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By Vir Sanghvi. The profiles contained in this book were never intended to be part of a series. It was the first one that I wrote that led to all the others.
It happened this way. I had been planning to interview Ratan Tata for a year before we actually sat down for a meeting. Somehow his dates never matched mine. Whenever I was in Mumbai, he would be travelling. And when he was in Delhi, he was always too busy. Then, three days before we launched the Mumbai edition of the Hindustan Times , Ratan found a window in his schedule. He was in Delhi for half a day and could spare an hour if I was willing to come to his suite at the Taj. At the best of times, Ratan is a shy, reticent man who is always uncomfortable talking about himself.
Ask him about Tata Steel's productivity and he will have all the figures at his fingertips. Push him about his plans for the Indica and he will suddenly come to life. But no sooner do you begin discussing the ouster of Rusi Mody than an invisible veil descends over his face and the answers become strained and monosyllabic.
Well, I guess I was lucky. For some reason, Ratan seemed ready to talk. We discussed all the things that people said about him — but which he never publicly acknowledged. Did it hurt him that so many critics had seen him as an essentially mediocre man who had been catapulted to the top of Tata Sons only because of his surname? How did he feel about ousting so many of the top managers to whom J. Tata had handed over control of the Tata empire? And, was he a lonely man who was unable to make friends?
I have never worked out why Ratan agreed to discuss the issues he had spent the last decade avoiding in every media interaction. Perhaps I got him when he was in a reflective mood. Or maybe enough time had now elapsed for him to be able to talk dispassionately about the events that shaped his career.
We spend more than the allotted hour and when the interview ended, I was faced with a dilemma. If I wrote it up in a straightforward question-and-answer format, I worried that I would lose the nuances. But did I know enough about him to write a profile? In the event, I decided that it would work best as a straight piece of 2, words — about four times the size of the average newspaper article — and quickly commandeered a full-page of the first issue of the Mumbai edition sometimes, it helps to be the boss to run the profile.
Though the HT was launched in Mumbai with a high-profile crime story about Salman Khan and the underworld that dominated TV news for many days afterwards, I was surprised to find that many readers remembered the Ratan Tata profile. It had given them an insight into the man behind the corporate results, they said. Writers are rarely humble about their own work.
And though I was proud of the piece, I was realistic enough to realize that the praise was not directed at the quality of my journalism but sprang from an appreciation of the format.
Businessmen are usually profiled by business journalists. They ask them questions about price-to-earnings ratios and discuss group turnover. The interviewees are happy with this format. Some hapless PR hack has probably briefed them about the likely questions before the interview and so, the responses are ready and rehearsed. Rarely, if ever, does the real person break through the figures. Other businessmen read the interviews and profiles and find them fascinating.
The rest of us read the first paragraph and then turn the page. The Ratan Tata piece, I guessed, had worked because I am not a business journalist. Each time I read a story in the business papers, my eyes glaze over when it comes to the figures.
My approach had been to treat Ratan as I would have treated anybody else I had interviewed: a politician, a film star, an author, or whatever. It was a format that could work, I decided. And so, every Monday I commandeered the same full page of the Mumbai edition the vast majority of the profiles never appeared in Delhi to devote 2, words to one of India's top industrialists.
It was surprisingly easy to get the businessmen to talk. I bumped into Subhash Chandra on a flight and he was kind enough to drop in at my hotel in Mumbai the next evening for a drink and a chat. Nusli Wadia invited me home for dinner and we spoke late into the night. Nandan Nilekani and I spent hours at a coffee lounge in a Delhi hotel talking about the old days. Azim Premji spoke to me over lunch at his office in Bangalore. Rajeev Chandrasekhar spent a day with me during which we managed to have a fairly liquid dinner.
Some were more difficult. Kumar Birla presented a special sort of problem. He is not keen on personal interviews.
And besides, there were the questions of conflict of interest. I work for the Hindustan Times , which is largely owned by another branch of the Birla family. Should we be profiling a Birla?
Eventually, I decided that it made no sense to exclude one of India's top industrialists only because he was related to the chairman of the Hindustan Times. But that still left me with the problem of getting him to talk.
Finally, my boss Shobhana Bhartia, who is Kumar's aunt, phoned him and fixed the interview. So, the Birla connection did help. There are two notable exceptions in the list of profiles. Neither Ambani brother features. Ironically, these were the two profiles I was best equipped to have written because I have known both Mukesh and Anil ever since they returned to India from university in America and joined the family business. Neither actually refused to be interviewed but they both made the same stipulation.
They would talk about everything except for each other. At the time, the Ambani-split was dominating headlines. It made no sense to write profiles of either man without recording his views on the circumstances that led to the bitter parting.
So, I regretfully decided to exclude the brothers from the list. Have the profiles dated since they were written? In some sense, I suppose they have. Business is a constantly changing activity. Presumably, he will start something new in the months ahead. And so, the profile will be out of date in that it does not capture the full extent of his business activities.
But I doubt very much if Rajeev will change a great deal as a person, no matter what his choice of new venture is. The point of these profiles is that they are less about facts and figures, profit and loss, and price and earnings; more about the men themselves and the circumstances that shaped their destinies.
In that sense, at least, I don't think the profiles will date. India is a society in ferment, Indian business is constantly transforming itself. So it is possible that these men will not remain at the top of their fields forever. But I chose them quite carefully. And I am willing to bet that for the next decade or so, these will still be the top names of Indian business. Or, to put it differently, for half of his life. When we first met in Mumbai in , he was two years out of IIT, worked for a computer firm called Patni Associates in Nariman Point and none of us, Nandan included, had the slightest idea that he would become a household name by the end of the century.
Or that he would be worth in excess of Rs 3, crore. And he thought he was making good money. But they also reveal that he came from a family that never had much money. And yet, in the context of the Indian IT business, it is not that unusual.
Admittedly, few techies have been as successful as Nandan. And most of the new billionaires started out as well-educated middle to lower-middle-class South Indian boys. Or, that the once anonymous engineer is now so widely recognized: throughout our interview, everybody else in the coffee shop where we are chatting, stops to gawk at him.
He did not say much, never spoke about himself and deflected all serious questions with an easy laugh. But even when he was not participating in a conversation, you always had a sense that he was watching closely. Even when everybody else had drunk themselves silly and Nandan appeared to be asleep and totally out of it, I always knew that he was fully alert. This was a man who was never Off. No matter how laidback he seemed, he was always On.
Now, a quarter century after we first met, I finally confront him with this perception. Was it not true, I ask, that he prided himself on an alert detachment? That he would be part of every situation and yet not be part of it; that, at some level, he would always be an observer, watching with a dispassionate interest?
But that, I say, is the real change. Despite the millions, he is still recognizably the Nandan of old.
Men Steel by Vir Sanghvi
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Men of Steel: India's Business leaders in candid conversation
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