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A low-profile successor to Ratan Tata?

Last updated on: January 3, 2011 14:48 IST

A low-profile successor to Ratan Tata?

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Shyamal Majumdar
Unlike his famous older half-brother, Noel Naval Tata's name figures only once in the Niira Radia tapes. But the conversation reveals more about the man than any official biography posted on the Tata group website.

While discussing the media plan for Trent in June 2009, Noel is heard saying what comes to his "rescue is the fact that he never speaks to anybody".

While no one knows what he meant by "rescue", the fact is Noel has indeed walked his talk: He has been low-profile and shy to the point of being a recluse from the media!

To be fair, the shyness isn't restricted to the media alone; he also shuns the CEO cocktail circuit and is usually the last in and first out at any Tata group function that requires the presence of all CEOs.

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Image: Noel Tata.

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And it's a guarantee that the 53-year-old son-in-law of Pallonji Mistry, the largest individual shareholder of Tata Sons, will remain that way at least for some time, considering that a five-member global search committee is expected to name Ratan Tata's successor a little over three months from now - by March 2011.

Ratan Tata will retire only in 2012 when he turns 75, but he wants his successor to work with him for some time before the anointment.

Will Noel be the one chosen to run the diversified Rs 280,000 crore (Rs 2,800 billion) Indian multinational?

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Image: Naval Tata, Ratan Tata and Noel Tata (in the centre).
Photographs: Courtesy, Outlook Business.
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Others in the race reportedly include such worthy names as Carlos Ghosn and Indra Nooyi.

No one except former Tata Steel Chairman Russi Mody has hazarded a guess so far. It's ironic that Mody, the former Tata satrap who fought Ratan Tata bitterly over control of the steel giant and had to be eased out, considers Noel the best successor because men surnamed Tata have been good for the empire.

Though Noel may like to contest it, the fact is that the Tata surname is surely his best bet to enter the corner office in Bombay House, the headquarters of Tata Sons.

His well-wishers draw comparisons with Ratan Tata, who was just as shy and introverted and hardly set the Ganges on fire with his track record at sundry Tata companies before he took over as the legendary J R D Tata's successor. The rest is history.

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Image: Indra Nooyi.

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Noel's academic credentials are impeccable. He graduated from Sussex University, and earned an MBA from Insead in Fontainebleau, Paris. His mother Simone founded Lakme; Noel started Trent.

He likes to live out of a suitcase, travelling all over the world in search of new business innovations. He is credited with having pioneered private labels by Indian retailers.

His well-wishers also cite Noel's track record at Trent, which he steered for 12 years before stepping down as its managing director earlier last year.

Unlike its bigger competitors, Trent is a profitable retailer (it made a Rs 40-crore profit on sales of Rs 572 crore (Rs 5.72 billion) in the year ended March 2010) and has tied up with a giant, Tesco.

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Image: Noel Tata.

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Trent also has not closed down a single store despite the slowdown in 2009. Many rivals closed stores as fast as they had opened them.

It's also a fact that, since taking over as the managing director of Tata International in June this year, Noel has charted a new course by diversifying into footwear retailing (under the Tashi brand), stepping up exports and making small acquisitions.

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Image: Tatas' Tashi brand.

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These are all signs of a stable performer who is more comfortable with details than the big vision.

He has often been quoted as saying that "retail is nothing but detail", but it's doubtful whether that is enough for a search committee to hand him the top job at a time when the external environment has been changing dramatically and the group has grown its footprint all over the world.

After all, the committee has been given the mandate to look for somebody not only outside the group and outside the Parsi community, but also an outsider who is a high-profile global achiever.

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Image: Tata's Westside store.

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Many say Noel wouldn't be able to hold a candle to even some of the internal candidates such as B Muthuraman and S Ramadorai, now vice-chairmen of Tata Steel and TCS, respectively.

Technically they are eligible for the top post until they reach the age of 75. Both have experience of running far bigger companies than a mid-size retail chain which has been extra-conservative and missed the bus on big growth (in its 12th year, Trent has just 95 stores; even a Johnny-come-lately like Aditya Birla's More has more).

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Image: Balasubramanian Muthuraman, Vice-chairman, Tata Steel.

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Also, Ratan Tata had exposure in Tata Industries (the second Tata promoter company after Tata Sons) and was the deputy chairman of Tata Motors (then known as Telco) before getting the top job, which gives rise to questions about why the chairman didn't do the same and groom Noel adequately by giving him responsibilities in bigger companies, with the exception of directorships at Titan and Voltas.

For the moment, however, everything is in the realm of speculation.

In just a few months from now, the world will know whether Noel, whose only passion for anything fast in life is his frequent 80 kmph drive on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, has made it to the finishing line.


Image: Ratan Tata.

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