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Interview with Ratan Tata, Chairman of Indian Conglomerate, the Tata Group

Aired September 28, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a surname synonymous with business in India. Almost everywhere you look, you can see the name that has become one of the country's biggest conglomerate companies.

From its humble beginnings in 1868, the Tata Company has been responsible for India's first steel plant, first luxury hotel, and first domestic airline. Since then, it's continued to pioneer different markets and made a name for itself around the world.

The man currently at the helm of this sprawling business empire, with $67 billion in revenue last year, is Ratan Tata, the great grandson of the company's founder. He's farther globalized operations and secured some big name international acquisitions including Jaguar, Land Rover, and Tetley Tea.

But, unlike many other Indian business powerhouses, the Tata group is steered, but not majority owned by its chairman. Ratan Tata holds just one percent of the company, while more than 66 percent is controlled by trusts - charitable organizations that support a wide range of educational and cultural institutions across India.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're in Mumbai for a rare interview with the media-shy never-married business baron as he opens up about succession, the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, and shares some very surprising stories about his private life.


SIDNER: You and your family have a fascinating history. What is it about the Tata family that has brought so much success in a country of more than a billion people?

RATAN TATA, TATA GROUP CHAIRMAN: Well, I guess, success is to be judged by others. But I think the one thing the family has done is it created a lot of industries in the early days, prior to independence, which were national industries. Infrastructure in the form of power and steel, etcetera. And then gave most of it away in philanthropic grants. And that's been something that's been carried on by their successors through the years.

SIDNER: And you're one of the successors.

TATA: And I'm one of the successors. But I've done very little compared to what they did.

SIDNER: You really believe that? You've grown the Tata conglomerate twelvefold.

TATA: Yes, but they did much more sort of earth breaking and visionary things, which - days are different now. It's more difficult to do something that's really out in time. But I've tried to do whatever I could. And I have, I think, more importantly tried to do the - upholding the values and the ethics that they set.

SIDNER: Your company is - you have about 98 companies in you conglomerate, 395,000 employees across the world.

TATA: Yes.

SIDNER: You've bought Tetley Tea, Corus Steel, Jaguar, Land Rover - how do you keep up with all of this?

TATA: I would say that I'm blessed with a very, very good executive team that operates, reasonably autonomously, each of the companies. We have a review system. I'm the non-executive chairman of nine or so of the major companies. And, of the nine companies, it's a little trying, because you jump from one industry to another as the case may be. But one has a reasonable knowledge of those nine activities and - it's been an exciting job.

SIDNER: Where do you get the strength and the stamina to deal with all these different entities that you have to make sure do well? People are looking at you, they're watching you.

TATA: Oh yes. Yes. I think that's the excitement of the job. That's been part of the adrenaline that it gives you.

SIDNER: Are you an adrenaline junkie?


SIDNER: But you like a little bit of kick.

TATA: I do, yes. One needs it once in a while. And one needs to be able to get away from it all, also.

SIDNER: I've been in India for just three years, so I'm a newbie. But if you ask the average Indian about corruption, they will complain to you that it touches their lives every day. Do you think, in order to do business here, that you have to play this game? Give kickbacks? Bribes?

TATA: No. We have succeeded in growing in the manner we have without, in fact, partaking in this. We have also been - I would say that we could have grown faster and could have prospered more as a group. But we have never, in fact, partaken in this kind of activity.

SIDNER: There have been things said recently, because of this bandwidth scandal, about you, about one of the Tata companies. Did you, anyone in your company, or any lobbyist for the company do anything inappropriate or illegal?

TATA: I can say, with my hand to my heart, that we have not, in fact, partaken in any clandestine activity. I am hopeful that the investigations that are underway will truthfully bring out the position and that the truth will be on the table before too long.

SIDNER: But, when it comes to corruption, do you think the government has been doing the right thing? Have they done what needs to be done?

