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Cyrus Mistry: How Ratan Tata's successor won the race to Bombay House

Suman Layak and Anusha Subramanian     December 15, 2011
Dating his future wife in the early 1990s, Cyrus Pallonji Mistry drove her around in a Maruti 800. Scion of a very wealthy family, he also possessed a Porsche, but preferred the Maruti, calling it more practical and convenient. The choice of vehicle is characteristic of the understated nature of the man who has been named Tata Group chief Ratan Tata's successor.

Mistry, 43, uses a Pajero now, but he also bought a Nano soon after Tata Motors launched it. Mistry's interests include photography - mostly of holiday trips and family photos, which he likes to make large prints of and frame - and the latest in technology.

The family's favourite holiday destination may be St. Tropez on the French Riviera, says a person who has known Mistry for years, but they also love visiting Matheran, a hill station close to Mumbai, and Pune.

A keen golfter, he is frequently seen at Mumbai's Willingdon Sports Club. His two sons, Firoz, 15 and Zahan, 13, go to the school he went to, south Mumbai's Cathedral and John Connon School.

Amitabh Mundra, Managing Director, Simplex Infrastructure, describes Mistry as "extremelty downto-earth". Harsh Vardhan Goenka, Chairman, RPG Enterprises, thinks he is "incisive and intuitive, and easy to get along with". And, can see the big picture as also the minute details.

Even so, the precise reasons why Mistry, a non-executive director on the Tata Sons board as well as Managing Director of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group - which has an 18.37 per cent stake in Tata Sons - got the top job, instead of the others whose names were being bandied remains, well, a mystery. Tata Sons declined an interview with Mistry.

Some see a pattern and attribute it to Ratan Tata's push to lower the average age of senior management in the group. N. Chandrasekaran was handpicked to take over as CEO of tech giant Tata Consultancy Services at 46 in 2009. R. Mukundan took the reins of Tata Chemicals at 42 in 2008, the same year Brotin Banerjee became CEO of Tata Housing at 35 and Mukund Rajan, then 40, was appointed head of Tata Teleservices (Maharashtra). N. Srinath got the top job at Tata Communications in 2007 when he was 45.

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Other candidates from within the Tata group had also been considered, say insiders. But they were felt to be either too old or too low in the hierarchy. Mistry seemed just the right age. The only person outside the Tata fold looked at was PepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi but she opted out as she was uncomfortable with the Tata Sons structure, finding it too decentralised.

A.M. Naik, Chairman, L&T
Pallonji family being the major shareholders in Tata Sons will help Mistry. He will carry more weight: A.M. Naik
From then on it was a race between Mistry and Noel Tata, Ratan's half-brother, who headed group retail company Trent and later Tata International.

But there was also Shapur Mistry, Cyrus's elder brother, who handles the real estate and construction material business of Shapoorji Pallonji. Little is known of the relationship between Ratan and Noel, but the buzz is that all may not be well. What set apart Cyrus from Shapur? It is said of Shapur that he likes to maintain a work-life balance, while Cyrus is a workaholic. Ratan may have preferred the workaholic.

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Mistry's professional record is exemplary. Apart from growing the Shapoorji Pallonji group, he is also credited with turning around group infrastructure company Afcons.

"That was his biggest achievement," says RPG's Goenka. Mistry's new job, which he will take on after Ratan retires in December 2012, will be more challenging. A. M. Naik, Chairman, Larsen & Toubro, feels Mistry's family stake in Tata Sons "will help just as the Tata surname helped Ratan Tata when he first took over. He will carry more weight."

And, Mistry's personality will not hurt. "Once you meet Cyrus it is impossible to dislike him," says the person close to him.

Additional reporting by Sandeep Bamzai and G. Seetharaman


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