This is the Tata long familiar to Indians and business watchers around the world: a group that tied itself to the principles of public service and humane treatment of workers and communities, a century before “corporate social responsibility” became a buzzword. ... Since Jamsetji set up his small trading company in 1868, it has expanded into a major name in global business, with annual turnover exceeding $100bn. Even amid this huge growth, it retained a name for stable leadership: in the first 144 years after it was founded in Mumbai, the group had only five leaders, all drawn from Jamsetji’s descendants. ... But this carefully guarded reputation for ethics and stability, a source of pride for Tata’s 660,000 employees and India itself, is now threatened by an unprecedented crisis. The upheaval began in October last year when Cyrus Mistry, the first chairman drawn from outside the founding family, was suddenly dismissed without explanation, exposing seething tensions between him and his predecessor Ratan Tata.
Together, the two of us owned more than 18,000 shares of Tejon Ranch, an investment our wives had advised us against. When we’d bought in about a year earlier, the shares had been worth nearly half a million dollars—a significant chunk of our retirement nest eggs. Tejon Ranch had appeared to us to be poorly managed. As professors who write about shareholder activism, we’d thought we’d seen an opportunity to mimic the big activists, such as Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn, who agitate to improve the transparency and performance of much larger companies. ... We had been pressuring Tejon Ranch’s executives, using the playbook that top activists have developed over the past decade or so. But the stock had tanked, we had lost more than $70,000, and we thought Bielli had lied to us.