Saturday, May 28, 2011

JRD Tata- A Glorious Legacy

J.R.D. TATA [1904-1993]
--The Role Model Industrialist from Salt to Steel

It is generally true that a country’s existing political climate and corporate pragmatism render all moral considerations secondary in business, giving priority to the possibility of achieving immediate gains. It is also true in business that moral principles mostly remain an illusion. However, a close look at some of the notable success stories of some major business houses belies this stereotype. In India the one such notable success story comes from the House of Tatas which, even today, holds the reputation for business integrity and social concern. Just as an organization or an academic institution or a university declares its basic principle by adopting a motto [Like’Satyameva Jayathe’ adopted by the Government of India], the House of Tatas when it was established in the early part of the 20th century by the late J.N.Tata have adopted a motto. In their crest, three words “HU’MATA”, HU’UKTA, and HU’VARSHTA” have been incorporated in Avesta language which means ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds’ [These three words form the triad of Zorathushtra’s philosophy]. A lion’s share of the credit for having successfully piloted the conglomerate of several Tata concerns through a significant part of the 20th century goes to J.R.D.Tata.

Success today is largely measured in terms of wealth generated and the assets created. J.R.D. however added a much more needed third moral dimension to it. He showed that there was nothing wrong in creating or acquiring wealth or earning money as long as it was done in the larger interests of the nation and the welfare of its citizens and more importantly through fair and honest means. J.R.D practiced what he preached and upheld the validity of the popular saying “Real power is to touch power and yet remain untouched by it”

Jahangir Ratanji Tata [J.R.D. Tata] was born on 29th July 1904 in Paris in a rich family brought up in English culture. His father Ratanji Tata was an Indian Parsi and mother Suzaine was a French lady who was renamed Sooni after her marriage. Ratan Tata used to trade in precious stones, gems, emeralds, rubies etc both in France as well as in Bombay. JRD did part of his schooling in Paris and partly at the Cathedral Convent at Bombay. For higher studies he had a desire to go to Cambridge University but his father was of the opinion that for doing business a university degree was not essential. He therefore took his son under his fold and taught him the finer and subtle points of good business, industrial diplomacy and good business ethics. Father called his son to Bombay in 1925 to join the family business as an unpaid apprentice. In 1926 Ratan Tata passed away in France when the mantle of responsibility of running the business fell on the shoulders of young JRD who was just 22 years old.

J.R.D. became the Chairman of Tata Sons in 1938 at 34 and carried on the burden of responsibility with decorum and dignity for the next 53 years till he voluntarily stepped down and handed over the torch to Ratan Tata in 1991. Ratan Tata had this to say about J.R.D. when he received the baton: “J.R.D’s outstanding contribution, the greatest among many he made, was to expand the group on the basis of principles, values and business ethics. He worked in a world of rules and regulations. He had the courage and conviction to oppose them, in case he differed, but he never broke the law. He imparted discipline and expected his people to follow suit. Never, not even once, did he cut corners nor did he ask anyone else to do so”

J.R.D’s biographer R.M.Lala asked him sometime in 1979 “Could it not be said that the other industrial groups have grown faster than the Tatas over the last few Years?” JRD replied with feeling as well as firmness “I have often thought about it. Had we resorted to some of the means that the other companies did, we would have been twice as big as we are today. But I would not have it in any other way”. The economic power JRD wielded is something which is not going to be wielded by any other single person for years to come. He was the head of a huge organization whose turnover at the time of his taking over was Rs.17 crores which rose to more than 10,000 crores when he stepped down voluntarily.

Talking about his ancestors and their contribution to the society, JRD once said “ The wealth gathered by Jamshetji Tata and his sons in half a century of industrial pioneering formed but a minute fraction of the amount by which they enriched the nation. The whole of that wealth is held in trust for the people and used extensively for their benefit. The cycle is thus complete; what came from the people has gone back to the people many times over”.
JRD firmly believed in the welfare of his employees and espoused the principle of an eight-hour working day and insisted on his employees’ devoting their Sundays to their families. One of the managers of Air India [Tata firm] who was posted at Zurich narrates his experience: “JRD is a hero to most of us. I joined Air India in 1955 and was once posted to Zurich as Manager. JRD used to change planes at Zurich en-route to Geneva and as Manager I once met him at the airport during his transit on a Sunday. He had to spend a few hours at the airport as a transit passenger. When I met him, initially he protested saying that I belonged to my family on a Sunday and that I should not have come to the airport. He asked me to take him to the parking lot and leave him there ‘to see the company car’. Then he said “Now get into the car and go home. For heaven’s sake, leave me alone as I have to meet my girlfriend”. I told him that I would be at a discreet distance till his plane took off. And then he smilingly took me along for a cup of coffee, without the fictitious girlfriend of course. Many times he used to borrow small change to make phone calls, and he would meticulously return it “

The founder of the Great Eastern Shipping Corporation, Sri Vasanth Seth, recalls an incident when he was a college student in Bombay. It appears one evening he was waiting in a bus stand to catch a bus along with a few of his college girl friends. Suddenly a limousine rolled up in front of the bus stop and stopped. The driver, sole occupant of the car, asked if any one wanted a lift. While the girls hesitated, Vasanth Seth hustled the girls on the rear seat of the car while he perched himself next to the driver. When the car started, to impress his girl friends, Vasanth turned around and said
“Do you know in whose car we are travelling? We are travelling in the car of J.R.D.Tata”.

In 1978 when the Janata party was ruling the country, it decided to nationalize and take over Tata Steels at Jamshedpur. Contrary to normal expectation by the public that the workers would welcome it, there was so much overwhelming opposition by all the employees that the Government had to backtrack. Probably this is the only solitary instance where the labour involved themselves opposed the move for nationalization.

Though fond of children, JRD and his wife had none of their own. Even at an advanced age JRD used to work late at night. When his secretaries sometimes reminded him “Sir, it is pretty late in the night. Wouldn’t you like to go home?” JRD would reply “For what I have to go home to?” Neither children nor grandchildren were there to greet him home. There was his wife in a wheelchair and a Dalmatian to receive him. In some ways, JRD had every thing; in some other ways he had nothing.
JRD passed away in Geneva on 29th November 1993


B.M.N. Murthy

ARTICLE NO. 544-J.R.D. TATA, The Role Model Industrialist
Created: Friday, December 18, 2009 8:45 PM

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