[YS Exclusive] Inside the home and heart of Ratan Tata, the man behind one of India’s oldest business empires
On a rather chilly November morning, I step out to catch an early morning flight to Mumbai. The cold does nothing to dampen my mood. On the contrary, the crispness of the morning air adds to the spring in my step.
It heightens my enthusiasm for the morning ahead, with its promise of a long-awaited opportunity to interview Mr. Ratan Naval Tata, the Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons and Chairman of the Tata Trusts.
I had interviewed Mr. Ratan Tata a few years ago. Four to be exact. At the time, Mr. Tata had given me a rare glimpse into the brilliant yet intensely humble and compassionate person he is.
Still, with today’s meeting, I would be among the fortunate few to have had the chance to interview Mr. Tata – not just once, but twice.
Somehow, this time, it felt more special. More personal. More unique.
This time, the interview is to take place at the home of the 81-year-old doyen of the Tata group – one of India’s most influential business leaders who has largely eschewed the public eye for the most part of his life.
That’s why I found myself feeling very grateful for being allowed inside his home and into his personal space.
Once inside Mr. Ratan Tata’s imposing white house facing the Arabian Sea, I am struck by the simplicity and the quiet grandeur of the place.
I take in the white-painted walls of the house and wonder if Mr. Tata is aware that white walls are referred to as ‘Instagram gold;’ that it’s a taste he has in common with millennials and today’s social media influencers.
Strikingly, the white-painted walls of Mr. Tata’s house lend an old-world charm to the surroundings. As does the sound of the waves crashing onto the sea wall.
I look out of his drawing-room, with its minimalist interiors and polished furniture, and the sight of the blue water of the Arabian Sea adds to the grandness of this moment.
Outside, I see a swimming pool – a well-maintained but well-used pool – and I wonder aloud whether Mr. Tata swims. His aide corrects me. The pool is for Mr. Tata’s pet dogs, he tells me. Mr. Tata’s love for dogs is well known, and as a pet owner myself, I feel a tinge of jealousy or perhaps, regret, at not having afforded my dogs such a luxury.
Still, other than this, there are no obvious, loud displays of grandeur around the house. Just an overpowering sense of simplicity and style that lends way to a quiet and dignified splendor.
I’m still taking in my surroundings, when Mr. Ratan Tata enters the drawing-room, adding to that old-world charm about the place. Clad in a simple, clean white shirt and khaki-colored pants, Mr. Tata greets me in his classic dignified, quiet manner.
There’s an unmistakable humility and kindness about Mr. Ratan Tata that is immediately apparent on meeting him. Indeed, his quiet dignity and authenticity have now become the very hallmarks that the Tata scion is known by.
As I sit across from him at his drawing-room, I waste no time in getting down to the heart of the matter. I ask him: what is that one quality that he thinks defines him?
He ponders and offers a profoundly honest and poignant answer.
“It's difficult for me to say, except that I have tried to treat all people equally,” Mr. Tata says, speaking slowly and deliberately, as if searching for just the right words to articulate his feeling.
“Whether it’s a poor person on the street or a kid selling magazines as against a millionaire or a billionaire, I talk to them and treat them all the same way. I'm aware that I do that, and I do that not for show, but because of the feeling that I think everyone deserves recognition as a human being,” he adds.
There’s a purpose and an emphasis with which he utters every word. In truth, I can almost hear the question in his voice – the one that plagues every compassionate, empathetic, and concerned soul: shouldn’t all people be treated equally? Doesn’t everyone deserve an equal opportunity in life?
He allows himself a moment of silence, allowing the depth of his words to sink in, before elaborating further.
“Some people excel in seeing or causing misery. I get euphoric in seeing somebody's happiness,” he tells me.
“Even if it's a person selling vegetables on the side of the road, if there's humour or happiness on their faces, that makes me happy,” he adds.
It is this extremely humane and compassionate side of him that reveals itself several times during our hour-long conversation. As does his strong set of moral values and ethics system that, he professes, has guided him ever since he was a boy.
“I owe a great deal to my grandmother who brought up my brother and me. She instilled in us what she considered to be proper. And I think that has had a very profound influence on me and my value systems,” Mr. Ratan Tata tells me.
