Padma Shri R. K. Krishna Kumar, Former Tata Sons Director, passed away yesterday. A key pillar of the Tata Group, and close confidante of Mr. Ratan Tata.
I once had the privilege of meeting Mr. Krishna Kumar at the Tata Sons office a few years ago; on a special request through someone. I had some views about Tata Motors strategy and some car designs, and simply wanted to share them with him. He was extremely humble, and patiently went through my report, shared a few views, and then offered to have the report sent to the then CEO of Tata Motors. It right after that meeting I also saw Mr. Ratan Tata for the first time ever.
Today, I heard another incredible story about the Tata stalwart, Mr. Krishna Kumar.
Apparently in the early 2000’s, Mr. Krishna Kumar visited Tata Memorial Hospital and was speaking to the Dean. He knew the patients were well cared for, but he saw a lot of patients who had come from out of town to consult a doctor. And he wondered what they might be doing for lunch. He asked the Dean roughly how many patients visit the hospital for consultations each day.
It seems from the very next day, to this day, there is good quality food available for 300 patients who visit the hospital each day for a consult.
In an age where ‘business=monetize’, and non-profits tend to deploy funds in areas that maximize optics, greats like Mr. Krishna Kumar and the Tata Group show us that there was a better way to work and to live. A more respectable way.
Rest in peace, Mr. Krishna Kumar.
Read a bit about his life here: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/tata-veteran-krishna-kumar-dies-11672597446130.html
The aftermath of ousting of Tata Group Chairman, Cyrus Mistry was probably not what the Tata Group, or Mr. Ratan Tata would have anticipated. Then again, could there have been sufficient signs even as Mr. Tata was looking for the next Chairman for the group many years ago?
A little short of 4 years ago, the challenging task of identifying a successor for Mr. Tata was completed. Cyrus Mistry seemed like a strong and obvious fit. A strong choice, given his qualifications and abilities. And from purely a cold, financial angle, it probably felt obvious too. After all, Cyrus’ father, Pallonji Mistry, is the single largest shareholder in the Tata Group, with a whopping 18.4% in the holding company, Tata Sons. In that sense, no other individual or family was as incentivized to want the group to grow and prosper.
However, Mr. Tata’s task was to identify someone to surpass his vision, dedication, and passion toward a large conglomerate and its home country. And in such a scenario, lending disproportionate weightage to the most financially invested individual or family, while seemingly a no-brainer, was not particularly prudent or without risk.
Mr. Mistry had initially demanded a free hand and little interference, as conveyed by his recent letters to the board. Those requests, while reasonable, could have been a little too much to expect. After all, he wasn’t merely handed the keys to one of the biggest conglomerates, or a group of profit-making companies. He was handed the keys to 148 years of vision, passion, rich culture, traditions and practices. It takes a lot more than business acumen to run or improve on that.
The business world thrives on profits, loud marketing, overwhelming sales pushes, and frequent deception or misrepresentation. But while the Tata Group may have its shortcomings (read this insightful article by The Economist on the mess facing the group currently), I’d even go a step further and call the Tata Group a religion. Few people in India feel as strongly about any other Indian company.
Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry in more cordial times | source: link
In his eagerness and urgency to find a successor, many years ago, Mr. Tata probably made a critical mistake. Perhaps forgetting that passion and intention always beat qualifications and skills. Recent emails by Mr. Mistry suggest that he was offered the position back then, which he declined on more than one occasion. While Mr. Mistry is probably as capable as anyone else shortlisted for the position, the fact that he needed much convincing was perhaps a clear sign he was not the right fit for the role.
“Passion and intention always beat qualifications and skills.”
So in the Tata Group’s search for a Chairman, did they underrate important qualities in favor of someone most financially invested, assuming such a person would be naturally inclined to do his or her best for the group? Passion, however, is not an easily replaceable or interchangeable quality.
The unfortunate result was best described by Oogway‘s subtly put pearl of wisdom to Shifu – ‘one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.’
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While a lot of us are busy in our world of self-indulgence, it’s reassuring to know there are Indians like Ratan Tata, who’d go the distance with regard to businesses that positively impact to one or more segments of the population.
I’m speaking about the Nano in particular here, the world’s cheapest car that was inspired by the concern Mr. Tata had for a number of Indian families that traveled with their spouse and children on two-wheelers, and the risk that posed to their safety.
Now I’ve written a few posts mentioning the Nano, though I don’t think I’ve written enough about that business and engineering marvel.
