, we would hear snide remarks such as: “Here come the Pakis”. But such instances only taught me that I shouldn’t harbour prejudice and hatred about people from different races, and I loathe those who do.
Back in India, I joined Imperial Chemical Industries Group at its CAFI (Chemicals and Fibres of India) unit in Mumbai as a financial accountant, which also involved a lot of administrative work. As a frontline manager, my job entailed working and managing dozens of unionised staff and it was a great experience in people management.
In the UK, at my audit firm, Wood & Company, I had learnt a lot from one of the senior partners, Norman Civval. He taught me how to handle complicated situations and he was a fine example of tactfulness. Before one dives into strategy and other exotic disciplines of management, one has to learn how to handle people. Incidentally, when I went for an advanced management programme at the Harvard Business School, based on my aptitude and personality test, I was told that I fitted the bill of a diplomat more than that of an accountant. Even when I was leaving St Stephen’s, my guide Balbir Singh said, “Ishaat, yeh accountancy mediocre cheez hai, try the foreign services, you are cut out for it.”
A few years later, I was transferred to Calcutta. It was a challenging job, where I was working with the finance director, making notes and papers that had to be sent to London, seeking and collating data from the five group companies. While I met some fantastic and intellectually first-rate people, I could sense that the organisation was fast turning into a self-serving bureaucracy. It’s a phenomenon that we are seeing now in General Electric, which was once an iconic conglomerate.
I moved out of ICI in 1981, after I realised that the company was in terminal decline. One of my former bosses, Nicky Roy, had joined Indian Oxygen, whose chairman was Russi Mody. He told me that Russi was looking for youngsters to transform Tata Iron and Steel (TISCO). “Meet the guy, but I must tell you, he’s quite a maverick,” he warned me lightly. I was asked to be at Russi’s office by 2.30 pm sharp. When I entered his room, he asked, “What have you come for?” I replied, “Nicky wanted me to meet you…” He said, “Oh yeah, but why are you wearing a suit and tie. Take off your jacket and tie. Come sit.” It wasn’t an interview but a long conversation that went on till 5:30 pm! We spoke about everything under the sun. I learnt that he knew my father-in-law very well. He didn’t ask me about my academic credentials or work, but spoke about cricket, and even arcane things like where we would like to be buried after dying! By 5:30 pm, I knew the job was mine. As we drew to a close, Russi said, “Okay, you have taken a lot of my time, and I have two job offers for you. One is to be the number two man in the accounts department of TISCO and the other is the financial director of Indian Tube Company.”
I went back home ecstatic. I was 32 then, and clear that taking over as the finance director’s job was much better than being number two in the accounts department in Jamshedpur. Two weeks later I went to Russi’s office, on a hot April afternoon, when he was chatting with two ladies, one of them being Sharmila Tagore. Instead of asking me to wait, he said, “Come, join us.” The four of us chatted for an hour, after which Russi said, “Okay, girls please go out, I have to talk to this young man!” After they had left, he turned to me and said, “Obviously you are interested aren’t you, and I also know what you want… the director’s job, isn’t it?” I was sheepish, but before I could say anything, he went on, “All you young fellas want to be on the board like a director. That’s good.”
Without skipping a beat, he said that I’d have to meet the managing director of the company, since operationally, I’d report to him even though Russi was the chairman. After I got on board, Russi told me that he was planning to merge India Tube with TISCO, and added, “If you prove yourself, I will make you the finance director of TISCO in seven years.”
Working with Russi was like a crash course in management without going to B-School. He taught me that any decision that a management makes has to be seen in the context of the persons it will affect. “Be humane” was his underlying philosophy, and that approach became my guiding principle whenever I had to deal with situations, particularly those, which involved letting people go. In the ensuing years, I oversaw about five closures, involving over 5,000 workers, but in each case, the closures were made with minimum dislocation or strikes.
