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What was Cyrus Mistry really like as a person? Deep insights from a close family associate

What was Cyrus Mistry really like as a person? Deep insights from a close family associate

From taking over the reins of the Tata group to his sudden exit, Cyrus Mistry’s life was a roller-coaster ride that ended abruptly

Business tycoon Cyrus Mistry passed away at the age of 54 on  September 4, 2022 Business tycoon Cyrus Mistry passed away at the age of 54 on September 4, 2022

My earliest memory of Cyrus Mistry— and that was the first time I met him—goes back to 1975. He was a young boy and all of seven. The occasion was his navjote (the ritual through which a Parsi child is inducted into the Zoroastrian religion) and that is the age when it is normally done. It was held in the family’s home in Juhu Tara Road, a suburb in western Mumbai. My connection to the family has been there for many years. I was familiar with the business of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, having been involved in various issues related to taxation. As a result of that nature of work, I came into close contact with his father, Pallonji Mistry, and advised him not just on taxation but on areas related to legal issues as well. 

For a degree in civil engineering, Cyrus went to Imperial College in London, which is one of the most prestigious institutions in the UK. Securing admission there can only happen after going through a very competitive process and that alone is ample proof of his intelligence. As a person, he was by and large introverted, very focussed on work and showed a high level of dedication. I would describe him as someone who was definitely anything but “socially active” and Cyrus was a workaholic. His family had a substantial holding in Tata Sons—at 18.4 per cent—and he got on to its board as a non-executive director in 2006. This was after his father retired from the board in 2005. In 2012, once Ratan Tata reached the age of 75, it was natural for him to step down as non-executive chairman. The search committee was appointed much earlier to identify a successor and Cyrus was actually a part of that exercise. Ultimately, the committee itself felt he was best suited for the top job and, in December 2012, he took over as chairman of the Tata group. It would be right to say that, from the time he took over, Cyrus demonstrated a certain level of aggression and that was in rebranding the image of the Tata group. Maybe he took his job too seriously, but that was in the interest of the group and nothing else. But there was an issue since Tata Trusts, that own a significant shareholding in Tata Sons, felt he ought to be more consultative in his approach. They are the principal shareholders and, over time, a sense of discomfort and coldness developed. Much of it was led by a perception that their opinion and approval was not being sought on important decisions. 

Eventually, he was removed in October 2016 and that was nothing short of a bolt from the blue, with all the directors, at a board meeting, agreeing to the decision, except one who abstained from voting. It led to a prolonged court battle and here, a few points emerge. Right on the top was the fact that in any corporate, it is always the majority that wins and the minority, since they are smaller in number, have nothing more than limited rights. Cyrus challenged his removal in the Supreme Court, which, after hearing both parties for a lengthy period of time, came to the conclusion that the decision was valid and was in conformity with the Articles of Association of Tata Sons. Subsequent ly, Cyrus Investments filed a review petition, which was dismissed in the middle of this year by the then Chief Justice N. V. Ramana.

Once he was out of the group, he got back to running his family business. There was a marked difference in his behaviour and he rarely interacted with anyone except his family and some close friends. My feeling is that Cyrus was extremely disappointed with the verdict and chose to withdraw from public life altogether. His father passed away in June this year and Cyrus’s demise is nothing short of a tragedy. On that fateful day, he was in Udvada, Gujarat, to visit the Parsi fire temple and then, soon after, we receive the ghastly news that he is no more. It only shows the uncertainty of life and just how unpredictable everything around us is. As I look back and think about Cyrus today, it is very obvious that he was totally shattered in the manner by which he was removed from the position of the chairman of the Tata group. I will remember him as a person with a very sharp mind. He had the ability to understand facts and figures with a sound grasp of strategy. At an early stage, he took key decisions in the SP Group and, through his stint as board member of Tata Sons before assuming the top job, he was exposed to a multitude of businesses. That knowledge and invaluable insights could have been used so well, but sadly, that was not to be. Whichever way you look at it, what happened to Cyrus as the head of the Tata group or his passing away at such a young age in that tragic accident is extremely sad. His family continues to hold shares in the unlisted Tata Sons. 

In my opinion, they should just look for ways to sell it and use the proceeds to deal with the challenging situation in the SP Group. There is debt to be cleared and the money will be useful. From the Supreme Court’s point of view, they have made it clear that nothing can be done and with the Articles of Association having been changed, options are quite limited. The immediate solution is for both sides to bury the hatchet and just get on with life. With Cyrus’s passing, one must look ahead with positivity and identify ways to create a brighter and stronger future.

As told to Krishna Gopalan. Ranina is one of India’s foremost tax advocates apart from being a practising attorney. Views are personal

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