Succession planning at Tata Trusts: Firm may get its first vice-chairman

The $103-billion Tata group is learnt to be chalking out a succession plan, and a decision is expected within months. The exercise might reflect a continuity and cohesion between Tata Sons and Tata Trusts, sources indicated.

Tata Trusts, which controls 66 per cent in the group’s holding company, Tata Sons, is chaired by Ratan Tata, while N Chandrasekaran was appointed Tata Sons chairman in January 2017. 

The chairman of both Tata Sons and Tata Trusts remained the same till the time Ratan Tata headed the group. That changed for the first time when Cyrus Mistry took over as Tata Sons chairman in December 2012 and Ratan Tata continued to chair the all-powerful Trusts. Mistry was removed as Tata Sons chairman in October 2016.

 
The deliberation revolving around the issue now is whether the group could possibly go back to the earlier concept of common leadership for Tata Sons and Tata Trusts, one of the sources mentioned above said. Perhaps for the first time, a vice-chairman would be appointed for Tata Trusts in a step towards that direction, though no concrete decision has been taken so far. While Chandra is a possible candidate for Tata Trusts vice-chairman’s position in future, the group is looking at a near-term option as well. A trustee with Sir Ratan Tata Trust or Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust (the two main trusts of the group) could be considered for the post. Former Tata Sons directors NA Soonawala and RK Krishna Kumar, who have been trustees for several years, are among the top names being discussed, a source said.

There's a distinct possibility for Chandra to be inducted as a trustee in future. Subsequently, he could be named vice-chairman of Tata Trusts, sources indicated. No timeline has been decided on that yet. The process of appointing a vice-chairman will be informal and through a consensus mechanism among the trustees. 
Tata Trusts did not comment on the matter.

"I presume, as and when Mr Tata takes a call on his successor, he will be identifying an entrepreneur with a philanthropic orientation, within Tata Trusts. That will be the ideal thing to do," said Tatwamasi Dixit, founder and director at Family Business Research International Centre (FABRIC). According to him, apppointing a common head for both the Trusts and Tata Sons, will tantamount to conflict of interest. "Where will the check and balance come from?" 

Chaired by Ratan Tata, the board of trustees in Sir Ratan Tata Trust and Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust includes NA Soonawala, JN Tata, RK Krishna Kumar, SK Bharucha, Amit Chandra, Vijay Singh, Amrita Patel, VR Mehta, Venu Srinivasan and R Venkataramanan. Overall, the group has 14 trusts focused on philanthropy in areas such as healthcare, education and more.  Tata Trusts was established in 1919, but the activities took off in a big way when Sir Dorabji Tata set up a trust in 1932 within a year of his wife Meherbai’s death. The founding corpus included ‘’trinkets’’--21 pieces of jewellery left by his wife. The trinkets meant a single-row necklace consisting of 40 graded blue diamonds set in platinum weighing almost 104 carats and the world’s sixth largest diamond (Jubilee Diamond). The corpus also included four parcels of land in Mumbai and Pune, shares in three companies and a cash deposit of Rs 2.3 million with Tata Sons, according to the original trust deed of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.

Over the years, the significance of the Trusts has grown in terms of its commercial interest in the Tata Group and the power it holds, even as charity remains its core area, a senior executive said. Because it sits over a big business empire, Tata Trusts is different from any other trust of a corporate group, he added. 

There will be a successor when there is a need for one, said Rajiv Agarwal, professor, Family Business and Strategy Programme Head at SPJIMR. ‘’There is no impending requirement because Tata Trusts is no longer an individual-driven organisation but an institution in itself.’’ But, Amit Tandon, founder and managing director at proxy advisory firm Institutional Investor Advisory Services, pointed out that companies need to always be ready with a succession plan. ‘’Given what Tata Sons has experienced, I expect that the (Tata) Trusts will be more mindful and that they will have a thought-out plan,’’ Tandon said.