Why is it that Jamsetji Tata continues to occupy a unique and unrivalled position in the annals of Indian industry?

An interesting article by Dwijendra Tripathi, former Prof at IIMA. Prof Tripathi is the pioneer of chronicling India’s business history. It is really sad we hardly get to read and hear more of his works.

Anyways, in this piece he writes on Jamsetji Tata. Why is he still revered after so many years? He had three qualities which continues to shape today’s Tata values and also has lessons for others:

One hundred years have passed since Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata left this world. Much water has flown down the business stream, and India has produced a host of outstanding entrepreneurs and industrial leaders during this long interregnum. And, yet, Jamsetji continues to occupy a unique, unrivalled position in the annals of Indian business. There never has been even a mild challenge to hs supremacy. None is in sight, either.

What is the secret here? I can think of three reasons, all interlinked. First, Jamsetji conceived business ideas and plans that seemed impossible of accomplishment to his contemporaries. The moving force behind his projects was the desire to advance the industrial frontiers of India, not to earn mere profits. Second, in his choice of business structures and strategies he demonstrated a remarkable degree of originality that often ran counter to the prevailing wisdom. Third, his concern for values, ethics, and responsible corporate citizenship was no less than for quantifiable returns on investments.

It requires no great insight into the industrial history of India to realise that to think of launching steel production in India in the late nineteenth century was, on the face of it, foolhardy. Historical precedence, prevailing prospecting laws, the state of technological competence in the country, the colossal financial requirement, and the indifferent, if not downright hostile, attitude of the colonial government all militated against the idea. And no one could have imagined that steel manufacturing, even if somehow mounted, would yield substantial profits in the foreseeable future.

Despite all this, Jamsetji pursued his steel goal with the determination of a man almost possessed, driven by nothing but a long-term vision for his country. A similar vision led him to his hydroelectric ventures. The constraints in launching power generation were, admittedly, much less daunting, but no one could have visualised high or even quick returns accruing from the undertaking when it was conceived. Even in his textile projects, the favourite with his contemporaries, Jamsetji exhibited an uncommon sense of risk-taking when he decided to set up his Empress Mills at Nagpur, which had logistical advantages over Bombay, the favoured location for cotton mills then. Reacting to his Nagpur plans, a Marwari financer likened the Empress Mills investment to “taking out earth and putting gold in the ground”. The results, however, disproved all pessimists.

His influence on Tata group remains as strong:

Jamsetji’s approaches to business ideas, strategies and ethics set the pattern for the business behaviour of the House of Tatas, and his legacy has continued to influence subsequent generations of its leaders. Except during the brief interlude of the First World War, when the Tatas, like most other business groups in the country, were swayed by short-term consideration of quick profits, they have conceived and implemented gigantic capital-intensive projects: air transport, heavy chemicals, transport vehicles, etc. These were necessary for India’s economic rejuvenation.

Developing passenger cars indigenously, instead of through the soft collaborative route preferred by other Indian car manufacturers, is the latest example of the Tata group’s unconventional response to business opportunities. As for managerial structure, the vast Tata empire is so decentralised that a prominent Tata executive once likened it to a commonwealth. And, in terms of business ethics and values, no business house has ever stood higher in the popular imagination than the Tatas.

The Tata group, thus, continues to feel the presence of Jamsetji Tata even today. It has been said that giants like him are not easily duplicated. It can be added that his kind never die.

Hmmm.

Well, business history is one ares which is not really talked about and seen of any value. But much of economic activity remains around businesses ability to compete and innovate. They clearly play a central role. Business history though is different from the kind of economic history we usually read. EH is mostly around certain events and institutions/economists role in those events. In BH we are talking about how the entire enterprise was built, the challenges faced by the earlier generations, the inflection points faced which led to either surge or decline, the role of the founder and so on. It is far more micro in nature. It is really interesting to read and figure the history of businesses which provide us with bulk of today’s goods and services. 

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