Mr. Tata has spoken fondly about his grandmother, Lady Navajbai Tata, in several interviews, revealing the inspiration she has been for him. Both Mr. Tata and his younger brother, Jimmy, were brought up by their grandmother in a baroque manor called Tata Palace in Mumbai, then Bombay.
Doing the right thing
A formidable matriarch, Lady Navajbai inculcated a strong set of values in her grandchildren – values that Mr. Tata has imbibed throughout his life and now seeks to instill in the young and aspiring leaders of today.
Mr. Ratan Tata's first and most important advice to the young is that they do the right thing against all odds.
“Doing the right thing may be the more difficult option, but it’s still the better option,” he says, advising against being swayed into doing things just for show.
“The other thing is: work for the benefit of others. Big businesses and corporations think nothing of killing another organisation because it's competing with their business. Companies are known to buy out other companies just to bury them in a drawer. That has always bothered me. So, if you can live with feeling happy about another company or another person's prosperity, then that would be the closest definition of happiness.”
This explains why one of Mr. Tata’s failures is his inability to say no. But even in this failing, there is a deeply humbling and moving explanation.
“I just have a problem shutting the door on people,” he says. “I would like to see them happy. So, to say that I don't have the time to see someone and think about the disappointment that that might cause, bothers me.”
This is a recurring theme that comes through in everything Mr. Tata says: a strong sense of empathy and oneness with people from all walks of life, and an equally strong desire to see everyone have an equal chance at happiness and success.
Ratan Tata's dream: an equal opportunity India
Having begun his career working on the shop floor of Telco, now called Tata Motors, Mr. Ratan Tata saw early on the hardships and challenges faced by the less fortunate. This forced him to think deeply, even as a twenty-something-year-old, about what one can do to help improve the lives of the less privileged.
Not surprisingly, when I ask Mr. Tata what he dreams about today, he tells me it is that of an equal opportunity country, without the existing disparity between the rich and the poor.
“I dream of an India that would be an equal opportunity country – a country where we diminish the disparity between the rich and the poor and, most importantly, give an opportunity to anyone to succeed as long as they have the willingness and endurance to do so.”
Indeed, Mr. Ratan Tata was among the first few Indian business leaders to advocate that philanthropy in India be designed to making a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged communities, not just for building edifices and donating to temples.
To be sure, he has redefined philanthropy in India with his approach. Just as he did the Tata group as its helmsman.
The Tata group itself has served as the custodian of public good, dedicated to making a positive social impact ever since it was formed 150 years ago. Throughout its existence, the group has focused on addressing some of India’s most urgent needs. In the early days, it did so through institution-building to develop domestic capabilities and produce world-class talent.
Mr. Tata, who took over as Chairman in March 1991, had headed Tata Trusts, the philanthropic trust that owns 66 percent of the group holding company Tata Sons for almost all his two-and-a-half-decade-long stint as the head of Tata Sons.
He later focused on philanthropy when he moved into a full-time leadership role of the Tata Trusts in 2012 after his retirement from the role of executive Chairman of the Tata group at the age of 75.
However, Mr. Ratan Tata was forced to briefly return in 2016 as the head of the Tata group after the Tata Sons board of directors dismissed Cyrus Mistry as Chairman of the group on grounds of loss of confidence. At the time, Mr. Tata faced flak for what many deemed as his inability to let go.
But this was far from the truth.
“Not finding it easy to let go would be absolutely wrong because I was the one who set the retirement standard. I was the one who decided that the retirement age should apply to the chairman, when everyone else said it should not,” Mr. Tata says.
The Tata group’s retirement policy
In fact, it was Mr. Ratan Tata himself who had brought out the retirement policy in the company and instituted a retirement age for executive and nonexecutive directors.
Mr. Tata recounts how Jean Riboud, the former Chairman of the world’s leading oilfield services provider Schlumberger – whom Mr. Tata refers to as one of the great influences of his life – had said something that left a lasting impression on him. It was also one of the reasons that drove the thinking behind setting the retirement age for key executive roles at the Tata group.
