Fire-side chat with Ratan Tata, former Chairman of the Tata Group, as part of the Stanford’s View from the Top Speaker Series. Tata was Chairman of the Tata Group from 1991 until his retirement in December 2012. Here is the transcript of the full chat…[Event took place in March 2013]
Charles Atkins: Ratan, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s an honor to speak with you. And I know I speak for many here in the audience when I say that we’ve been looking forwards to this for quite some time.
Ratan Tata: Thank you, Charles.
Charles Atkins: I wanted to start at the beginning of your career. As the Dean mentioned, you were educated at Cornell as an architect and a structural engineer and plan to spend the rest of your career in the United States. But you returned to India starting on the shop floor, and I wonder what that was like as a young man returning from the United States to India?
Ratan Tata: Well, quite frankly, it was, as much a cultural shock. I’d been away for 10 years and, things had changed, and yet they had not changed, and the difference was quite substantive. In addition to its — I didn’t return to India to spend time on the shop floor. So I didn’t really understand what was being done. And several times during that period of time I thought of going back to the U.S., and pursuing my career as an architect.
Charles Atkins: You spent several years, as the Dean mentioned, moving around different parts of the Tata organization. Were you surprised when you got the call from your uncle in 1991 to be Chairman of Tata?
Ratan Tata: Yes I was. Mainly because, there were many contenders – handful of contenders for that position from his own team of of people. And it happened very suddenly, and you begin to feel that, the leader – he was there for 50 plus years as Chairman. And you start to believe that somebody’s immortal and that he’s going to be there perpetually. So when he calls you and says this is what he wants to do, it shakes you up and suddenly you feel all alone.
Charles Atkins: Right. And you faced quite a formidable challenge as the Dean mentioned. When you took over as CEO, the organization Tata, was large and sprawling with independent business heads that regarded their own, their own businesses, their own personal fiefdoms to necessarily play together well. And you went in to an economy that was changing rapidly. And your uncle was considered a titan of Indian business. And very large shoes for a young CEO to fill. How did you go about establishing your credibility as a leader in those early days?
Ratan Tata: I had two problems. One was with the actual market problems of a large business house that had operated very traditionally. And the other was internal to the company of several titans if you like, who didn’t want any change to take place. And I guess a certain amount of resentment also. So the first five years were akin to, Clint Eastwood, if you like which tended to be filled with trying to get these elderly, very prominent people out of the way. Not done with bullets, just done with persuasion and sorry to say with money. So the first five years were spent in creating an environment where change was possible.