TATA: I think what's happening now, in terms of things being before the courts, I hope will put things in their right perspective. I hope that it doesn't become a nation of scandals and allegations as they are. I think, more importantly, the media has to be more circumspect and be careful that they don't malign or allege or convict people before they've had a fair trial.

SIDNER: Is it hard to be an honest businessman in India?

TATA: I think there are many honest businessmen. There are many that bend. I am happy that I have not bent. Not that I'm dishonest - that I have not bent.


SIDNER: Coming up, we get a guided tour of Ratan Tata's rebuilt Taj Hotel - the scene of Mumbai's terror attack in 2008.




SIDNER: This close to an active -

SIDNER: 15 hours, 20 hours later -

TATA: All in all, it was just a horrible event that I never thought we would ever see in India, leave alone at the Taj.


SIDNER: This hotel has a special place in a lot of people's hearts after what happened in 2008. I was standing just outside with a lot of other journalists from around the world, listening to the sound of grenades. Listening to the gunfire. Seeing the fire. What was your first thought. How did you find out about what was happening inside this hotel?

TATA: Somebody called my home and said that there was shooting here. I called the exchange and, obviously, there was no reply. So, I was also outside that first night. And I knew quite fast that it -- the police came and said it was a gang war. And it became quite clear, with grenades and automatic gunfire, that it was not. And then it became clear that we were under some kind of attack, not necessarily that we were under a terrorist attack, but not where they came from or who they were. That picture emerged the next day.

SIDNER: During that 60 hours or so, what were you doing? What were your frustrations?

TATA: We're not allowed to enter here, because it was taken over by the commandos. So, actually, it was a difficult time because the next day I thought it was all over. Because there were lull periods. The first night was - and then the commanders came in. I issued a press statement basically saying that, you know, this wouldn't break us down. But then it went on for two more days, or three more days.

SIDNER: You were able and gracious enough - you spoke with our Fareed Zakaria.

TATA: Yes.

SIDNER: During that time. And you said some things to him about law enforcement. You were very upset.

TATA: Yes.

SIDNER: Have things changed any since then?

TATA: I don't know enough to answer that honestly. It's not - one thing I do know is they're better equipped today than they were then, in terms of arms and in terms of logistics, etc. But training is an important part of being prepared and being trained to deal with these situations is an important part of total preparedness. And I don't know whether that is happening or not. And I've no way to know. I hope I don't need another way to know.

SIDNER: Do you have any regrets? Either from before - the days before the attacks happened - do you have any regrets about how you or your company handled it?

TATA: No, I feel very proud of the way the staff dealt with the situation. For me, it has meant more than anything else, because here a group of independent people, some waiters, some chefs, some porters, all of whom put their own lives, you know, after that of the guests and the well- being of the guests. And, in many cases, lost their lives to the bullets of these terrorists, but succeeded in serving their guests with pride and at great cost to themselves.



SIDNER: How much time, effort, and money has it taken to restore this, since the attack?

TATA: It took over a year because we had to rebuild some of the floors. We had to go through most of the structure because of water damage from the fire department. And we really didn't want to undertake a renovation that was only skin-deep. So we really did a total renovation and, ironically, it was a few years after we had renovated this whole wing.

SIDNER: It must have been heart breaking to see what had happened to your hotel.

TATA: Yes, it was. It was. And we were very lucky that it wasn't more. There's a great pride in the place and, in some ways, I'm glad we redid this block better than what it was. That the other places, like the restaurants, etc, have all be refurbished differently. So, you don't walk into a restaurant and say, "Oh, I -"

SIDNER: I remember.

TATA: "I remember it". It's different.

SIDNER: I have to say, I remember this scene from the security cameras.

TATA: Yes. Well, this is the same and hasn't changed. And our intention was to rebuild it the same way. I mean, the rooms are better than what they were and the restaurants are different. They are - they don't give you the sense of nostalgia.

SIDNER: Both nostalgia, though - do you ever hear from your guests that it also gives them a bit of sadness just knowing what happened?