“Jean and I used to walk through this 1,800 acre estate he had in France and visit the contract farmers he had. On one such occasion, we were talking about when JRD Tata would resign or retire, and the words he said then have never left me,” recalls Mr. Tata.
“He said, ‘I'm very serious about having a retirement age because when you get old, the first thing that happens is that your memory fails, but you say that's only my memory. Then your body goes and you're in a wheelchair, but you say your mind is fine. But eventually, who is telling you that you're not fit to lead?’”
So, it's better to have a policy that defines when you will retire, he adds.
“One may feel that 65 is too young or 70 is too young or that 75 is too young. Whatever it may be, you don't need a person to say, look, I think you should leave. So that has been very much behind the thinking of setting a retirement age. There was no retirement age in Tata. I could’ve just as well have stayed up and stayed on,” explains Mr. Tata.
Admittedly, for Mr. Tata, making the decision to return to power was something he agonised over. But for the man who built the Tata group business into a formidable empire under his stewardship, his decision to return after the 2014 debacle was driven by his deep sense of responsibility and innate value system.
“I dealt with the leadership, or lack of leadership that took place in 2016. It wasn't to go back in. That was not the reason. The reason for me to go back was because I needed only to satisfy my inner self, to know that I didn't stand by and just watch something severe that was happening. Because human nature is such that someone will look you in the eye and ask, but where were you? Why didn't you do something about it? So, that was the one thing I actually agonised over: should I intervene or should I not?”
“So, not letting go is not me. I was really, really looking forward to being free,” he tells me.
In fact, Mr. Ratan Tata – the aspiring architect, whose love for his pets (dogs) and passion for flying, technology, and electronics is well known – was quite looking forward to going back to his love for painting and drawing and relearning to play the piano.
He even bought an electronic piano that is in the shape of an upright piano, he tells me. To my amusement, Mr. Tata adds that he considered getting a proper piano, till he saw the price list.
I make no effort to hide my disbelief and ask him, “Mr. Tata you don’t have to worry about the price list, no?”
To which, he laughs and then says, “Don’t worry. I have lots of worries.”
I prod him further on the progress he’s made with his painting and piano lessons, and he reveals, “The first (painting), I never got involved in; the second (relearning to play the piano), I actually made progress. I found a piano teacher and I enjoyed what happened. But there's a lot of practice that goes into it and a lot of hard work which I didn't have the tenacity to do. And that's something that I regret enormously. Because that would have been another thing. Just like the architectural design.”
Mr. Tata, who studied architecture and structural engineering at Cornell University in the United States, attributes some of his best years to the decade he spent abroad, and even today feels grateful for having had the education he did.
“I don't think anything else could have made up for those 10 years that I lived outside the country, and you look back on what I've just been telling you, you were thrown into a country where everybody had an equal opportunity and it didn't matter who or what name you had or how much money you had. So, I think they go hand in hand,” he says.
More than a job; it's a lifetime
His education as an architect may well explain Mr. Ratan Tata’s preference for actions over words.
Under his stewardship, the Tata group grew its profit 50 times and revenue 40 times over the nearly two-and-half-decade period he served as Chairman of Tata Sons.
For Mr. Tata, it was more than a job. It was a lifetime, as he so aptly sums up his legacy – one that has been marked by doing the right things, even if it meant doing the more difficult thing.
“It’s been more than a job. It’s been a lifetime because the job has many attributes. One is the job itself and the performance you have for your shareholders and others, and the other is how you treat your employees. How fair (you’ve been). I would have a lower score than I would like to have on how fair you’ve been with your employees consciously because there are so many times you have to compromise something in the broader interest of the organisation. It would have been harder, but it would have been the right thing.”
He adds as a parting shot,
“It’s not a ten-year or five-year contract. It’s been much more than that. People don’t realize that it’s not for hanging on. It’s not for not letting go. It’s not for power. It’s not any of those things. It’s a lifetime thing.”
His words linger on long after the interview has ended.
But more importantly, it’s his humaneness, authenticity, chivalry, astuteness, and the integrity that stays with me long after he has walked me to his gate to bid me goodbye.
As I walk away, I can’t help but feel grateful for this rare glimpse into his inner sanctum. Into his world. Into his heart.
And I feel forever moved by the experience.