Tata’s global bet
The Tata Group is India’s most successful global firm but its geographical spread may not always be a good thing.
The Tata Group is a much respected, admired and valued conglomerate in India and one that is also highly successful. Very often the two do not go hand in hand. It is also perceived as a very ethical corporate group, having played a significant role in nation building since its inception in 1868 – creating country’s first steel plant, power station, luxury hotel, domestic airline and information and technology company.
In recent times, it has also become increasingly global in nature. The group that has over 100 operating companies under its wing today operates in more than 100 countries spread across 6 continents. In fiscal 2016, international revenues amounted to $69.6 billion — 67.3 per cent of overall group revenues.
The intent and ambition to become a global household name dates back to 1962 when Tata Exports, which is now Tata International, was set up. But the company truly became global with a series of relentless acquisitions largely under Ratan Tata’s two-decade stewardship between 1991 and 2012. Between 1995 and 2003 the group made, on an average, one purchase a year. In 2004 six companies were acquired. That number more than trebled to 20 in 2005-06. Till date, the Tata group has effected 52 acquisitions overseas in its 148-year existence.
“I hope that a hundred years from now we will spread our wings far beyond India, that we become a global group, operating in many countries, an Indian business conglomerate that is at home in the world, carrying the same sense of trust that we do today,” said Tata in 2004.
As such there have been many high profile takeovers beginning with Tata Tea’s acquisition of Tetley in 2000; Tata Steel’s acquisitions including Corus, NatSteel and Millennium Steel; Tata Motor’s take-over of Jaguar and Land Rover and Daewoo Commercial Vehicles; Brunner Mond and General Chemical Industrial Products by Tata Chemicals; and Tyco Global Network by Tata Communications in the US.
Not all of them have been successes and the surge in group’s revenues in the latter half of Tata’s tenure has made the group flabby and unwieldly. Ironically, it is the same problem that he dealt with and overcame so well in his first few years as chairman. The global meltdown of 2008 makes many of the acquisitions look disastrous. The biggest, Tata Steel’s $12.8-billion Corus deal in 2007, is a prime example. While it looked like Tata had overpaid for the European assets even then, the steep fall in prices of the commodity and structural problems in global steel industry sent the company into a tail spin. Tata Steel’s European operations today are one of the group’s biggest liabilities, one that it is now desperate to get rid of.
The failure of that acquisition also gnaws at the group’s very foundation. Despite the sheer number of companies and the diversity among them, three companies — TCS, Tata Motors and Tata Steel — account for 75 per cent of the group’s combined revenue. A majority of the capital employed in the group’s other companies deliver very modest returns.
If Tata Steel continues to flounder, it may precipitate an existential crisis at the country’s most respected business house. The success of all its other overseas ventures then, may mean nothing.