Powerhouse from India thinking big

Tata Group is seizing new opportunities.

MUMBAI, India - A dozen years ago, many believed that India's Tata Group - the country's oldest and largest conglomerate - was a bloated behemoth that eventually would go under.

Instead, it has become a powerhouse in the 21st century, focusing on core businesses including steel and automobiles and seizing opportunities, including the hugely profitable outsourcing business, that came with India's dramatic economic transformation.

A slew of recent acquisitions, including Britain's Tetley Tea and Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, has thrust the Tata conglomerate - which is made up of 98 companies and was largely unknown outside India until recently - into the global spotlight.

A year ago, Tata Steel Ltd. became the world's sixth-biggest steel manufacturer when it bought Britain-based Corus Group P.L.C. for $13 billion. Then in January, Tata Motors Ltd. grabbed the world's attention when it introduced the planet's cheapest car: a $2,500 four-seater that could change the global auto industry.

Surprising naysayers, the company also has been named the preferred bidder for the Ford Motor Co.'s Jaguar and Land Rover businesses.

"We have been thinking bigger than we have done in the past," chairman Ratan N. Tata, 70, said in a rare interview at Bombay House, the group's headquarters since 1926. "We have been bolder . . . and we have been more aggressive in the marketplace."

In the five years through March 2007, annual group sales more than doubled, to $29 billion, while market capitalization of Tata's 27 listed companies increased sixfold, to $78 billion.

While recent rapid earnings growth at Tata Steel and Tata Motors has slowed, net profit at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., India's biggest outsourcing company, continues to rise, climbing 21 percent in the October-to-December quarter.

The globalization strategy will only get bigger, the barrel-chested Tata said.

"We are at an early stage," he said. "We are still feeling our way."

The resurgence of the 140-year-old Tata brand is as much a story of the country's economic rise as it is of the success of the chairman, whose ascent to the top job in 1991 coincided with the beginning of India's shift from a socialist-style state to a market economy.

For decades after India's independence from Britain in 1947, the government fixed prices, imposed curbs on foreign goods and capital, enacted draconian tax laws, and imposed limits on what a company could produce. The restrictive regime stifled growth and bred corruption.

The Tata Group was hit harder than others because it strove to create a business culture that emphasized transparency and integrity. Tata executives are known for refusing to pay bribes, a widespread Indian practice, and their lifestyles are mostly modest.

Tata, a bachelor, lives in a beachfront Mumbai apartment and is driven to work in an inexpensive Tata sedan.

When Tata took over the company from his gregarious uncle, J.R.D. Tata, India's economy was starting to open up, but the Tata Group was almost falling apart. Sales were sluggish, and government controls had limited new investments.

Author Gita Piramal described the conglomerate that Ratan Tata inherited as "a tangled legacy."

"India was changing, and changing rapidly, and outsiders had begun to describe the House of Tatas as a dinosaur," Piramal wrote in her best-seller, Business Maharajas.

When Ratan Tata became chairman, many heads of group companies had scant respect for him. He was a loner who had graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in architecture and had led a variety of Tata businesses far from the limelight.

Unlike his uncle, Ratan took charge from the start. It took him years to clean up the mess from the power struggles, pushing out a generation of executives and jettisoning several peripheral businesses.

Some experts believe the group is still too bloated. Ratan Tata concedes that he has "not been very successful" at pruning the number of companies and downsizing staff, which currently totals about 290,000.

But the big issue is, who will succeed Tata?

Ratan Tata will not say when he plans to retire, but he insists he is looking for a successor.

That person, he said, "doesn't have to be a Tata, doesn't have to be from within the organization."