“Today is an auspicious day being the birthday of Bhagawan Shri Sathya Sai Baba. On this day six years ago on 23 November 2011 at around 10am IST, Ratan Tata made the surprise announcement of naming Cyrus Mistry as his successor to lead Tata Sons”.
On a late night in early November 2009, Ratan Tata waited patiently for more than an hour outside the gates of Anand Kutir, Bhagawan Sathya Sai Baba’s mandir in Khar, a suburb of Mumbai. It has been nine years since Bhagawan visited Mumbai and this time He had two days of hectic programs in Mumbai which were attended by people from all walks of lives – from slum dwellers in Dharavi to Bollywood stars, Chief Minister, Union cabinet ministers and cricket legends who came calling on Bhagawan in Mumbai. On the previous day Bhagawan had blessed the new official residence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. At around 11 pm that night as Bhagawan’s motorcade came through the gates of Anand Kutir, Ratan Tata, dressed in a casual khaki and full sleeve shirt walked in to the mandir premises rather briskly with a sense of purpose and looking eager to meet Bhagawan. He was accompanied by his executive assistant Venkataramanan (Venkat). Venkat is an alumnus of Shri Sathya Sai Baba University in Puttaparthi from where he secured a Master of Business Administration before joining Tata Communications Limited.
Bhagawan’s divine nature includes His unpredictability. Ratan Tata was granted a personal interview that lasted for almost an hour and ended at around midnight.
So what solution was Ratan Tata seeking? Wealth? Health? Spouse/children issues? No. But perhaps the single biggest personal issue in his life at that moment was choosing a successor to the Tata group empire. Earlier in the year Tata had announced his retirement plans and commissioned an expert working group to undertake global search to recruit his successor to the position of Executive Chairman of Tata Sons, the holding company of around hundred Tata group companies that produce and market salt to Jaguar cars and software to multinational companies across the world.
So was Ratan Tata seeking guidance and blessing from Bhagawan in recruiting a successor to lead Tata Sons?
The answer to the above question may never be known, as Tata may very well take the answer to this question also to his *grave!
For students of Indian corporate organizational behavior researching the business success formula in the Indian corporate context, its associated power plays and leadership traits there are important questions emanating from Tata Sons’ corporate saga between 2009 when Ratan Tata commissioned a search comprising of Cyrus Mistry and his confident R Krishnakumar through to the dramatic selection of Cyrus as the Executive Chairman on 23 November 2011, his ejection personally engineered by Ratan Tata and the ongoing court battles between Cyrus, Tata and now Venkat. Venkat had by that time become the shadow of Ratan Tata and as the gate keeper to Tata’s Bombay House office wielded tremendous power. Unlike N Srinath and Mukund Rajan who also had their stints in Tata’s office as his Executive Assistants, Venkat became the “go to person” within Tata Sons.
Of course, it is very lonely at the top of a complex organization like Tata Sons. Ratan Tata the celebrated bachelor who crafted the bachelor status as an extended personal sacrifice element of the brand Tata, was even more vulnerable to the accompanying dystopia of running the complex organization and at the same time looking for a successor to him.
During this time and as Ratan Tata finished his first interview with Bhagawan Sathya Sai Baba, Venkat was the most powerful person within Tata Sons and later on played a key role in the selection process of Cyrus Mistry as the most trusted assistant of Tata who even guarded the Tata’s most personal thoughts.
And some facts which could be brushed aside as mere coincidences.
- The surprise announcement of the appointment of Cyrus Mistry as Executive Chairmen of Tata Sons was made on 23 November 2011which also happens to be the most auspicious day in the calendar of Bhagawan Shri Sathya Sai Baba’s devotees around the world even after His Samadhi. This being the first birthday celebration after His Samadhi that took place earlier in the year on 24 April 2011.
- Two individuals Ratan Tata relied on in addition to Venkat in the tumults days of planning and executing Cyrus Mistry’s ejection are Venu Srinivasan and N Chandrasekhar. Venu was appointed to the Tata Sons board in August 2016 and Chandra was appointed to the board immediately after the ejection of Cyrus in October 2016 and later appointed to the position of the Executive Chairman of Tata Sons. Venu and Chandra have been the closest devotees of Bhagawan Sathya Sai Baba and were instrumental in promoting various charitable projects under the auspices of Shri Sathya Sai Central Trust. Venu’s wife Mallika Srinivasan was also appointed to the board of Tata Steel in May 2012 along with Executive Chairman designate Cyrus Mistry
Venkat has become the most powerful person in the Tata group echo system, and he became the Managing Trustee of the Tata Trusts that hold majority stake in Tata Sons. In October 2017, Tata Sons was transformed from Public Limited Company to a Private Limited Company and thereby delivering absolute control of the company to Tata Trusts, neutralizing all strategic options and voting rights of the largest equity holder Cyrus Investments.
Venkat has chartered a road map to emulate the working style of Shri Sathya Sai Baba charitable trusts in Tata trusts also by recruiting some of Bhagawan’s closest student devotees including Satyajit who was Bhagawan’s personal care taker when He took Samadhi in 2010
*In October 2016 when asked why Cyrus Mistry was removed as chairman of Tata Sons at a meeting of CEOs of Tata Group companies, Ratan Tata is reported to have replied that ‘the answer will probably go with me to my grave’.