Anyway, here’s a relatively unheard of company in the field of ‘affordable’ AND ‘electric’ cycles, scooters & load carriers from India.
Hemalatha Annamalai of Coimbatore, the founder of Ampere Vehicles Pvt. Ltd., has been making affordable electric vehicles since 2008. What’s better, is that she has a focus on rural transportation. And it gets better. She is backed by Kris Gopalakrishnan, one of the co-founders of Infosys. And none other than the original king of low-cost vehicles in India, Mr. Ratan Tata himself.
The Tata Nano, cheapest car in the world today, is arguably one of the biggest milestones in the auto industry in recent times, the world over. A close friend of mine, Sheshank Reddy shared an article which talked about how Mr. Ratan Tata, in hindsight, felt the Nano should not have been positioned as ‘the cheapest car’. Another close friend, Pradeep Shetty, Sheshank and I have, over the years, spent numerous hours over numerous pitchers of beer, discussing the Nano. We looked at the brand, the car in isolation, in the Indian context, imagined it in foreign markets, and so on.
Sheshank is highly knowledgeable in areas of brands and branding, and he’d throw light on lesser known areas like the powerful impact that appropriate fonts can have on a brand, and so on. Less detailed conversations I have had with several random people over time, has helped me form a rough idea of people’s perception of the Nano.
A good friend, Viz, in his beloved Nano
Americans, for the longest time, has been obsessed with powerful cars. Even the average petite young woman would drive a car powerful enough to lug a mobile home behind it. Inexpensive fuel and lack of public transportation coupled with easy financing made the dream of powerful cars commonplace.
Indians, on the contrary, have given more importance to value, and show. Value includes getting satisfaction from haggling with the grocer for little nothings.
Now if you were planning on buying an SUV, I don’t think the Tata Safari Storme would have appeared in your top 5 options. And yet, this tough SUV that has seen well over a decade of sluggish growth, boasted of a 30% jump in sales after the brand was associated with the Indian version of 24 (TV series). That is about ‘show’. Justifying 30% jump, I guess the mindset was that if it was cool enough to be on the show, it’s cool enough to buy.
The Indian economy has been shaky these last two years, mostly compliments of a corrupt government that facilitated several scams. Many industries have kept aggressive growth on hold till there is a more positive and promising outlook. Fuel prices have soared in this period. Yet, despite fuel economy being a key factor in the Indian customers’ car buying decision, Nanos’ sales just trudged along, while SUV sales boasted 2-digit growth rates last year. Somehow, SUV sales seemed to defy common logic and correlations between cost/price and demand, among other things.
I believe the Nano is a masterpiece in many ways, and the team behind it deserves recognition and praise. Mr. Ratan Tata is wrong when he says that they made a mistake by calling it the ‘cheapest car’; because in my opinion, the problem isn’t so much with the car, as it was with our perception.
I read an interesting comment on a discussion board a few years ago. A fellow Indian justified the Nano’s failure saying buying a cheap car went against Indian status. A foreigner rubbished his comment. He said it was a funny view coming from the citizen of a country with a large, poor population. Where per capita income was unbelievably low. And yet, where we thought so highly of ourselves, that we found a great product beneath us to buy. The foreigner thought highly of the Nano, and given a chance, said he’d be thrilled to buy a few of them for his family.
I was listening to Mr. D. R. Mehta speak at a recent awards event. He is founder of BMVSS, famous for the Jaipur foot. He spoke about a visit to the United States, where American politicians were asked to name 3 brands from India that they knew of. They could only think of two, the Jaipur foot, and the Nano. That is the impact the Nano has had, everywhere but at home.
Most car ads in newspapers highlight fuel-efficiency, even if they don’t mention many other key specifications. Even some of the more premium car ads. And everyone’s talking about how affordable and how easily financed, different vehicles are. That said, simply branding the Nano as ‘affordable’, would have been like winking in the dark, crying in the rain, or some such amusing phrase signifying pointlessness. The Nano dream, dreamt by Ratan Tata, was TO BUILD THE CHEAPEST CAR. That takes daring. That takes passion. And that takes commitment. Everyone’s making ‘affordable’, and ‘more economical’ and ‘faster’. But how many companies chase seemingly impossible dreams like ‘most economical’, or ‘the fastest’?
