Mistry's lame duck to Ambani's leopard: When businessmen seek refuge in the animal kingdom

Ousted Chairman of Tata Sons Cyrus Mistry leaves from Bombay House in Mumbai.
Cyrus Mistry wrote a 2,101-word letter on the affairs of the Tata group. But, two words that stood out and found its way to front page in papers, if not on the banner headlines themselves, was 'lame duck'

"I hope you do realize the predicament that I found myself in. Being pushed into the position of a "lame duck" chairman, my desire was to create an institutional framework for effective future governance of the group. I believe I had to be true to myself and the best interests of the organization. While I would be lying if I said I am not disappointed, I have a sense of pride and dignity intact in the efforts I have taken to professionalise and institutionalise, regardless of the outcome of effort, I now witness," the 48-year old wrote in the concluding paragraphs of his explosive letter.

The phrase 'lame duck' caught on as it accurately described and summed up the position the former chairman found himself in the $100 billion group. Often used in politics to describe underperforming leaders, the word has its origins in the stock market.

Several accounts, including in the US Press, said the term originated in the London Stock Exchange. Ed Quinn wrote in Denver Post quoting "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," that the expression referred to "a stock-jobber or dealer who will not, or cannot, pay his losses" and has to "waddle out of the alley like a lame duck." It also applies to a defaulter on a loan, and goes back to 18th-century London.

But, Mistry is not the first businessman to seek refuge in fowl and fauna to articulate his situation or strategy.

Almost eight years before Mistry took interest in letter writing, it was Satyam founder Ramalinga Raju who wrote an equally sensational letter. Unlike Mistry, Raju saw the national animal. He did not see himself as one. But, he saw himself riding one. "It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten," he wrote referring to the widening gap between the real and artificial numbers in the company's books. Raju's letter did not surface first in the Press like Mistry's. It was sent to the exchanges sending the regulatory apparatus into a tizzy. Sebi swung into action to ensure it was not some prank before unleasing the 'tiger' on an already beaten down stock market.

Unlike the other two, Mukesh Ambani was not in any sort of trouble, when he invoked the spotted jungle cat to describe his strategy. In an interview with The Economic Times in 2011 the Reliance Industries chairman said: "I love the leopard. It sits on top of a tree. It doesn't take any risk. Whenever it sees it can make a kill, it rapidly makes the kill. It just happens in a flash," said Ambani, who often sat observing leopards for hours in many forests. "After getting the kill, the leopard goes back to the top of the tree and sits there aaram se," he added. He wanted his company to institutionalise leopard like execution capabilities.

These are not the only animals in what some describe as the dog-eat-dog world of big business. There are some 'wily old foxes', who can trick you before you blink. There are those promoters and top executives, who run away with 'Lion's share' of the company's profits. And, then there are scapegoats. Less talk about them, the better.


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