My years with Russi could be a book by itself, as so many instances are etched in my mind. Most seemed quirky, at first, but turned out to be great people-management tools. He had a great sense of humour and knew how to diffuse a tense situation. In 1982, there was a recession in the steel industry and it had hit TISCO as well. A good percentage of TISCO’s hot-rolled coils would be sent to Indian Tube for rolling into tubes. At one point, it accounted for 10% of TISCO’s turnover. But during that period, Indian Tube, too, was seeing a slowdown and, hence, was cutting back on production. As a result, we weren’t taking any steel from TISCO. Since steel is such a business that you’ve got to keep producing, this situation was problematic. So, Russi convened a meeting where we were told that we had to lift supplies whether we liked it or not. Being the finance director, I argued that in that case, we needed credit. Aditya Kashyap, who used to be executive assistant to Russi, said that Bombay House wouldn’t like that. Russi by this stage was terribly agitated and as tempers rose, he suddenly turned to the MD and said, “How long have you been working for me?” “Far too long,” replied Ramesh Bhasin. “So, when I am in a bad mood, what cools me down?” he asked. A flustered Ramesh replied, “Food…” Then Russi said, “So, where’s the food? Get me those lovely nimkis and vadas urgently.” Suddenly the tense atmosphere transformed and all of us started talking about other things.
Russi took the same approach with trade unions as well — things would hit the ceiling, and then suddenly with his wit and smile, he would calm everything down.
One instance was when TISCO had taken over the bearings division of Metal Box at Kharagpur, which was later merged with the company. A year later, after I became the director of accounts, I informed Russi that we were losing money in the bearings business, and very soon Bombay House was going to start asking questions. “Please have a meeting and pull up the people responsible for this,” I advised Russi. He agreed to the idea. I was expecting some fireworks, instead Russi began the meeting by asking the general manager of the division: “Ghosh, how are you? I haven’t seen you for a long time, how are things at Kharagpur?” He replied, “Sir, things are not too good.” Instead of dwelling on that, Russi asked him about his family, the welfare of his colleague and of the workers. Ghosh told him that the living conditions were not too great. Russi turned to me and said, “Ishaat, we have to construct proper living quarters.” Then he went on to ask Ghosh why things weren’t great at the division, and when he referred to the challenges, Russi seemed to agree, “Yeah I know it is tough, but see what can be done. Okay, thanks a lot.” That was the end of the meeting, in 15 minutes flat!
After they left, looking at my flummoxed expression, Russi said, “Young man, I have uprooted these people from their cushy jobs at TISCO. I have not met them in a year, and you think I will come into this meeting and start blasting them? I had to know what was going on.” That thoughtfulness even in a challenging business situation was a big lesson for me, and an eye opener about how one should conduct oneself. Though in the follow up meetings he did get Ghosh and his team to pull up their socks, it never got personal. I believe people skills cannot be taught, as it has to come from the heart.
Russi believed in on-the-job training. He would take young trainees as EAs who would sit in all his meetings, including the confidential ones. They would follow the discussions, take notes, and most importantly, observe how meetings should be conducted. This was invaluable experience for a youngster and gave Russi a chance to assess the trainees’ potential. Many successful Tata executives, including Sujit Gupta, who was the head of Delhi office of the Tatas, and KC Mehra, who rose to become the deputy MD of Tata Steel and later the MD of Forbes Gokak, came through this route and were jokingly called members of the Mody Administrative Service (MAS)!
Call it fate, but as it turned out, Indian Tube, eventually, got merged with Tata Steel, and guess what, I became the number two man in the accounts department of steel — a position he had first offered me! Such instances in my life have led me to believe that no matter how hard you try, it’s all destined.
Though I lived in Calcutta, every Monday I would travel to Jamshedpur, and at 36, I was the number two there. I would return home on Friday evenings. Interestingly, my boss, RS Kashyap, was a 57-year-old gentleman, who was nice to me but was a typical old school accountant, who kept everything to himself. He would never share his work or delegate. That left me with a lot of time and I used this opportunity to re-educate myself in finance, taxation and law.
It was also the time when Russi was on an acquisition spree. My boss had no interest in all that, and so, I became the de-facto finance director of these three companies Kumardhubi Engineering Works, Davy Ashmore India and Metal Box (bearings division). I was able to apply all the knowledge I had been brushing up on to this new role that I found myself in. However, nine months after I had moved to Tata Steel, unfortunately my boss suffered a heart attack and took premature retirement, and I became director of accounts in 1984 with 2,200 people under my command. It was an over-whelming experience.
