WHITE-HOT, SEETHING RAGE: HOW DID MATTERS BETWEEN TATAS AND MISTRYS TAKE SUCH AN UNEXPECTED TURN?
Malavika Sangghvi is a columnist and writer for DNA (Daily News Analysis) India.
It was to be a meeting between Ratan Tata, chairperson of Tata Sons, and a visiting head-of-state in Mumbai, a few years ago. “I had initiated a tea between the two as the visiting statesman was staying at the Taj and though there was to be a huge banquet for him later that evening, I knew Mr Tata would not attend; and even if he did, he would be too shy to engage with the dignitary. “So, as he was also chairperman of India Hotels Company, I sent a request seeking an appointment,” says a senior Taj employee. “When I went to fetch Mr Tata, it was obvious how uncomfortable he was,” he says, “I could see how reluctant he was having to meet a perfect stranger– albeit a very famous and powerful one.
“I tried to alleviate this awkwardness by initiating most of the conversation, but it was hard work.” Only when the conversation steered towards architecture, something Tata is passionate about and which he studied as a young man, “did he relax and the awkward silences disappeared.”
Gatsby of Sassoon Dock
“No one visits Mr Tata. He lives a startlingly solitary and reclusive life,” a neighbour of the 78-year-old resident of the elegant but modest (for his stature) mansion at the end of Colaba says. “The chairman emeritus of India’s leading corporation, one of the tallest leaders of India Inc., leads a puzzlingly austere and solitary retirement,” said the concerned woman, whose own sumptuous apartment is not too far from Tata’s.
The lady is a clear admirer. Tata’s idiosyncrasies, his love of dogs, his almost quaint old world rectitude when compared to the gaudier face of the newer captains of India Inc, reflects her own.
Her face lights up as she describes how only a very small handful of loyal staff and faithful colleagues come and go out of the great man’s seaside home.
“It appears as if his old staff are more or less his family,” she says fondly. “This year, when they observed a robust Ganpati festival in their quarters, he sportingly walked a few minutes along with much fire crackers and a tin pot band as the deity made its way to the sea,” she says, almost reverential in her ardour for The Great Gatsby of Sassoon Dock.
Everyone’s Mr Tata
Such is the position that Mr Tata occupies in India’s financial capital that everyone has a view about him and everyone has their own Ratan Tata story. Thus I found myself one day in a dentist’s chair, witness to a great breach of patient confidentiality as the dentist proudly showed me a recently set mould of Mr Tata’s uppers and lowers. “He has one of the worst cases of Bruxism I’ve ever known,” said the overly forthcoming gent as I gulped at the indiscretion. Anyone who has an internet connection can know that the condition – an excessive grinding of one’s teeth–is related to extremely high levels of stress and a mostly unexpressed white rage. “Tata was extremely upset by what he viewed as a departure from the Bombay House ethos and the dismantling of the Tata legacy,” said an Avid Bombay House Watcher (ABHW) (yes, they exist as a legitimate community in the business world). “The way people like Raymond Bickson were dismissed,” says the ABHW. “The way he was not taken into confidence on major decisions. He must have been seething.”
White hot, seething rage is what most likely led to the headline-causing, market-impacting, unprecedented sacking of Tata chairperson Cyrus Mistry last week. “The seething incandescent anger of a man who is slow to offend but dangerous when provoked,” is how one Mumbai wag described it. “Given the high moral ground occupied by the Tatas, the enormity of its operations, the responsibility it owes its millions of shareholders, the commanding position it holds in the world arena—what happened is absolutely unprecedented,” says the watcher.
How did matters come to such a head? How did the scions of two of the Parsi community’s most revered and genteel clans, related by marriage end up in this shameful turn of events? The Tata clan is almost a mirror image of the Mistry’s. If the Tatas are a grand, reclusive and upright clan, the Mistrys are no less. Known for the same dog-loving, philanthropic, old-world rectitude, Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry the patriarch, is not only a US$16.9 billion (F$34.93bn) construction tycoon, but also the second largest stakeholder in Tata Sons with his 18.4 per cent slice. His son Cryus Mistry, the hardsearched for now-ousted chairperson, is by all accounts a refined, softspoken polished gentleman, who, it is said, did his best to set things right in the vast but poorly run empire he inherited. “Ultimately, there are larger questions involved,” says the ABHW. “Do the means justify the end? In wanting to rescue the ‘Tata ethos’, has the manner of Mistry’s sacking eroded it further?” he asks.
“And shouldn’t a professionally-run company be allowed to function the way its top professional sees best?” I am reminded of the delicious irony of a diary item carried in the Financial Times a few years ago, which described the august foyer of Bombay House as being littered with the supine bodies of sleeping strays on the precise sanction of Ratan Tata. Last week’s turn of events could be because he decided not to let some sleeping dogs lie any longer. Or just the case of one man’s seething being another man’s door.
Ousted Cyrus Mistry (left), and Ratan Tata, interim chairperson of Tata Sons.