Building brand value

Richa Mishra | Updated on November 12, 2020

Give and take: Within the group, social responsibility was adjoined to the main business, and workers engaged with the communities they lived in   -  REUTERS

Whether the Tata group retains its old charm is debatable, but after 25 years with the company, Arun Maira shows what set it apart in the first place

* A part of the Tata Administrative Services, Maira held several important posts in the group

* Countries with scarce human population and abundant financial capital treat automation as a solution

There was a time, not so long ago, when businesses represented a country, and not just capital alone. Generations in India have seen the Tatas in that very light. And who better to tell the story about the Tata’s way of doing business than Arun Maira, who was a board member of Tata Motors from 1981 to 1989?

Of course, it is to be debated if the group still retains its old charm. But Maira is quick to point out that he wrote The Learning Factory: How the Leaders of Tata Became Nation Builders from the perspective of his experience. “So I write as things were then and my experience then... The world of business has changed since then and Tatas have evolved too,” he adds.

The Learning Factory: How the Leaders of Tata Became Nation Builders / Arun Maira / Non-fiction / Penguin Viking / ₹499


In his new book, the prolific writer and consultant gives his insights based on his 25 years with the group. A part of the Tata Administrative Services, he held several important posts in the group. With ample anecdotes, he writes about the many personalities of the group, and, in particular, Sumant Moolgaokar, who moulded Tata Motors. “My life changed when Sumant Moolgaokar chose me to be his executive assistant,” he says, adding that the JRD Tata style of business revolved around nurturing human talent and leaders.

“He picked men who had vision and fire in their belly,” says Maira, a former member of the Planning Commission. He writes in the chapter ‘Human Dignity’ how Moolgaokar’s office door was always open — metaphorically speaking. Anyone could walk in if he was alone — which is not what one can say about most present-day corporate leaders.

“The approach to running enterprises, as scientists would like to say, should be to make the whole enterprise very predictable and controllable. You want it to work as you designed it. They (employees) are going to do exactly as they are told to do,” he tells BLink.

He quotes Henry Ford — “What I want is a good pair of hands, unfortunately I must take them with a person attached” — to make the point that at work, most people are nothing more than links in a vast, well organised, automated chain.

“This was the approach towards developing large-scale industries which were efficient and productive. A human being was necessary until you could replace the human being with something more predictable and controllable, which is a robot.”

Countries with scarce human population and abundant financial capital treat automation as a solution. “But in our country, where capital is expensive and human beings are in plenty, to take on this concept for measuring productivity of a factory — the number of pieces produced per person employed in a factory — is actually a wrong way of looking at the economics of the factory,” he contends.

Managers, he argues, must learn to work with people rather than with machines. This is where the values of the Tatas come in, he stresses. The worker continues to learn through his whole life, whereas a machine can only do what it has been designed to do, Maira points out.

An interesting component in the book is Maira’s views on Corporate Social Responsibility — a phrase largely seen as a brand building tool. “Corporate responses to the need to rethink business responsibility fall into three types: Look Good (PR); Do Good (CSR); and, the more difficult, Be Good,” Maira says.

The Tatas adjoined the value of responsibility to the main business model. Companies had social development departments — and workers engaged with the communities they lived in. In the best companies, employees are seeds of development of the community system that builds a company, he holds.

Workers are part of an enterprise and they must be seen as equal to the capital that is put into it. But often, he says, those who own the enterprise feel they own everything — including the workers, whom they can use and discard at will. “We have to change the relationship between the rights of workers in an enterprise and the rights of capital,” he points out.

The book focuses on corporate governance. But it also zeroes in on a bygone era. He cites an example of the impact the Tata brand had on people at large. He was returning from a business trip to Singapore in 1969. That was a time when you could carry only ₹500 worth of goods purchased abroad.

“I returned with a bag full of cheap ‘foreign’ trinkets’ for my family and the staff in the office... The customs officer did not believe so many items could cost less than 500 rupees and asked for proof. There was a big hold-up in the customs queue, and I was greatly embarrassed when he spilt the contents of my bag on to the table,” he writes.

A senior customs officer appeared, wanting to know what the fuss was all about. When he heard what the problem was, he asked Maira where he worked. “‘I work for the Tatas, sir,’ I replied. Then a remarkable thing happened. The officer said to the agent, ‘if he works for the Tatas, he must be telling the truth.’ And he helped him put all my trinkets back in the bag, and said, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, sir’. That is how much the Tatas were trusted then.”

Clearly, there is a lesson there.

Richa Mishra

Published on November 12, 2020

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