Gone global: How Tata became India’s first $100 billion company, thanks to foreign sales

From steel to software and tea to IT, Tata Group’s companies span the globe.
From steel to software and tea to IT, Tata Group’s companies span the globe.
Image: AP Photo / Scott Heppell
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Tata Group is now a $100 billion conglomerate–India’s first. After pioneering the country’s steel, power, auto, and IT industries, among others, Tata is now seeing global sales drive its growth, making it even more of a model for the rising crop of emerging-market multinationals that are challenging Western companies’ reach in both rich and poor countries.

Without fanfare, Tata posted a tally of sales across its more than 100 operating companies, including 31 publicly-listed holdings, all of which report earnings separately. Combined sales soared 20% to $100.1 billion in fiscal year 2012, even as after-tax profit reportedly fell 9.4% to $5.2 billion.  Nearly three-fifths of sales came from abroad, helping Tata to hedge against an economic slowdown and weakening currency in India. But it took days for anyone to notice news of the $100-billion mark buried on Tata’s website.

Here are three drivers of Tata Group’s growth:

1. Diverse industries:  India’s “salt-to-software” conglomerate was founded in 1868 and has since grown to include ”Tata Titans” in steel, power, chemicals, IT, telecoms, engineering, consulting, cars, consumer goods and retail, among other sectors, in India and abroad. Communications and IT last year comprised more than half of the group’s total sales.

2. New markets: Tata first created Tata Limited in London in 1907 to start spreading business abroad—one of the first global outposts from what we’d today consider an emerging market. International business has since become key to the group’s growth, with 58% of revenues last year coming from the more than 80 countries other than India in which Tata operates. Most overseas sales come from the US and UK, and include everything from tea to IT services.

 3. Global acquisitions: In recent years, Tata has bought its way into some of the world’s biggest markets, growing largely through international acquisitions that have made it more efficient and locked down access to resources. Purchases included UK-based Tetley Tea in 2000; South Korean Daewoo Commercial Vehicles and Swiss fiber-optics giant Tyco Global in 2004; Singapore-based NatSteel in 2005; Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus in 2007; and UK-based Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008.

Of course, most emerging-market multinationals can’t build that sort of scope overnight. Unlike counterparts in many developing regions, Tata was never state-owned, and so avoided the painful transition from public to private enterprise. It did benefit from years of trade protectionism, which bought it time to develop and dominate at home while amassing the cash to speed its recent acquisitions. Emerging-market corporations may look to Tata’s holding structure as more of a example, though: By delegating management to each individual company within its portfolio, it allows its holdings to adapt and expand more rapidly abroad—helping to win the group recognition as a model of corporate internationalization.