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Tuesday, Apr 27, 2004

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Historian and the history-maker

Raghuvir Srinivasan
N. S. Vageesh

July 29 this year is the birth centenary of J. R. D. Tata.'s birth. His biographer, Mr R. M. Lala shares intimate glimpses of the founder of civil aviation in India and its most respected industrialist.

Mr Russi M. Lala

MR Russi M. Lala is a privileged gentleman. As the biographer of the legendary J. R. D. Tata, Mr Lala had unique, special access to the life and times of modern India's most celebrated businessman.

Mr Lala wrote eight books but his principal claim to fame rests on his biography of JRD — Beyond the Last Blue Mountain. He followed it up with another — The Joy of Achievement: Conversations with J. R. D. Tata — revealing in greater detail the personality of this icon of Indian business.

Mr J.R.D. Tata

Through his books, Mr Lala has shared with readers much of what he learnt about JRD and his life as well as the Tata group itself. We recently met Mr Lala in Chennai, if only for a brief while, to talk to him about whom else, but JRD. Our conversation was interspersed with witty one-liners from Mr Lala.

Noticing a copy of his book in our hands, he said with self-deprecatory humour — "Authors go out of date, like actresses!"Again, when the hotel air-conditioning system proved troublesome, he said: "They can be as obstinate as women" and then attempted to placate his wife who was present there, saying "Now, Mrs Lala, don't be angry and refuse to sit here and listen".

Age and health may have taken a physical toll of Mr Lala but mention JRD's name and his face lights up. Over almost an hour of conversation, Mr Lala took us on a delightful journey back into the past, providing precious glimpses into JRD's personality and his management style.

The Tata Steel "museum"

JRD's story was inextricably linked with those of his various company heads — men of calibre and vision such as Sumant Moolgaokar, Darbari Seth, F. C. Kohli and Nani Palkhivala, among others.

Jamshed Irani, who retired as Managing Director of Tata Steel, was its General Manager in the late-1980s. Mr Lala narrated an anecdote that showed the vision of Dr Irani even then.

The Jamshedpur plant was ageing and in dire need of modernisation. While the Tatas were content with minor renovations, it was Dr Irani who sounded the alarm on the need for a major overhaul costing thousands of crores of rupees.

He told JRD: "If you don't do this now, in ten years' time, you and I will be standing outside selling tickets to a steel museum!" JRD loved the comment and laughed. But he immediately got the next board meeting to authorise the first phase of total modernisation of Tata Steel. With the modernisation complete in all respects, the benefits are now visible on the bottomline of Tata Steel which made a profit of Rs 1,000 crore (2002-03) at a time when there was 25 per cent over-capacity in the world and some giant plants were closing down.

Kohli's vision

The information technology (IT) revolution is commonplace now. But one Indian visionary foresaw this and used the term way back in 1975 when computers were little-known and used.

This was Fakir Chand Kohli, the founder of Tata Consultancy Services who wrote in an article in 1975 — "For reasons not in our control, we missed the industrial revolution. Let us not miss the IT revolution which is coming." Says Lala: "This man (Kohli) had the foresight just like this man (pointing to Jamsetji's picture)... he is a remarkable man". It needed two men of foresight to encourage Kohli — JRD and the then TCS Chairman, Mr Nani Palkhivala, whose support Kohli greatly appreciated.

One-room life

Lala's interviews of JRD were conducted in what he (Mr Lala) thought was JRD's study. It was not until a few years later that Mr Lala discovered that the room doubled as his bedroom. The sofa used for the sitting room during the day would be converted into a bed for the great man.

When Mr Lala asked him (JRD) about this and told him that there were few people in his position who would spend a whole day in such a small room, JRD replied: "Why? It suffices me."

The biographer adds it is a great lesson he has learnt not to buy things he does not really need.

What do I have to go home to?

JRD would work till late at night and refuse to go home early despite his secretary urging him to do so. "What have I to go home to?" would be his response. "JRD had no children, no grandchildren, a wife in a wheelchair and a very big house.

He had fame, recognition, immense reputation and reasonable wealth, although he was nowhere near as wealthy as people thought him to be. He had everything in some ways.

And in some ways, he had nothing — maybe of the things that rally mattered in life", says Mr Lala with a sad face. But despite this, he was a sunny personality full of fun and humour. He was the happiest in the office, says Mr Lala.

JRD and the group satraps

Was JRD too indulgent towards his group chiefs who became lords in their own right? While accepting the truth of this question, Mr Lala says that JRD occasionally ticked them off. "I'm not at liberty to disclose the confidences of a man, especially of one who is no more. But he did tick them off, occasionally", he says. JRD's style was to develop people. He liked to work with people and get on with them. He would say: "At times it involves suppressing yourself. It is painful but necessary. To be a leader you have got to lead them with affection". This, says Mr Lala, lead some people to take advantage of him. As he became older, his capacity to assert himself became less.

Would JRD have carried out the changes that were done in the group, as for instance, the sell-off of Tomco? "That is very difficult for me to say", says Mr Lala, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a historian". He goes on to narrate an anecdote about how the Tatas lost a lot because of honesty.

"Mercedes Benz was very pleased with the quality of Tata trucks and offered to give the Tatas one of their car models. In 1960, (Sumant) Moolgaokar gave the keys to six cars to K. B. Lall, Industry and Commerce Secretary to try them out for one year and then decide whether to give the Tatas permission to produce the car here. They never got a reply. The cars came back after one year, but no permission", says Mr Lala.

A man of etiquette

The greatest thing about JRD was his humaneness and etiquette. "Once he called on me at hospital where I had been admitted for cancer therapy at 8 in the night. He sent his personal doctor in first to ask if he could come in and see me. He could have just walked in. He said that he had come to see an old friend. He had driven at that late hour through the thick Bombay traffic and he was 86 years old then. Which chairman will do that?" asks Mr Lala.

Dwelling on JRD's etiquette Mr Lala says that if he (JRD) rang someone up, his first question usually would be "Can you talk? Or is there someone with you?"

Is this the time to review JRD's role in India's business history? Says Lala: "JRD had a lot to teach people of today. He would never have adapted to compromise. Yes, he was weak with some chairmen and should have put his foot down sooner and harder. That was his only limitation. The fault then was with some others. His sister once told me, "Remember, Jeh is a very kind human being."

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