The job specifications of the director of accounts at Jamshedpur, right up to the beginning of the 21st century, was one of the most complex jobs to hold in the country, in its size and scope. Apart from accounting at the steel plant, it covered the accounting for mining operations and power plants, accounting for the town of Jamshedpur and finally, for the hospital. Each is a specialisation in itself, in addition, all despatches of steel were the responsibility of the DOA as all the weighbridges came under him! Finally, the time offices in Jamshedpur, which recorded the attendance of workers, reported to the DOA as well. All this was at a time when there was little computerisation. Six months into the job, I told Russi and Jamshed Irani that in the absence of transformational computerisation, the present system was in danger of an imminent collapse. A decision was taken to junk the Burroughs 6800 mainframe, which had become obsolete and was to be replaced by a powerful new IBM computer. Over the years, Tata Steel has developed an outstanding digital spine. I understand that the head of accounts no longer carries the responsibility of the weighbridges and time keeping. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that his job continues to be a challenging one. It bears mentioning here that despite an archaic system, Jamshedpur would submit its accounts to head office in Mumbai by third week of the month. I recollect JRD pulling my leg by telling me that his friend David Rockefeller received his financial statements of the Chase Manhattan Bank within five days of the closing of the month. I wished JRD had lived to see the day when Jamshedpur accounts reached Bombay within five working days of the month as they do now.
I need to mention here that computerisation led to a very substantial downsizing of the accounts department. Again, chance played a role here. Many of the office-bearers of the Tata Workers’ Union came from Arrah district and were aware of my family’s credentials. They felt that I was one of them and were proud of my position as the director of accounts. They used to tell me, “Saaheb aap toh hamare hi hain, aap se kya jhagda karna.” They gave me unstinted support in reducing the manpower, but of course, this was only possible because of the overall cordial relations between the management and unions.
There used to be a hotline between Jamshedpur and Bombay House. So, one day in 1987, Russi called me to his office, got on to the line and said, “Get me JRD.” I asked him if he wanted me to go out, he replied, “No”. And after a few pleasantries, Russi said on the call, “You know Ishaat. We make him the finance director after Kassem Patel retires.” I was pleasantly surprised and in 1989, I came to Bombay House. It was also the period when India was changing its contours and about to embrace liberalisation.
I worked with Ratan Tata very closely when he became the chairman of Tata Steel in 1993. Though the transition from Russi to Ratan saw an unseemly tussle between them, the good thing was that we were never involved in such matters. While one had to be cautious and sensitive, there wasn’t animosity on a day-to-day basis. In fact, Ratan had the greatest respect and regard for Russi. If one were to ask Ratan today, I’m sure he would say that Russi’s management capabilities were exceptional. But we all make misjudgements and I believe Russi’s abrupt departure was on account of one such misjudgement on his part.
Reflecting on my years at Tata Steel, two events stand out in my memory. The first one is when liberalisation swept through the shores in 1991; duty on steel was brought down to 5-10% from 60%. Suddenly, Indian steel had to compete with imported steel. Tata Steel’s facilities were largely old and obsolete. On the other hand, steel prices were decontrolled. My colleague, R Sankaran, in Jamshedpur prepared a forecast for the financial year 1993-94, which was alarming. He called me on the hotline and informed me, “Boss, we are in deep trouble.” In addition, the working capital situation turned dramatically adverse, as earlier we used to collect cash in advance before we sold steel, but now, everyone was asking for credit. I went to Ratan and informed him about the existential crisis that TISCO was facing. He immediately rang up Jamshed Irani to brief him of the situation and asked him to come to Bombay urgently with his senior colleagues. Soon, a meeting of the top management of TISCO was held in Bombay and two taskforces were set up — one to cut costs and the other to maximise revenues. As a result, a dramatic turnaround was achieved, and we completed the fiscal year with a reasonable profit of Rs 1.2 billion. This was a classic case of determined leadership and outstanding teamwork. It exemplified the spirit of Tata Steel.
