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.
In February he was installed as chairman of Tata Sons, the private holding company that controls TCS and hundreds of other businesses that make up the Tata Group, India’s largest and most venerable conglomerate—one that owns Western brands such as Land Rover and Tetley Tea. His appointment as chairman (which at Tata is essentially the CEO role) followed an abrupt board decision last October to sack Tata Sons’ previous chairman, Cyrus Mistry, a scion of the family that remains Tata’s largest private shareholder. ... Colleagues and investors hope Chandra can transfer to the rest of Tata some of the digital magic he sprinkled on TCS, where he tripled sales and profits during his seven years as CEO. But, as one might expect of a relentless marathoner, Chandra himself suggests that whipping Tata into shape will involve some grueling workouts. ... In an April town hall with executives from Tata companies, he stressed the importance of group unity and collaboration with a slide deck touting the virtues of “One Tata.” But in other meetings, that message has been twinned with a warning that the group must have clearer lines of accountability, and that Chandra will establish detailed metrics to evaluate the performance of the various operating companies.