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'The Tatas are obsessed with ethics'
Shyamal Majumdar & Tamal Bandyopadhyay
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August 30, 2005

Ishaat Hussain, Tata Sons Finance Director Ishaat Hussain treads two different worlds with ease. While Bombay House, Tata Group's imposing headquarters, is the centre of his universe from 8.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m., he takes just five minutes (the time taken from his office to home) to make the transition to a different world where nothing else exists but his daughter, and books.

"I don't want to live only by the Companies Act," says the financial wizard of the Tata Group, speaking with Shyamal Majumdar & Tamal Bandyopadhyay.

Hussain says he needs books (he reads everything except management books as he considers management gurus nothing but fundamentalists) to give him company as "the world of leadership and power can make you feel very lonely at times."

Quickly realising that it may sound like somebody who is getting tired of the frenetic work pace for over 30 years now, Hussain changes tack: "Life in Bombay House gives you a high because it's no longer a club where you can take it easy. One has to be a mard ka bachha to slug it out everyday to get ahead of the fierce competition outside," he says.

We are at Shamiana, which Hussain chose as we can go for the buffet and "won't have to waste time on choosing the food." He is not particularly fond of five-star food ("they all taste the same") and misses the biryani and kebabs of his hometown Patna, Hussain says, ordering a sweetlime juice.

He calls himself a 'Republican Bihari'-- a takeoff from his favourite author Arvind Das's book Republic of Bihar. He completely agrees with Das in whose eyes Bihar was a metaphor for India itself. Hussain says, like Das, he too loathes Bihar's venal, caste-ridden politics, but admires the noble character of its long-suffering people.

The finance director of Tata Sons and a member of the Tata group executive office gets into a nostalgic mood. He recollects, with a smile, his interview with Russi Mody, the former Tata Steel [Get Quote] supremo.

"Mr Mody only discussed history and sociology with me, avoided any discussion on company law and at the end of it all offered the accounts director's job at Indian Tube, which later merged with Tata Steel," he says.

The year was 1981 and Hussain was just seven years old in the accountancy profession then. After the interview, Russi told him he would get a board berth at Tata Steel over the next seven to eight years.

Prophetic words, as Hussain joined the Tata Steel board in 1989 and did his chairman proud by piloting some of the most innovative financial deals at Tisco. For instance, the convertible bond in 1994 which got the finest pricing and the Rs 1,200-crore (Rs 12 billion) domestic issue in the early 1990s, which had a novel structuring of secured premium notes.

He regards Russi as one of the finest 'people manager' he has ever worked with. In November 1991, Russi made him the deputy managing director, finance (which was later reversed to senior executive director), and told him this was a recognition of all the 'gloom and doom' that he had been predicting about the company as finance director.

Hussain doesn't show much interest in the food and picks up some salad and a couple of chicken pieces and talks eloquently about his excellent equations with Ratan Tata whom he always addresses as 'Sir,' but that's more because at 58, he is 10 years younger to the chairman.

"I admire Mr Tata's guts and his ability to stand firm if he is convinced about something." When he took over, the group was at a transition point. "Look at the way he has handled Tata Motors [Get Quote] and the problems like Tata Finance. The best part is he is still evolving."

Since all this sounds predictable, we try to change the topic, but Hussain is in no mod to stop.

The main reason why he stuck to the Tata Group, he says, is because of the conglomerate's strong ethical value system. "Our values aligned. The Tatas are obsessed with ethics, which is the most important consideration in my personal life."

He admits that the decision-making process has to improve, the bureaucracy needs to reduce further and there is a need to be quicker and nimble-footed. "But the system works and all of us are trying to improve the system," he says.

Hussain thinks one of the most challenging assignments of his career was guiding the Tata Consultancy Services [Get Quote] public issue. The unique part was TCS was not a corporate entity; it was a division. The entire process took about two years as it was a risky decision. After all, TCS was a major source of cash flow for Tata Sons, he says.

He is through with his lunch very fast and orders coffee, and we decide we ask him a slightly uncomfortable question. Why did he stick to the Tatas for so long where there was hardly any chance of becoming the number one? After all, his close friend and batch mate Keki Dadiseth had become chairman of Hindustan Lever [Get Quote].

The veteran Tata hand doesn't seem to mind the question at all. "I am very happy for Dadi for what he has achieved. But I have no regret. I always tell myself the story: you stop complaining about your shoes till you meet a gentleman who does not have legs," he says.

As we wait at the portico for his car, Hussain says what keeps him going is the massive challenges that his job offers -- the chance to do something new every day, the chance to contribute to the massive changes the Tata group is going through.

"There is so much still to do," he says. Clearly, there are many hours left before he makes the transition from the world of 'leadership and power.'

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