His shyness was often misconstrued as arrogance. Back in August 1998, the word going around in Mumbai circles was that Ratan Tata was not exactly comfortable with the media and preferred to keep it at arm’s length. People said this was due to some instances of inaccurate reporting, which had caused the Tata Group head considerable embarrassment.

At an event attended by industry top guns, I recall approaching him gingerly as he was leaving the venue and asking if he was open to a meeting.

He paused and then politely asked me to call his office the next day, which I did, only to be told he was not around. The usual name-and-number routine followed, and I got back to the grind at work, forgetting the whole thing.

A phone call from Tata

To my complete surprise, Tata himself called later in the evening and said he was ready for an informal, off-the-record chat the following week at his corporate headquarters, Bombay House. I must confess that I broke into a near-jig; after all, it was not too often you got a call from Ratan Tata! The meeting was meant to break ice, and what followed was a memorable interaction on his plans for the car segment. Just some months earlier, he had unveiled the Indica to a packed gathering at the Delhi Auto Expo. It was a remarkable effort from a traditional manufacturer of trucks to enter this exciting and glamorous segment. It was a revelation to discover Tata’s passion for cars and how keen he was to take his company to the next level.

“What really stands out is his humility and the way he carries greatness so lightly on his shoulders,” says Venu Srinivasan, Chairman of TVS Motor, describing the man who played a pivotal role in transforming his group into a global powerhouse.

Conquering global frontiers

With him at the helm for over two decades, the Tata brand conquered new global frontiers across industries — from steel, automobiles and IT to hotels and beverages. “Unlike many others, he had the courage to dream and has rendered great service to India. What is particularly impressive is the way he has constantly ensured high degree of ethics and governance,” Srinivasan adds.

He is not alone in this assessment. As Ratan Tata steps down as Chairman of the Tata Group by the end of this month, there are a host of industry leaders who acknowledge that Tata had the courage to go where others feared to tread. “Love him or hate him, there is no denying that the Tata Group would not be where it is today had it not been for Ratan Tata,” a top industry official, who did not wish to be named, says.

The man himself, typically, would much rather play down his achievements. We met again some years later to talk about yet another project that had gripped the imagination of the global automotive community. The Rs one-lakh car had top CEOs stunned at its costing structure at a time when the entire planet was hooked to large, expensive cars. The sceptics sneered while others such as Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan, sat up and took notice.

During this interview, Tata explained that it was important to take some risks for a project like this. “We need to take a gamble on that, and this is my take on addressing a wider market. So you have to be very bold and say that I am going to really change the paradigm of how people are going to travel, how families are going to have transport,” he said.

Just like the Indica, the Nano drove the crowds wild at the 2008 Auto Expo. And when Tata uttered the by now famous line, ‘A promise is a promise’, while referring to the Rs one-lakh price tag, there was a virtual pandemonium in the hall. People cheered, and the whole development appeared almost surreal.

Fast-forward to the present, and it does seem a pity that the Nano has just not been able to deliver on its potential. “The problem with the Nano was in its execution. The concept of a people’s car was spot-on, but the way it was marketed created all the problems,” an automotive CEO says. Tata still believes not all is lost and that it is only a matter of time before the Nano bounces back.

Audacious risks

It is this self-belief and courage that has prompted him to take, what many would consider, audacious risks. It came to the fore during the acquisition of Corus for a whopping $12 billion and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) for $2.5 billion. He was convinced that to be a global player, one had to aim for the skies, which meant taking a fair amount of risk. It may not pay off each time, as happened with Corus, which is under strain thanks to the wobbly state of the global steel industry.

However, the experience with JLR has been just the opposite and it has now emerged one of the key growth engines of the company’s passenger car business. It may be fine to sing Tata’s praises now and admire his foresight, but he had a tough time post-2008 when the world was hit by the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and JLR had its back to the wall. The debts piled up by the hour, but still Tata did not flinch. He was confident enough to predict that this was a business cycle that would soon pass over, and it sure did eventually.

Little wonder that Tata has constantly maintained it is important for India to think big and move ahead in the new global order. He made no bones about China’s emergence as a force to reckon with.

“They want to be the biggest and best globally, and that is how their mind works. We seem to look at getting the minuscule part of the market just surviving and that is our vision. Everything that China does seems to be initially so big and so bold that the world looks at it and believes that it does not make sense. But they make it make sense and are taking a very bold step. India should also think big,” he had said in that interview.

Strong words, but justified, coming from a man who has practised what he preaches. Yes, the group’s exponential growth over the years has had its share of serious setbacks. One of these is related to telecom, where observers cite the group’s late entry as a cause, coupled with the failed battle with the Birlas for control of Idea Cellular.

During both the interviews he was totally relaxed, a gracious host, very affable and absolutely disarming. The first interview, of course, was off the record; in the second he was open and forthright, and had no problem answering my questions. A couple of things he didn’t want on record were conveyed through a polite request.

As his long innings come to an end, Tata has more than enough reason to feel pleased with the way he has steered the group to new heights since the early 1990s, when he took over from the legendary J.R.D. Tata. He did not have too many supporters then, with cynics insisting he was just not good enough. Some of these people have had to gobble their words since.