Hoshang Billimoria remembers the time when he began as a young auditor. During those days, auditors were poorly paid and auditing standards were low. Yet Billimoria returned to India to begin life as an auditor. A chance meeting with Minoo Mody, the chief executive of Tata Sons, allowed him to make the transition from audit to general management.
A trip down the Tata memory lane
Billimoria remembers meeting the late Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, known popularly as JRD, whom he calls a “magnetic personality.” As per Billimoria, JRD oozed charisma, put you at ease and impressed you with his humility. JRD was able to enthuse people, who then gave their best.
(The only person who compares to JRD today is Deepak Parekh, who lets grass grow under his feet. His achievements with HDFC Bank are extraordinary. He has created an empire in a “stunning” career and Parekh does not get due credit for what he has done.)
JRD had a knack for identifying and supporting talent. Russi Mody of Tata Steel, Darbari Seth of Tata Chemicals and Ajit Kerkar of Indian Hotels are three examples of talented managers JRD selected. All three were entrepreneurs and great managers.
Russi Mody’s genius lay in human resources. Billimoria recollects a story of Russi saying hello to a new driver and then recognizing him when he visited Bombay the next time. Seth used to write a letter to Billimoria when financial results came out and Kerkar was on his board. These characters were professionally top-notch.
In those days, the licenses and approvals required to do business were innumerable. India’s colonial rent-seeking and parasitic bureaucracy made life extremely difficult for India’s business leaders. To make matters worse, corruption seemed to come from above lower levels and a diabolical black economy. Bureaucrat flunkeys sitting in a crumbling office controlled both managerial remuneration and managerial appointments.
During such a torrid time, JRD and his team rose up to the challenge. Seth made money from the soda ash plants in Gujarat and bought tea gardens in Assam. He was extraordinarily entrepreneurial. Kerkar was uniquely suited for the hotel business. He understood hospitality extremely well.
JRD’s personal integrity was unimpeachable. Even Dhirubhai Ambai, arguably India’s greatest entrepreneur, had great respect for JRD. When Billimoria met JRD, the legendary business leader asked Billimoria about his career, his education, his family and why he did not settle down in the UK. Billimoria gave the truthful answer that he had only returned to India because of his parents. He left after meeting JRD with a sense of happiness, satisfaction and a great deal of respect. JRD had inspired Billimoria to work for him.
The Tata story after 1991
The Tata Group was long-established, solid and very strong. So, foreign companies coming to India wanted to tie up with the Tatas, and 1991 turned out to be very good for the Tata Group. There was no shortage of opportunities. Sony first came to Tata when they entered the Indian market.
The only criticism that one can make of JRD is that he should have handed over the reins five years earlier. Every major manager thought of himself as the best qualified to take over, and a struggle for succession ensued. Billimoria remembers the post-1991 period as “a difficult time” with this struggle causing friction within the company.
Billimoria began as the deputy CEO of Tata Sons but was given charge of Tata Press in 1990. Management’s relationship with labor was very poor at the time. In one incident, the union locked the senior management into a conference room. Billmoria was able to get through to his chairman Jamshed Bhabha, the brother of the legendary nuclear scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha, who summoned the police. The fractious situation only calmed down when the police threatened to open fire.
Billimoria sacked the union leader, who turned out to be a coward. Soon after, the tide turned and the Tata Press prospered. Billimoria had a glorious 14 years in charge. Tata Press published the Yellow Pages, children’s books and niche magazines that cover cars, travel et al. An arbitrary legislative change made print expansion impossible. So, Tata Press went into audiovisual production, but the foray into Bollywood was an unmitigated disaster. The movie business turned out to be dodgy.
McKinsey came in and identified Tata Press as a non-core company. It was put up for sale. ICICI Ventures bought Tata Press, and Billimoria left in three months. ICICI Ventures engaged in asset-stripping. Its focus was on the real estate owned by Tata Press, not on the underlying business. The company was run down to the bone, and Billimoria left to start a new company, backed by Shapoorji Pallonji Group and HDFC. Over 150 people joined this new venture, and the company still exists today after 20 years, even though Billimoria has retired.
[Matthew Knudson produced this podcast.]
The views expressed in this article/podcast are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.