He was one of the few people who were awarded Bharat Ratna during their lifetime.
Diversification of Tata Group
The group seemed to make everything and do everything. One of Tata's earliest achievements was to cajole ten rival cement companies to merge and form the Associated Cement Companies, run by the Tatas.
As an industrialist, JRD Tata is credited with placing the Tata Group on the international map. As an aviator and pioneer flier, he brought commercial aviation to India.
And as a philanthropist, he was respected for keeping alive and building up the tremendously active Tata charitable trusts.
Against all odds
From 1964 to 1991 severe government controls on big business further curbed the growth of the Tata Group.
Analysing his own performance, JRD Tata insisted that his only real contribution to the group of companies was Air-India. For the rest, he generously gave credit to his executives.
A Leader and Motivator
Leadership, according to JRD meant motivating others. 'As chairman, my main responsibility is to inspire respect.'
Be that as it may, Tata spotted talent easily. And once he was confident that a manager would perform, he gave him a long rope. If they wanted to be on their own, like Sumant Moolgaokar, he left them to it. If they occasionally wanted a shoulder to cry on, like Darbari Seth, JRD was there.
It was an environment where scientists of international repute such as Homi Bhabha, leading lawyers such as J D Choksi and Nani Palkhivala, and economists such as John Matthai, A D Shroff, D R Pendse and Freddie Mehta could flourish.
Moreover, in most of the family firms, the top management tended to belong to the same community as the promoter family. With the Tatas, it was different: only merit counted.
Tata's role model in management was the British civil service. How was it, he wondered 'that a young Briton straight from college, could come to a foreign country and administer various departments with such distinction?'
The Tata Group faced a constant shortage of managers, and JRD carried out many experiments to expand and improve the pool of talent. His first attempt—the formation of the Superior Staff Recruiting Committee—failed when none of the recruits stayed with the corporation.
Eventually he formed the Tata Administrative Service and the Tata Management Training Centre at Pune.
JRD's respect for his managers bound the group. 'I am a firm believer that the disintegration of the Tata Group is impossible,' he once declared.
Most business groups have disintegrated or drifted apart because of family ownership and management, with rival family members wanting to go their own way. In contrast, the Tata Group companies are run by professionals who firmly believe in the trusteeship concept laid down by J N Tata as also by Mahatma Gandhi.
A university dropout, JRD was something of a self-taught technocrat, and died long before the phrase 'war for talent' was coined. Yet, almost every senior Tata director from the 1930s onwards held a degree from a foreign university. Tata willingly financed bright young boys who wanted to go abroad for further education.
He was also a vital bridge between the scientific establishment and the government through his founding of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and as the longest serving member of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Tata's personal interest in technology, combined with India's isolation in the 1950s and 1960s, spurred several group companies, particularly Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals, to innovate in their fields. At Tata Steel, a Research and Control Laboratory had been opened in 1937, and its researchers developed an extensive variety of special steels for applications as varied as parachute harnesses and razor blades.
The lab also developed a high-tensile alloy steel—Tiscrom—which made it possible for the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta to be built entirely from Indian materials. Another corrosion resistant, low-alloy high-yield strength steel—Tiscor—was used for the manufacture of all-metal steel coaches on the Indian railways.
A company, which uses the name Tata, shares a tradition. The symbol 'T' has to be a symbol of quality.'
The achievements of the Tata Group would not have been possible without the support of its workforce. Before JRD took over, the labour situation at key Tata plants was frequently tense despite the fact that management had poured millions into subsidised housing for workers, offered free medical and hospital treatment, as well as free education and was miles ahead of government legislation in terms of labour practices.
For example, Tata Steel pioneered the eight-hour day in 1912, long before the principle had been accepted in the United States or Europe (Britain introduced the twelve-hour day in 1911).
Tata Steel introduced leave with pay in 1920, and in India this was established by law in 1945. Tata Steel set up a provident fund in 1920, which was not legalised until 1952.
Tata asked the question: if the workers were being treated exceptionally well, why were they frequently discontented and mistrustful and hostile towards the company?
According to Tata, the crux of any successful labour policy lay in making workers feel wanted. One of the inherent drawbacks of modern industry with its large and concentrated labour forces was that each man felt 'that instead of being a valued member of a friendly and human organisation, he was a mere cog in a soulless machine.'
JRD was India's most well known industrialist, widely respected for his enormous contribution to the development of Indian industry and aviation in particular.
Tata headed India's largest industrial conglomerate with uncommon success. But this was only one aspect of his life. He was also a man of great sensitivity and was pained by the poverty he saw around him and sought vigorously to alleviate it.
He also was a philanthropist who wanted India to be a happy country and did all he could to make it so; a patron of the sciences and the arts; and a man with a passion for literature, fast cars, skiing, and flying.
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