Chandrasekaran's 6 months as chairman: 'One Tata' focus is the key message

In April, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Tata Consultancy Services’ Banyan Park campus in Mumbai to explore tech partnerships. Turnbull’s visit created a buzz at TCS, but there’s more. This centre, for long a hub for India’s largest software exporter to showcase its digital capabilities to global customers, is witnessing “much more traffic” from within the group. Top executives cutting across the Tata Group companies are visiting the centre now like never before.

That change came gradually after N Chandrasekaran, the former TCS boss, took over as the Tata Sons chairman on February 21. Six months later, insiders say it’s an outcome of the ‘One-Tata’ focus that Chandra, as he is popularly known, has set for the $104-billion salt-to-steel group with more than 100 companies. This new approach is one of the main pillars of the new chairman's strategy—That is, no company should work in isolation and all of them should harness the skill that is available at the group level to avoid confusion and duplication of efforts.

People in the inner circles point out that Chandra’s style of functioning in the first six months is a giveaway of how he would run the group in future. The next six months would start showing results, they believe. While it’s too early to look at financial numbers of the group companies to assess Chandra’s performance, though profits of TCS (the jewel of the group) fell in the last quarter, his speed of execution is at the centre of it all.

Fast execution

The swift hirings, primarily on the finance side, show what the new man at the helm is working on. ‘’It’s not business as usual,’’ is how a person aware of the developments described it. The process of consolidation of group companies, with stress on areas like defence, infrastructure and retail, is already in the works. ‘’The idea is not to rationalise the workforce, but for Tata companies to be among the top three across all business segments,’’ a source said.

At the leadership summit on JRD Tata’s birth anniversary last month, Chandra asked executives to introspect whether they are following group’s pioneering spirit. He reminded them that the Tata Group strives for leadership positions in the businesses it operates in. He asked the executives to behave like leaders not only with product and services in the market place but also financially. 

The focus is also on retention and attracting talent, while opting for flatter and delayered structures, a source pointed out. Cyrus Mistry spoke about it and did not implement.  

Crack finance team

Helping Chandra achieve those goals is a freshly acquired core finance team. Hiring a CFO (a position that lay vacant for years)—Saurabh Agarwal—soon after taking charge is a sign of M&As that are likely to unravel in the months to come, a source said. 

The investment banking veteran has been entrusted with not only bringing down the complex cross holding of the group firms but also divest businesses which have lost value. Other key appointees of Chandra to execute his vision include Ankur Verma and Nipun Aggarwal, both investment bankers.

Legacy issues

While the acquisition of Corus about a decade ago and the telecom business have been criticised by ousted chairman Cyrus Mistry, Chandra has defended many of the decisions of the past. At the recent Tata Steel AGM, Chandra defended Tata Steel's $12-billion acquisition of UK-based Corus Steel in 2007, sending out clear signals on what his stand is on some of the legacy issues. On telecom, a business that's running in losses, sources said all options would be explored if buyers cannot be found.

Nano, a brand associated with Ratan Tata, has also been under attack from the Mistry camp. Insiders say that Tatas are not looking at closing Nano anytime soon and that an electric variant could be a possibility. However, some believe that new safety standards that will be made compulsory for all cars may push out Nano from the market.

Not TCS-centric

Even as there was an apprehension that Chandra would be TCS-centric as he has spent 30 plus years there, his energies have been evenly distributed on group companies, another source said. The two businesses that the group is paying maximum attention to under Chandra are Tata Motors and the Indian business of Tata Steel, it is learnt.

At Tata Motors, for instance, the priority is to renew focus on CVs, which is the main business and where market share has fallen from 60 to 40 per cent. In June, the company appointed Girish Wagh, the brain behind products such as Tata Ace and Nano, as the CV business head. The appointment came following the company's loss in market share to its competitors in the segment. This month, it also appointed P B Balaji as the new group chief financial officer for Tata Motors. Balaji was earlier CFO at Hindustan Unilever.

Tata Power, too, is on the radar with important steps likely to unfold there as well, a source said.

Contracts terminated

In yet another indication of how things are being executed under Chandra, a circular was issued to Tata companies recently to terminate all contracts with Shapoorji Pallonji group, that holds over 18 per cent in Tata Sons. While in 2013 a decision was taken to end all contracts between the two groups as Cyrus Mistry became Tata Sons chairman, Chandra reiterated the message so that there's no fresh business dealing between the two.

Looking ahead

Even as the Tatas continue to fight the legal battles with the Mistry group, recently hired general counsel-Shuva Mandal-is believed to have taken control of things. And when it comes to communicating, Chandra's recently given his first interview to a foreign publication-Fortune-laying out his plans for the Tata group. In contrast, Mistry hardly ever spoke to the media when he was the chairman.

On Chandra's equations with Ratan Tata, a source said, ''It's not a new relationship. Ratan Tata had picked Chandra to head TCS and the two met and travelled together often.'' He added that Chandra still meets Ratan Tata often to ''keep him apprised rather than to seek approval for anything.''

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