TATA SAGA

It’s tough being Cyrus Mistry, who values people over profits and reputation over revenue, says school friend

Quartz india
Quartz india

I remember a 2006 movie directed by Homi Adajania called Being Cyrus. In that film, Saif Ali Khan played Cyrus Mistry who entered the world of a dysfunctional Parsi family and eventually ended up killing a couple of its members. The real-life drama of Cyrus Pallonji Mistry is the story of yet another Cyrus entering a dysfunctional family (let’s call it Tata Sons if you like). But unlike the character played by Khan, this one was far too decent to kill others.

Unfortunately, the problem with the world that we live in is that either you kill or you get killed. Figuratively, at least.

The question then is this: will this Cyrus live another day to conquer, like Cyrus the Great of Persia? As a writer of complex mysteries with sudden plot twists, I believe this story has not yet reached its climax and we may yet be surprised by further developments along the way. There was an innate decency about him.  

Cyrus and I were classmates during our years at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. He wasn’t academically brilliant, nor do I recall him as being outstanding in extracurricular activities. The one defining characteristic of Cyrus was that he always managed to be universally loved. There was an innate decency about him. I guess it was this decency, coupled with an uncanny ability to get along with people, that stood Cyrus in good stead in later years.

Dale Carnegie, the guru of winning friends and influencing people, said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” And that sums up Cyrus–working with people, understanding the emotions that drive them, and often getting them to do extraordinary things.

I met Cyrus rather infrequently after we had put our school years behind us but his warmth and graciousness remained ever present on the few occasions that we did meet. I recall a flight from Delhi to Mumbai several years ago (much before he became chairman of Tata Sons). He switched seats with the passenger seated next to me and we spent the next couple of hours reminiscing about the good old days and exchanging business notes. As I recall, during that conversation, Cyrus remarked that reputation is more important than revenue and that people are more important than profit. He went on to say that if one operates with a concern for reputation and people then revenue and profit may follow, but not vice-versa.

It was the first time I realised that there was much more substance to my school friend than I had imagined. It is also the reason why I believe that he went into the Tata conglomerate with honourable intentions. It is possible that those intentions may not have been in sync with those of other stakeholders but the reason that one appoints a chairman is to place a leader at the helm, not a lackey.

Fading halo

It was around 2012 that I heard an interesting story from a common friend. Cyrus and this friend had been sitting by the pool at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, waiting for a table at the Golden Dragon restaurant. Cyrus had just taken over as chairman a few days previously. The manager at the Taj poolside was relatively new. He did not recognize Cyrus and enquired if they were staying at the hotel (because the poolside is reserved for residents). Not once did Cyrus mention who he was. Instead, he got up, apologised, and headed over to the lobby to wait for his table at the restaurant. It was his usual humility and correctness at play.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I heard that Cyrus had been guillotined in the Tata Sons boardroom. Knowing Cyrus, one simply had to ask him nicely and create the appropriate circumstances and environment for an honourable exit. He would have quit in a dignified manner, just the way he got up from that poolside table.

During my growing up years, I was fascinated by the Amar Chitra Katha comics. They were filled with stories about historical figures, mythological heroes, and religious and social reformers. Whenever these stories touched upon the lives of enlightened individuals, such as Buddha, Vivekananda, Guru Nanak or Zarathustra, the illustrators of those comics would place a glowing halo around the character’s head to indicate the fact that the person was an elevated soul. We Indians love doing that even in real life. We mentally place halos around the heads of our political leaders, Bollywood actors, cricketers and godmen. It’s rather foolish but we continue to do it.

That’s precisely the sort of halo that my generation placed around the Tata group and–by association–around its chairmen, be it JRD Tata or Ratan Tata. We always saw the Tata group as a rather different Indian enterprise, one that stood for decency, fairness, conscience, honesty, and even social transformation.

That halo faded when Ratan Tata pulled the levers to get the board of Tata Sons to dismiss its serving chairman (with the precision of a meticulously-planned midnight coup). It soon emerged that Cyrus hadn’t been given the opportunity to defend himself during the Tata Sons board meeting. Then, in quick succession, there were letters shot back and forth. By then the halo was barely visible. Then the independent directors of boards of individual Tata companies began expressing their support for Cyrus. The halo seems to have almost entirely disappeared now and, frankly, there will be no winners at the end of this saga.

Whoever said that being Cyrus was easy?

This piece first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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