Jamsetji Tata, India’s Industrial Master - Mentora Institute

Jamsetji Tata, India’s Industrial Master

This article was originally published in Investor’s Business Daily.

Jamsetji Tata was a yes man.

He never took no for an answer.

That quality in the father of Indian industry sparked one of the world’s biggest conglomerates.

The Tata industrial group is a sprawling set of companies involved in everything from steel, power generation, cement, insurance and aviation to software, autos and consumer products.

The Tata group built India’s first locally produced car, the Indica. Tata Consulting Services is Asia’s biggest software firm. Sales are expected to hit $82 billion in 2010-11.

“The pioneering mindset came from Jamsetji,” Columbia University Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa told IBD.

Born when India was under Britain’s rule, Jamsetji (1839-1904) often heard “no” from his overlords.

Aiming High

“Life in India during English colonialism came along with discrimination. Instead of resigning himself to it, Jamsetji Tata set up aspirational goals for himself,” Wadhwa said.

Jamsetji, who built the Taj Mahal Palace, India’s grandest hotel, got the idea for the project after he tried to take a European friend to dinner at Bombay’s swank Pyrke’s Apollo Hotel and was told he couldn’t cross the threshold because he was Indian.

Another no-no was Indians entering industry. Britain’s Raj dictated that locals lacked a grounding in science to make steel, which was to industry what computer chips are today. “A British official commented that if an Indian steel plant could produce any steel, he would eat every ingot,” Wadhwa said.

If natives desired an education, their only hope lay in attending a British model school — in India or at an institution in England. The notion of Indians creating a school to tutor their children in advanced subjects was unheard of.

Jamsetji made it his life’s work for Indians to do all of the above.

From 1880 to his death, Jamsetji was propelled by three great ideas:

• Launching a successful Indian-owned iron and steel company.

• Generating hydroelectric power in India.

• Creating a world-class institution in his country for locals to learn science and technology.

All three projects came to pass, though Jamsetji died before their fruition. They laid the groundwork for India’s largest conglomerate.

“Jamsetji was an ardent nationalist,” Wadhwa said. “The industrial revolution that had touched and transformed most nations had bypassed India. Jamsetji was keen to move India from the Middle Ages to the threshold of the 20th century.”

Jamsetji believed in doing things on a grand scale, launching big, capital-intensive projects. He figured only large-scale efforts could spur development in India’s huge mass.

The only son of a fire-worshipping Parsi priest, Jamsetji was born in western India’s sleepy town of Navsari.

Generations of his family had dedicated their lives to the priesthood of the Zoroastrian religion. Jamsetji became the first to rebuff a religious path and enter business.

Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna notes that many successful companies in developing nations have roots in ethnic communities. The Tatas were no exception, “one of the anchors and linchpins of the Parsi community,” said Khanna, a co-author of “Winning in Emerging Markets.”

In Class

Jamsetji moved to Bombay at age 14 and enrolled at Elphinstone College, a British-style school, where he got a liberal education and developed a love of reading.

On graduating in 1858, he decided on a business path. But his move came at an ugly time for an Indian.

The British had just crushed a bloody mutiny by Indian troops in 1857 and were treating locals harshly. The crackdown demoralized the natives and created a bearish business climate.

Still, Jamsetji persevered. His priestly father had nixed going into business full time, but had set up a small merchant bank to keep his family secure. Jamsetji joined it when he was 20 and worked for his father for the next nine years.

His years of learning hit critical mass in 1868 when, at 29, he founded a private trading company called Tata Group. He was joined in the enterprise by his sons, Ratan and Dorab, and a cousin, R.D. Tata.

Jamsetji then traveled to England, where he visited textile mills and widened his tech knowledge.

Returning to Bombay in 1869, he bought a run-down property, turned it into a cotton mill and flipped it, at great profit, to build better mills.

Man And Machines

Jamsetji grasped the power of modern business organization. Though Tata remained family owned, he tried to break with a rigid Indian system that relied on family managing agencies to run businesses by following the more professional British way of appointing outside directors.

All this led in January 1877 to the opening of Jamsetji’s pivotal enterprise: the Nagpur-based Empress Mills close to Bombay.

He chose Nagpur because of its nearness to a railhead, cotton, water and fuel. Jamsetji also had the wherewithal to use a revolutionary ring spindle device at the cotton mill even though the device hadn’t come into wide use in the U.S., where it was invented.

Jamsetji decided to enter the iron and steel business after he was inspired by a Thomas Carlyle lecture during an 1880 trip to England to buy textile machines. Carlyle impressed the Indian tycoon with his argument that the nation that gained control of iron would soon acquire control of gold.

Jamsetji’s project was dogged by man-made and natural hurdles. Colonial officials delayed his approvals, and he had trouble locating equipment and iron ore in India’s rugged terrain.

Undaunted, Jamsetji assembled his venture one step at a time.

He generated hydroelectric power to run factories in Bombay.

He also paid for a school called the Indian Institute of Science, though British officials told him they doubted if any Indians wanted to study science.

Harvard’s Khanna says the school was Jamsetji’s response to a chronic human capital shortage in India. Confronted by a lack of engineers and other specialists, he decided to train them himself.

Jamsetji died before the completion of the steel, hydro and school projects. But Ratan and Dorab, the scions who steered Tata to even greater heights in the 20th century, brought each to fruition.

The first steel ingot rolled off the Tata Iron & Steel Co. production line 150 miles west of Calcutta in 1912, eight years after his death. Soon it made 70,000 tons annually.

The governor of Bombay helped lay the foundation for Jamsetji’s hydroelectric plant in 1911.

Using their father’s endowment, the sons started the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 1911.

Jamsetji pioneered worker welfare programs and started Tata Group’s involvement in Indian charity work. Many Tata firms today fund anti-poverty programs on the subcontinent. “In a free enterprise, the community is just not another stakeholder in the business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence,” he once said.

Jamsetji was something of an ascetic. Despite wealth and fame, his daily garb consisted of a simple white costume with a Parsi turban, says Columbia’s Wadhwa.

Doing What’s Right

Harvard’s Khanna says Jamsetji and his descendants prided themselves on business ethics. While some Indian firms have been hit by corruption, this is not the case with Tata Group. “The Tatas have been clean through the generations,” Khanna said. “It’s very important for a country that’s trying to escape from corruption as a cancer.”

Jamsetji also had the last laugh when his Taj Mahal Palace opened in 1903, one year before he died. The first building in Bombay to use electricity, it boasted American fans, German elevators and English butlers. And people of all races could cross its threshold.

Tata died while on a business trip in Nauheim, Germany.

This article was originally published in Investor’s Business Daily.