The second major event was the acquisition of Corus. Much has been written and commented upon about the merits and demerits of the acquisition, largely with the benefit of hindsight. I am very clear that it was a bold and correct decision at that point of time. Tata Steel’s debt position was comfortable and it had additional debt capacity. The debt taken for the buyout did not cross any dangerous threshold. It also needs to be remembered, that Tata Steel was in danger of becoming marginalised, as it was merely a three million tonne steel producer. Arcelor had already reached a capacity of almost 100 MT and even the newer Indian private sector players had caught up. Tata Steel’s efforts to build a new plant had run into problems around land acquisition, thus a sizeable acquisition became a strategic imperative. It is against this background that the Corus deal has to be viewed. While a careful risk assessment had been done, however, a black swan event occurred — the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, starting with the Corus buyout, its subsequent expansion and acquisition in India, Tata Steel, today, has once again emerged as a serious global steel player.
Undoubtedly for me, the landmark event of my career was the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) IPO in 2004, which was a difficult decision to make. The debate about the listing had been going on for more than a decade, even much before I had joined Tata Sons. The dilemma facing Tata Sons was that how would it fund itself if it did not have unfettered access to the cash of TCS once it became a separately listed company. It took some effort to convince the board that even after listing TCS, Tata Sons would continue to hold 80% of the company. Also, given the high level of free cash flow that TCS was generating by following a reasonably high but prudent dividend policy, Tata Sons would be able to get sufficient funds for its requirements. In addition, Tata Sons would have a huge liquid monetisable asset, which it could cash in on without significant dilution. History has shown that the listing of TCS was again a game-changer for Tata Sons and the group as a whole.
Once the board agreed to take TCS public, the process of the IPO involved solving some interesting technical issues, particularly in the area of taxation. Moreover, there was a concern that what would happen if Tata Sons didn’t get the right price for its shares, because the demerger of TCS from Tata Sons was an irreversible process. Here again, a most unprecedented structure was put in place, which made the pricing of the IPO a condition precedent for the demerger. In other words, if Tata Sons was not satisfied with the discovered price, TCS would continue to be a division of Tata Sons. I recollect several interesting interactions in the run-up to the IPO and one particular instance that comes to my mind was when I personally approached the then IT minister Pramod Mahajan, who picked up the phone and spoke to the then finance minister Yashwant Sinha, explaining the importance of making certain valid amendments to the I-T Act so that Indian companies could carry tax efficient ways of restructuring their businesses to access the capital market. The entire IPO effort was an exhilarating experience and at the time of listing of TCS on the Bombay Stock Exchange, I said that the opportunity I got of leading the team for the groundbreaking listing was perhaps a reward for the good karma of my past life.
While I enjoyed heading the finance function of the group, I preferred the cut and thrust of general management. While I never was a CEO — since I lacked one of the attributes of being ruthless, bordering on brutality — I do believe, in all humility, that I did justice to my role as chairman of several Tata companies.
The journey at Voltas and Tata Sky is something that’s close to my heart, especially Tata Sky, a business that I nurtured from day one till I retired in 2017. Today, it’s arguably the leading direct-to-home (DTH) player.
At Voltas, when I took over the chairmanship from AH Tobaccowala in 2002, it was a Rs 2 billion market cap company. It had the HVAC business, the MEP business in the Middle East, the textile machinery business, acting as sole selling agent for Lakshmi Machine Works, Voltas was also making room ACs and did contract manufacturing of refrigerators at its Hyderabad factory. After Voltas had sold the white goods business (refrigerator, washing machine, dishwasher) to Whirlpool in 1996, the Hyderabad unit was left out of the buyout, as it was unviable. The big challenge now for Voltas was to shut down the facility, which had around 2,000 employees, as it needed cash. The union leader at the facility was the formidable Janardhan Reddy, with a reputation of being brutal. The HR head arranged a meeting between Reddy and me. At the meeting, he sat wide legged eating paan, so I, too, sat in a similar posture, and asked for a cigarette (though I am a non-smoker) and feigned to smoke.
I learnt all this posturing from Russi, who said negotiations are all about play-acting. Reddy took a tough stance, but I put my foot down and we couldn’t come to an agreement. The unit was shut for a few months, but Reddy realised that Voltas was not buckling. He was bargaining for a severance package, which Voltas just could not afford. Here’s where luck struck again. Chandrashekhar Reddy became the CM of Andhra Pradesh and he disliked Janardhan since he, too, had vied for the CM’s position. Ashok Soni, the Voltas MD, met Janardhan in the presence of the CM who ruled that the Voltas offer was very fair, and permitted the closure of the unit.
