Formal dressing has been the hallmark of India’s largest business conglomerate, the Tata Group, with its former chairman Ratan Tata being among the 10 best-dressed businessmen in a list compiled by London’s GQ magazine.
But in the meetings at the Tata head office Bombay House these days, there is one person who is often the most under-dressed – Chairman Cyrus Mistry.
His suit and tie usually rest in office when Mistry goes around meeting colleagues and honchos of group companies. With sleeves rolled up, Mistry is definitely plunging both hands into business.
“His dress sense is very casual. In meetings, he is often the most underdressed compared to everyone else in the room,” says the CEO of a group company.
“But for meetings with outsiders, he is impeccably turned out,” he adds, quickly.
Somewhat like his dress sense, Mistry's approach to business is also hands-on. As colleagues point out, Mistry does not talk in big and broad terms.
The 45-year-old likes to be specific, with an eye on detail.
Numbers Man “He is a man who understands numbers. He is clued into the financials of each company,” says the CFO of a group entity.
So, while the top management at various companies is allowed to discuss the vision and mission, Mistry does not lose sight of the short term as well. “You cannot sell him only stories of the future. He strikes a fine balance between short-term performance and long-term vision,” he says.
“For him, only two metrics are important — net profit and return on capital employed (ROCE). You can't fool him into EBITDA positive and cash positive stuff,” says this CFO.
Mistry’s emphasis on these two numbers is understandable. It is these two metrics that will decide the group's ability to continue investing in future.
Already, some bets of Tatas have gone awry: the telecom business and the acquisition of Corus top the list.
Mistry cannot afford to do more of the same. That is why he is a cautious investor. The Tatas backed out of the $1.9-billion bid for Orient-Express Hotel last month and also withdrew the application for a banking licence in November this year. Morgen Witzel, who authored Tata: The Evolution of a Corporate Brand , says Mistry has been in office for just a year.
“I don't think that we will be able to form conclusions about his management style until he has been in post for a while longer, and the economic situation in India improves.”
High on Technology Ratan Tata’s pet business was, and remains, auto. But for Mistry, there are no favourites, yet.
“His favourite is every business that can make good money, has good management and a bankable talent pipeline,” says a banker, who has worked with the group.
However, Mistry remains high on technology.
“He is always asking group companies to work on newer technologies, apply for patents and build more innovative products. This is not restricted to telecom or IT businesses. It applies to all companies,” says a group official.
Continuous innovation, Mistry believes, is essential to remain competitive in any business.
The group spent Rs 13,223 crore or 2.5 per cent of its revenues on R&D in FY 13, up from 2 per cent in the previous year.
“We expect the expenditure on R&D to go up further,” he adds.
Simple and Accessible Mistry’s casual dressing style is backed by an equally casual way of talking. “No flowery or technical language... he talks simple and straight.
He is not a man of too many words, usually to the point,” says another official at Bombay House.
In contrast to Ratan Tata, who was and is revered by the group, Mistry is seen as more friendly and accessible.
Ever open to new and exciting ideas, group officials don’t need to take appointments weeks in advance to meet Mistry.
The CEO of a group business discovered this when he sought an appointment to meet the chairman for making a presentation on what he thought was a good business opportunity.
For the request made on Friday, the appointment was given for the next Tuesday.
“This CEO was surprised. He had not even prepared his presentation. He spent the next three days in readying all the details,” says an official.
On an average, Mistry meets the CEOs of all companies every quarter.
There is high-level assessment of CEOs and a talent report is prepared on a periodic basis.
“Mr Mistry is keenly interested in knowing the talent pipeline and growing it,” he adds.
As things stand, Mistry has his hands full.
“It is all too early to speculate on his long-term strategy for the group,” says Gita Piramal, business historian and author of Business Maharajas .
But for the next few years, turning around bleeding businesses, increasing profits and creating a robust talent pipeline should keep Mistry busy.
An improvement in the economic situation will only help him achieve all that faster.