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Prince who did not want to be king

Last updated on: November 29, 2011 15:11 IST

Prince who did not want to be king

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Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai

Voting is still on at noeltata.com, which claims to be an "unofficial website of Noel Tata by fans", on the question: "Do you think Noel Tata will be the next head of the Tata Group?"

The last vote so far was posted on Friday at 2 am, more than 24 hours after Cyrus Mistry became the chosen one.

This is obviously hero-worship to the extreme by some of his die-hard "fans" (over 73 per cent of respondents thought he will be the next head), but the "hero" will certainly not be amused by the meaningless exercise.

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Image: Noel Tata.

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In any case, the writing on the wall was clear six months ago when Noel's illustrious half-brother made his lack of enthusiasm for his candidature clear.

In an interview to an overseas publication in May this year (the selection committee to choose his successor was then nine months into the job), Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata suggested that he did not think Noel was ready for the role.

"I think if he is to run this, he should have greater exposure than he has had. Partly his not having it has been his own choice," Tata was quoted as saying.

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Image: Ratan Tata.

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Though Tata hastened to add that he was not involved in the selection process and the committee was the final authority, it was clear which way the wind was blowing.

The last part of Tata's comments was more significant - the fact that Noel's lack of greater exposure has been partly "his own choice".

That's the reason, perhaps, for Noel not taking up or not being given responsibilities in bigger group companies than Trent, with the exception of directorships at Titan and Voltas.

People familiar with the developments say Ratan Tata was right.

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Image: Noel heads the Trent group.

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Noel, 53, was always a reluctant dynastic heir and was never interested in the top job. He was also quite all right with letting his brother-in-law, who is 10 years younger to him, walk away with the crown.

Noel is married to Aloo, Cyrus Mistry's sister, and knew all along that Cyrus, who was part of the search committee, was also among the candidates being considered for the job.

He was in fact one of the first to congratulate Cyrus with whom he shares a very cordial relationship.

If the speculation continued for long over the top job falling on Noel's lap, it was only because of his Tata surname. In hindsight, it was obviously an unfair assumption.

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Image: Cyrus Mistry.

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"Noel is an excellent manager; it's just that the selection committee found someone better," volunteers a Tata insider.

It may be just a coincidence that the "someone better" happens to be one among the selection committee, is the son of the largest individual shareholder of Tata Sons and has been on the Tata Sons board for five years now.

His well-wishers say Noel's reluctance to take up the top job was evident from the fact that he volunteered to shift to Tata International, a relatively smaller and low-profile job than Trent which he was heading quite successfully.

"He hates the arclights and is more comfortable with details (remember his famous comments that retail is nothing but detail?) rather than taking on something very big.

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Image: Noel says retail is nothing but detail.

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He essentially feels comfortable staying in the background," one such well-wisher says. His well-wishers could well be true because despite his famous surname, Noel has remained unassuming, minimally-dressed, soft-spoken, and painfully low-profile all this while.

It's a different matter altogether that before the name of the next Tata Group boss was announced, everybody, including his aunt, compared him 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 in 1991.

The rest is history.

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Image: J R D Tata with Ratan Tata.

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Noel, whose academic credentials are impeccable - graduate from Sussex and an MBA from Insead - had a fairly decent run as managing director of Trent which he steered for 12 years.

Unlike its bigger competitors, Trent remains a profitable retailer and has tied up with a giant, Tesco. Trent also did not close down a single store despite the slowdown in 2009. Many rivals closed stores as fast as they had opened.

The flip side, however, is that the mid-size retail chain has been extra-conservative and missed the bus on real big growth (for example, it missed the first-mover advantage in hypermarkets) - reasons that may have weighed on the selection committee at a time when the external environment has been changing dramatically and the group has grown its footprint all over the world.

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Image: Insead campus.

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Despite his reputation as just a "stable performer", Noel, people close to him say, likes to live out of a suitcase, travelling all over the world in search of new business innovations.

For example, he is credited with having pioneered private labels by Indian retailers. It's also a fact that since taking over as the managing director of Tata International in June last year, Noel has charted a new course by diversifying into footwear retailing, stepping up exports and making acquisitions.

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Image: Noel with Pablo Isla, Inditex's Deputy Chairman and CEO.

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Last year, Noel also took a small, but significant step into the upper echelons of the Tata Group by taking over as non-executive chairman of Tata Investment Corp, an investment firm listed on the stock exchange that has substantial stakes in Tata Group companies.

These may be the reasons why Noel will not fade into oblivion. His elevation to the Tata Sons board is a virtual certainty now.

And that's a role he would cherish - be actively involved with critical decisions for the group's growth but remain in the background - while someone else faces the cameras.

Anonymity can sometimes be a person's biggest strength.


Image: Noel has won praise for his running of retail business.

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