The Tatas did, to make a car accessible to a much larger population. And for everyone who has complaints against the Nano, and those who feel the Nano failed, I am reminded of the famous passage by Roosevelt. The man in the arena.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
To conclude, I will definitely look forward to new variants and more technology in the Nanos of the future. And there was never a fault with the Nano. It was more of a lack of appreciation in the eyes of the average Indian. We clearly failed to recognize a masterpiece our country had created for the world.
In continuation to my previous post on Milkha Singh and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag [BMB], here is another small piece in connection with an article doing the rounds about how Milkha Singh never held the 400m World title [link], as portrayed in BMB. [Again, ‘Bhaag’ is Hindi for ‘run’]
In humble defense, all I’d like to say without getting into specifics, is that maybe he never broke a world record, or maybe he broke some record where there were three runners ahead of him who also broke the same record, which of course still doesn’t give him claim to something he didn’t win. Maybe the record was at an altitude, or the 400 m then wasn’t exactly 400 m (it was sometimes measured it in yards). And, Milkha Singh himself has said that only about 80% of the movie is factual. And given his humble background and sincerity, I doubt he would have allowed or given wrong facts. So, hoping that now we’re all agreed on that, allow me a few minutes to share my view of the movie, about why I feel Milkha Singh is so important, and about an important underlying concept.
For a long time now, I have believed that we Indians are quite a pretentious lot.
Take Ratan Tata for example; an outstanding businessman and gentleman who is admired by most, if not all of us. But, the hurdles we as a country have placed before him don’t quite add up. Be it with setting up of an auto plant for the Nano in W. Bengal, or problems with their repeated desire to re-enter the airline business. Can you think of any similar hurdles faced by corrupt businessmen? I can’t. And yet, other influential groups even pull-off successful IPOs with no actual business to show.
Some entrepreneur circles have some often repeated (and increasingly boring!) questions. They include ‘when will India give the likes of a Google, Apple or Facebook to the world?’ Or ‘will India be able to build one of the greatest businesses of the world’? The problem is that these questions, just like the pretentious outlook, are superficial.
Indians have helped build some of the greatest global companies. Some stats for the uninitiated: 12% scientists and 38% doctors in the US are Indians. 36% of NASA employees, 34% at Microsoft, 28% at IBM, 17% at Intel and 13% at Xerox are Indians. And these stats are from way back in 2008.
So, again, it isn’t that Indians are not capable. But perhaps many Indians in India seem to have a crab-like mentality rather than one of encouragement and support. And reality continues to be quite distorted for a lot of us.
We spend considerable time trying to lay a claim to fame in every world event imaginable. Don’t believe me, try these:
Britain’s royal baby will have a karmic connection with India, an astro-numerologist predicts
There was an Indian connection in the delivery of Britain’s new prince – One of the doctors present at the birth of Prince William and wife Kate’s first child was Sunit Godambe, who grew up in Mumbai (India)
Last financial year, Red Hat became the first Linux vendor to breach the $1-billion revenue mark, recording $1.3 billion. This growth story has a strong India connect
Scientists testing saliva samples from Prince William’s relatives discovered a direct link between the future king and a woman who was part-Indian
Nobel laureate, Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer has an India connection – he came to Bhopal immediately after the gas tragedy to express solidarity with the victims, noted Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan
God particle: ‘India is like a historic father of the project’
There’s an Indian connection in 4 films with 36 Oscar nominations
We claim from a distance. And yet, we often fail to see or acknowledge legends walking amongst us. We give our lives, money and time for cricket, and yet curse and scorn when the hockey team doesn’t qualify for an event. We seem to have taken ‘freedom of speech’ the wrong way around. It does not mean we sit pretty on our couches and ridicule and brush aside the important, and hang out our drooling tongues for an international spotlight. It is about knowing what is right, what is important, what is fair, and what is inconsequential.
BMB is not about a claimed shot at breaking a world record. It is about how a ‘nobody’ with an unimaginably horrific childhood, overcomes, pursues and persists to win. And makes India a little bit more well-known, the world over. A tale of inspiration, introspection and encouragement.
It is ironic, that a Pakistani general conferred the title of ‘The Flying Sikh’ to Milkha Singh soon after a race in which he defeated Pakistan’s own Asia champion; yet here we, not so proud but quite cynical and underplaying. We are arguing over facts in a movie, albeit important ones. But in the process, we are losing sight of greater lessons that can be learnt from a glimpse into his life.
So for starters, let’s just stop simply laying claim to events, people or successes, however remote. Let us change. Let us create, and work together, in such a manner, that when we have something wonderful and new to offer, the world will take notice and itself shout out about the Indian source or contribution.