“The pandemic was a time to recalibrate at a personal and professional level. For us, it was an added responsibility to take care of our employees and the communities who rely on us,” TV Narendran, CEO and MD, Tata Steel, tells Outlook Business. Under his guidance, the company revealed its heart of gold during the gravest crisis faced by humanity.
As economic activity stuttered under COVID-19, Narendran not only steered the company through it but also managed to uphold the humanitarian principles that the Tata Group is widely associated with.
In May 2021, Tata Steel announced that it would continue to pay salary, medical and housing benefits to the families of its workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 until what would have been the workers’ age of retirement. The company also pledged to bear the cost of education of the children of its deceased frontline workers till they graduate. Standing by its workers’ families at a time when they would have been hit by the double whammy of losing their family members and their earnings, too, is characteristic of an organisation with a heart and soul.
Tata Steel, however, is not just about heart and soul. The technical and innovative prowess of the company also came into play along with its humanitarian initiatives. The company’s brand Nest-in, along with its tube division and its new materials business, manufactured innovative quarantine units for the first time in India by using steel along with fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP). With design specifications and inputs from Tata Projects and Tata Consulting Engineers, Tata Steel supplied a range of modular prefabricated Completely Built Units (CBUs) to be used primarily as quarantine and isolation cabins, rest rooms, canteens and other service units within the hospitals.
Nest-In also innovated a swab collection unit that was designed to enable contactless sample collection in order to ensure the safety of the health workers involved in swab collection and testing for COVID-19.
Narendran reveals the Tata Steel way of doing business—doing the right thing and leveraging professional expertise to help the country manage a crisis where humanitarian needs trump business and the boundaries of corporate social responsibility.
2021 was a year that was marked by the deep troughs of medical despair and sharp peaks of euphoria of an economy that seems to be bouncing back. Upon being asked to share the leadership lessons that he learnt and implemented this year, Narendran says that the Board never hesitated to prioritise humanitarian needs over the needs of the business. At the same time, they always ensured that there were no unnecessary or wasteful expenditures. “As a business, we did keep an eye on the cost of our social initiatives but cost was just data, never a driver of decisions,” he adds.
Narendran harps on the importance of recognising that a corporate should have the conscience to do the right thing at the time of a crisis but also be pragmatic to recognise that the company can only support the government, not be a replacement for the welfare and crisis management initiatives of the government. “We cut our production to supply oxygen (for medical needs). When there was a requirement for tankers, we supplied them to support the Indian Air Force. The Tata Steel team, being very good at managing logistics and the supply chain, diverted its expertise towards managing the logistics for providing supplies and support to the work being done by the government,” he says.
Till mid-June 2021, Tata Steel had supplied about 61,000 tonnes of liquid oxygen to support the government when the nation was facing a grave paucity of the element that sustains life. The company had also installed an 80-bed COVID Care Centre in Jharkhand’s Bokaro and ran multiple community-based initiatives that complemented the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
Speaking about the recovery of the economy and the society as we step into the post-COVID era, Narendran says, “While things have improved a lot due to large-scale vaccinations, we all also need to remain alert and not just assume that the virus has vanished.”
Narendran also emphasised the need to build a more robust infrastructure to rebuild the economy and the society. “Regular infrastructure is a great multiplier of economic activity and medical infrastructure is required more from a long-term point of view. I think we have underspent on medical infrastructure over the years and it would be good for us to bring our focus back to that,” he opines.
Narendran shows deep empathy for the families that faced medical and money troubles during the pandemic. “Many families have lost their savings on huge medical expenses, many have lost their jobs, and as responsible corporate citizens, Tata Steel officials and management did whatever possible to reduce the human suffering,” he says. “The pandemic tested the spirit of the company; its resilience, agility, compassion and everything else,” Narendran adds.
For a company that has been a pillar of the Indian infrastructure sector and has literally provided pillars to build India, Tata Steel has stayed true to its old mantra ‘We also make Steel’ and also its new declaration—‘We also make tomorrow’.