After the closure, Voltas was painstakingly built with the room AC business becoming the growth engine. After a couple of years of handsome profits in the MEP business in the Middle East, we went through a difficult few years in Qatar and Dubai. Mercifully, we got through the difficult period on the back of a stellar performance from the room AC business. I must give credit here to Noel Tata, who had joined the board as a director, and had said: “Ishaat, do anything but we will not give up the AC business, this is a huge market. Everybody wants an AC.” He was instrumental in persuading the board to pursue with the room AC business as it, too, was a candidate for divestiture. As they say, the rest is history — when I retired from Voltas in 2017, it was gratifying that its market cap was Rs 170 billion.
One of the great regrets of my career was the inability of the group to make a success of the telecom business, which floundered right from the start, primarily because of an inconsistent regulatory environment. Ratan was distraught at the unfair competition as the incumbents were manipulating the rules of the game. We burnt a lot of cash, and, finally, had to pull the plug.
There were also some unpleasant episodes that I had to deal with. The most difficult one was the Tata Finance fraud, orchestrated by Dilip Pendse, who was a ‘grace-and-favour’ manager. What came to light later was that he was a great punter in the stock market. Prior to this episode, when he had showed up at my office one day, I had asked him: “Dilip thode paise hai, yaar kya karein.” He immediately said, “Lao, cheque kaato.” I wrote a cheque and gave it to him. What I didn’t realise was that he was playing the market. If he made a loss, he would pass it on to a subsidiary of Tata Finance, which he was funding through the parent. At the end of the year, entries would be passed, and it would be reversed in the beginning of the following year — a classic case of window dressing. So, there was a huge borrowing in the subsidiary, which the board failed to pick up, although it was very obvious. In fact, when the news broke out in the press, Dilip called me from Dubai telling me that he was being framed by certain vested interests. I unknowingly, too, said, “I understand.” But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
I had never seen Ratan as angry as he was when he confronted Dilip and sought an explanation. At the end of the meeting, Dilip said, “Sir, just give me Rs 3 billion and I will settle this,” That was it. Ratan just lost it and yelled at him: “How dare you! How dare you even make this proposition to me!” After he left, Ratan turned to me and said, “We must do whatever we have to” and I knew what that meant. We immediately announced that Tata Sons would stand behind all the liabilities of Tata Finance. Secondly, there would be no cover-up to save anybody. I was sorry to see Dilip go to jail and, eventually, the case ending on a tragic note.
Then, of course, the controversy around Cyrus Mistry’s exit. My own role in this has perplexed many — while on the one hand, I abstained at the board meeting on the resolution which sought Cyrus’ removal, on the other hand, I was the Tata spokesperson at the AGMs of some of the group companies which sought his removal as chairman of those companies. Incidentally, Cyrus withdrew his objections from all companies, other than TCS where a vote took place. The fact of the matter is that the issues involved in the two cases were very different and each needed a different response, based on one’s understanding of the position in each case, free from any agenda or bias. In both cases, just like Arjuna in Mahabharata, I was doing my dharma.
Over the years, there have been many learnings, but there are two that I would like to dwell upon. For me, leadership is an enormous responsibility with a huge duty to care for those for whom one is responsible. Leadership also requires the leader to make personal sacrifices when required, therefore, before one accepts a leadership position, one must seriously consider whether one is ready to accept the challenges that go with it.
In the modern era, a leader cannot afford to be individualistic and egoistic. He must have an abundance of emotional quotient and empathy. In other words, he must be ready to accept the concept of shared leadership. The day of the superman CEO is over. At Bombay House, I’ve seen quite a few CEO successions and I always felt that looking for a ‘superman’ is fraught with danger. You have to look for a leader who believes in collective leadership and, therefore, is instrumental in building a good team.
Having talked about leadership, in today’s times, it’s sad to see the rampant rise of unethical behaviour in general and also in boardrooms. The behaviour of an organisation is set by the “tone at the top”. I believe there is an imperative need for all of us to reflect on our behaviour and whether we are acting with a clear conscience. That’s is what dharma is all about.