TATA: Oh yes. We do have some very grateful for how they survived in the, or were supported in those hours of crisis. Most of them are sad that what happened, happened. And -

SIDNER: Are you proud of this? I mean, the restoration is impeccable.

TATA: I am proud of what they did and really proud to have been a part of the hotel as it was and the spirit that existed. The day we reopened, this whole staircase was full of employees. The whole staircase was full of employees who were shouting with great spirit on the fact that we were reopening again.


SIDNER: This is a difficult question. This is one of the ones that my mother would be a little worried about me asking -





SIDNER: Your family has been likened to the Rockefellers in America. Do you think you would have been as successful had you not been born into this dynasty?

TATA: I think there are similarities in the sense of the Rockefellers have given so much to the United States and done so much for the poor segments and done so much for the arts and the sciences that there are great similarities in terms of what we believe we should support. The early Rockefellers made their wealth from being in certain businesses and remained personally very wealthy.

The Tatas were different in the sense, the future generations were not so wealthy. They were involved in the business, but most of the family wealth was put into trusts and the family did not, in fact, enjoy enormous wealth.

SIDNER: I have to ask you this, and I know you've been asked this a million times. Who will succeed you? Because you have no heir and a lot of people are used to companies, especially family-run companies in India, having the heir take over the company.

TATA: There is a committee that's been established. That committee is mandated with looking at internal candidates, external candidates, Indian expatriates, and they have a short list of people that they're examining today and meeting. And I've stayed away from that committee because I think that committee should operate independently without the force of someone who is looking over their shoulder. And I hope that, by first half of this year, will be able to define a suitable candidate with whom one can overlap a short period of time before I move away.

SIDNER: What are the chances that that person does not have the last name Tata?

TATA: See, I'd have to say that that's something I wouldn't like to comment on. My stepbrother is one of the candidates that is being considered. And I don't think it's my lot to say whether it's 50 percent, 90 percent, or 10 percent, so -

SIDNER: Will that cause family strife? Do you guys talk about this?

TATA: No, I don't think it'll - well, it may. I have no way to know.

SIDNER: What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?

TATA: What I would like to do is to leave behind a sustainable entity of companies that operate in an exemplary manner in terms of ethics, values, and continue what our ancestors left behind. Not my legacy alone, but a continuation of the legacy that extends over the last over 100 years. And I hope my successor will be as committed to that as I have tried to be. My only regret is that I am not 20 years younger, because I think India is going through a very exciting period in its history.

SIDNER: This is a difficult question. This is one of the ones that my mother would be a little worried about me asking.

TATA: Yes.

SIDNER: Have you ever been in love?

TATA: Oh yes.

SIDNER: How many times?

TATA: Seriously? Four times.

SIDNER: Can you tell us anything about that?

TATA: Well, you know, one that was probably the most serious was when I was working in the U.S. And the only reason we didn't get married was I came back to India and she was to follow me, and that was the year of the, if you might, the Indo-Chinese conflict. And, in true American fashion, this conflict in the Himalayas, in the snowy, uninhabited part of the Himalayas was seen in the United States as a major war between India and China. And so, she didn't come. And finally got married in the U.S. thereafter.

SIDNER: So now I have to ask you, since you did bring up the word "married".

TATA: Yes?

SIDNER: Why have you never gotten married?

TATA: When you asked whether I'd been in love - I came close to getting married four times. And each time, it got close to that area and I guess I backed off in fear or one reason or another. Each of the occasions was different, but, in hindsight, when I look at the people involved, maybe it wasn't a bad thing that I did. I think it may have been more complex had the marriage taken place.

SIDNER: Were any of the people that you were in love with here? Are they still here in this city?

TATA: Yes.


TATA: Yes.

SIDNER: You're being very coy. Are you going to tell us?

TATA: Oh, well, I'd certainly, because of the people that are here and, of course, this may be aired in the U.S., so I'd be in trouble whatever I do. So, I think I'd better stop here.

SIDNER: Excellent. Thank you so much.

TATA: Thank you.