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Community shock: Tata-Mistry imbroglio unnerves Mumbai’s Parsi population

Venkatesan R | | | Updated on: Nov 01, 2016
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For a people big on privacy, the battle would’ve been best fought indoors

The bitter public feud between the Tata family, which controls the Tata Group, and its now ousted chairman Cyrus Mistry has created an unwelcome stir in the tiny Parsi community to which both sides belong.

There are only about 58,000 Parsis in a nation of 1.2 billion people. Yet, the community has included some of India’s biggest business names, its top nuclear scientists, world-class musicians and several senior military officers including the country’s first field-marshal.

Parsis are also known for maintaining their privacy. “They should have settled this between themselves instead of what has happened so publicly,” said a Parsi woman stepping out of the community’s fire temple here.

The row between Ratan Tata and Mistry, a scion of the billionaire Shapoorji Pallonji clan, erupted in public last week. Both families are pillars of the Parsi community, comprised of descendants of Persians who first landed in India in the 9th century.

The Tata and Mistry families are related by marriage — Cyrus Mistry’s sister is married to Ratan Tata’s half-brother Noel.

Sources close to the company said Mistry’s corporate strategy was seen as transgressing the core Parsi value of working for the greater common good.

While business spats are not uncommon in India, the public allegations of malfeasance and the central role of two billionaire Parsis has not gone down well in the community.

“I would say — Cyrus, walk out with a little dignity and self-respect. Don’t wash dirty linen in public. Don’t make the press your playground. Fight battles inside boardrooms,” said Rumi Behram Balsara, a second generation shareholder in some Tata Group companies.

From shipyards to textiles, Mumbai’s Parsis have led the city’s commercial development from a group of sleepy fishing villages to one of Asia’s business capitals.

Parsi business houses owned by the Tata, Wadia and Godrej families are at the forefront of the nation’s corporate world.

The community follows the Zoroastrian faith. Some of its tenets, like charity and doing good to others, have long been woven into the Tata heritage and business ethos. Much of the dividend paid out by Tata Sons gets funnelled into charitable trusts involved in philanthropic work.

The crux of the Tata world view, said Morgen Witzel, a UK-based author of a book on the group, is shareholder value should not be an end in itself. “Companies are not achines for making money. They exist to provide value and service to their communities; profit is a by-product of that process.”

That view appears to be at the heart of the boardroom dust-up. Mistry was attempting to gradually transform Tata from a sprawling empire of middling businesses into a much more focused profit-driven enterprise, but that involved decisions like axing businesses and jobs — moves that jarred with the Tata ethos, say sources close to the conglomerate.

Reputation vs money

“Over time, the Tatas had built up a fantastic reputation. However, the size and resistance to change meant that many of their businesses were not able to keep up with the times,” said Ronny Bharda, a Mumbai-based Parsi businessman.

“Cyrus Mistry brought about a renewed sense of enthusiasm. He had the ability to bring about change.” “Eventually, what social good can the house of Tatas do, if they do not earn any money?”

Some Parsis believe the community should ignore the spat.

“The Parsi community isn’t the custodian of thoughts, words and deeds of every Parsi,” said Baghzaad Bhomisha, a Mumbai-born Parsi settled in Australia, adding Parsis have bigger concerns than the “egos and worthless legacies of Parsi billionaires.”

“Mistry's ouster shows a person with a keen business sense alone won’t work.

“Tata is built on more than just business,” said Kaizad Todywalla, a Parsi who owns a coin auction house in Mumbai.

“I personally believe you need a Tata to make sure that the ethos of the group or the philosophy behind it remains.”

Published on January 15, 2018

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