The low-key departure on Friday of arguably India’s most influential businessman from the stewardship of salt-to-steel conglomerate Tata Group appears typical of Ratan Tata’s trademark restraint and austere instincts rooted in the right amount of humility and spartan public conduct down the decades. But, a recurrent tryst with his sang-froid actually helped Ratan Tata pull off spectacular results for the group in a career spanning half a century. What could be more gruelling than transforming the collective DNA of a group with a socio-cultural reputation almost dwarfing its corporate exploits into a leviathan clasping 100 plus companies in its fold -- leaving it 51 times bigger than when he found it? Or, building on a formidable reputation for charity and socially relevant crusades, simultaneously making the group touch the daily life of every Indian in some way or the other?

The US-educated architect who took over the conglomerate in 1991 from the legendary JRD Tata, was as much the pugnacious, brooding, manipulative and visionary corporate brainiac as Dhirubhai Ambani. A cultivated gentility helped him push decisions through, added sheen to his accomplishments. Ratan proceeded to smoothly edge out the venerable Russi Mody of Tata Steel amid protests over the latter’s autocratic functioning. He did not look the other way where corruption was involved, showing the exit to Dilip Pendse who headed Tata Finance when alleged diversions of funds to the market through two subsidiaries came to light.

In JRD’s wake, TCS, the group’s powerful technology services business, and anchors like Tata Motors, Tata Global Beverages, Indian Hotels Group, Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals were readying to conquer new markets. Overseas expansion and fortifying the Tata brand called for strong leadership, while broadbasing the conglomerate’s social initiatives called for strong vision. Ratan performed on the second front with particular distinction.

Group-wise, his acquisition strategies resulted in exponential revenue growth, but produced a conglomerate tied up in knots while in the throes of change. The Corus acquisition astonished industry watchers with $6.17 billion whipped up in debt through a group subsidiary. Corus continues to be a painpoint while others like Jaguar Land Rover yielded impressive results. Scores of smaller group companies have the potential to drag down market capitalisation in the tough demand conditions ahead. Ratan’s successor Cyrus Mistry faces a consolidation challenge as much as preserving the group’s core values. These tasks, as Tata implied, can be accomplished only by him ‘Being Cyrus,’ or in short, being his own man – away from the giant’s shadow.

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