Page last updated at 08:32 GMT, Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Corus takeover: Who is Ratan Tata?

Alam Srinivas
By Alam Srinivas
Business editor, Outlook magazine

Ratan Tata
Ratan Tata has now emerged as a global player

India's Tata Steel has won the battle to take over the Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus by making a 5.75bn ($11.3bn) bid.

Tata chairman Ratan Tata is not among the Forbes' list of 40 richest Indians around the world.

His sprawling business empire is no longer the largest among privately-owned Indian groups.

He's not even considered the most powerful businessman in India.

More importantly, there's still a lack of clarity about who'll be his successor after his planned retirement in 2012.

But he's one of the most respected corporate chieftains in India.

And when London-based steelmaker Corus agreed to his takeover bid in October, he had arrived on the global arena.

Aggressive and ambitious

That's a short snapshot of Ratan Tata, 69, who controls the $22bn Tata group, which includes 96 companies manufacturing a range of products from automobiles to watches, steel to fertilisers.

The takeover - the largest by any Indian company - marks yet another transformation in the corporate image of Ratan Tata during his 15 years' stint as the group chairman.

Today, the smooth, suave, and introvert Ratan is being seen as an aggressive and ambitious businessman, whose strategic vision has shifted from local to global.

Tata car showroom
Tata defied the critics with the country's first indigenous car

This change started in February 2000, when Tata Tea purchased the UK-based Tetley for over $400m. In the financial year 2005-06, the group made 14 acquisitions (worth nearly $1.5bn).

In a recent interview to an Indian magazine, Ratan Tata said: "We were very obsessed with ourselves in India. So, I have felt for some time that we didn't need to be that."

Today, nearly a third of group revenues, some $6.7bn, comes from overseas markets.

"I think we've only just begun. If we stay in India, we'll be at a competitive disadvantage," Alan Rosling, director, Tata Sons, which is the group's holding company, told Reuters recently.

This realisation has struck many Indian promoters and, after the Tata-Corus deal, India's Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) outflows will exceed FDI inflows in the first seven months of this financial year.

But it hasn't been a smooth ride for Ratan Tata. When he became the chairman in 1991, he was seen as a pushover by the group companies' CEOs, who lorded over their entities.

He had to battle it out with these satraps, who treated their companies as their fiefdoms. So, the new chairman eased out CEOs like Rusi Mody (of Tata Steel) and Ajit Kerkar (Indian Hotels).


In the late 1990s, two of the top firms, Tata Steel and Tata Motors went through tumultuous crises and were saddled with huge losses.

Tata steel  plant
Tata steel is now one of the lowest-cost producers in the world

Ratan revamped the operations of Tata Steel and made it one of the lowest-cost producers in the world.

He made the critics eat their own words, when he launched India's first indigenous car, Indica, which turned around Tata Motors' fortunes.

As the group entered the 21st Century, Ratan Tata was obsessed with four critical issues.

The first was to globalise his group's operations, where he has succeeded to a certain extent.

The second was to safeguard his companies against possible hostile takeovers after the London-based Indian, Lakshmi Mittal, purchased the Luxembourg-based Arcelor early in 2006 to become the world's largest steelmaker, and announced his ambitious plans in India.

So, to thwart any threats, Tata decided to up his stakes in most of the group companies.

Ratan Tata's most important concern, however, was to protect his top lines and bottom lines in the face of ever-increasing competition from domestic and global players.

To achieve this objective, he had no option but to become aggressive, a quality that helped him in other areas.

Today, the group, which was seen as risk-averse and cautious, has no qualms about taking on competitors publicly - be it in areas of policy-making, products launched or marketing tactics.

Staying on

Finally, the unmarried Ratan Tata had to look for a successor.

There were several candidates - including his step-brother, Noel - but none of them had an established track record. Some of them didn't have the character to carry on the legacy of a group that's synonymous with reliability of products, honesty, integrity and public service.

Steel being processed at Tata Steel plant
Corus employs 24,000 people in the UK

When he couldn't find a credible contender, Tata decided to take the bull by the horns and postponed his retirement.

Last year, the retirement age for non-executive directors of Tata Sons, the holding company, was raised from 70 to 75 years.

Thanks to that, Tata, a non-executive director, who was to retire in 2007, got a five-year extension.

Now it appears it is time for Ratan Tata to establish himself on the global map. The Corus buyout makes Tata Steel the world's fifth largest steelmaker.

But it needs to play the catch-up game with Mittal. Tata has to do the same with Mukesh Ambani, the promoter of India's largest private sector firm, Reliance Industries, which aims to be among the top 100 in the Fortune 500 list.

Ratan Tata has a long way to go before he can bid farewell (or "tata" to use the Hindi word) to the world of work.

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