It’s easy to write a book or two (someone will one day) on Ratan Tata’s achievements that took the Tata Group to stellar heights during his illustrious 21 year career as chairman. But it’s hard to zero in on the one thing he did that was the biggest game changer of all.
If I had to pick what Tata’s greatest achievement was, its got to be the Indica. This was Ratan’s first baby and the car that catapulted Tata Motors into the mainstream passenger car arena.
It’s fair to say that the Indica was the most crucial turning point in Tata Motors’ 67-year-old history because if this hatchback failed, Tata Motors may have stuck to making just trucks and UVs. Without a passenger car division, Ratan’s other master strokes, like the acquisition of Jaguar-Land Rover and the creation of the Nano would not have had the springboard to come to fruition.
Again, it was Ratan’s critical input with design and styling that determined whether the Indica would flop or fly. Not many know that the original, in-house design of the Indica was really quite sad. But, for a company that was only used to designing trucks, no one could expect better. Least of all, the chairman himself.
Tata was quick to realise that India just didn’t have the talent to design a ground-breaking car and in what seemed a radical move at the time, he tore up sketches his R&D team had penned and entrusted the entire design and styling to I.DE.A, an Italian design house known for world-class designs like the Lancia Delta.
In the mid-1990s, the auto industry had just been unshackled from three decades of isolation and no one, except Tata, quite had the vision to go abroad to seek the best expertise.
When the Indica was finally unveiled at the 1998 Delhi Auto Expo, it completely stole the show with its stunning looks. In fact, the styling was half the battle won and contributed in no small measure to the Indica’s phenomenal success despite all the hiccups and quality issues along the way.
Over the years, there are enough instances of Ratan’s extraordinary vision and uncanny gut feel that have taken Tata Motors to another level. The acquisition of JLR is possibly the best example. Ratan instantly saw the potential in a rich product pipeline Ford had spent billions on developing before giving it away on a platter.
The Fiat-Tata alliance in India that Ratan signed off with Sergio Marchione didn’t quite pan out the way it was supposed to and the two companies have amicably parted ways. But, not before Ratan inked a lucrative joint venture with Fiat to produce engines. In fact, it’s these Fiat engines under the hood of the Vista and Manza that have kept these models alive.
And just before he retired, Tata struck a deal with the Saudis to produce Jaguars and Land Rovers and get a first mover advantage in a land where aluminium (JLR uses a lot of it) could be the cheapest in the world.
The Nano must easily be Ratan’s biggest disappointment. His dream of giving millions of people their first car has remained just that. However, even after retirement, the Nano remains unfinished business for Tata who is still determined to makeit anything but a failure. So what then are Ratan’s failures? Possibly the inability to change the company’s culture. Tata Motors, at its very core, is still a truck maker and it’s this ethos which translates to a lack of emotion or passion in the car division that has frustrated Tata for years. It’s not surprising though. The top management has historically come up from the truck side of Tata Motors and have lacked the empathy the car business demands. But with a new chairman (Cyrus Mistry) and managing director (Karl Slym) who carry no past baggage, the time to push for a seismic upheaval within the company couldn’t be better.