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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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A Man Called the ‘Sun’

Farewell Cyrus. Like the Persian meaning of your name, you were the Sun, the eternal care giver, a glowing orb, with the demeanour of the quintessential gentleman next door. Travel safe. For we still need lessons from your grace and quiet dignity, while we are at this end of eternity.

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Cyrus Mistry

This is a tribute to an individual whom I have never interacted with. But about whom, I have heard a lot about, from individuals who have worked or interacted with him, or for him. A common thread in all these reminiscences is that he was polite yet firm, humble, but with a clear vision, focussed and allowed people to flourish under his leadership. Those who knew him recall his ability to listen without interrupting, and his comments that were never acerbic and tended to be empathetic even when he disagreed completely with the interlocutor. He was a silent philanthropist, who did not seek publicity for his beliefs.

Then why do I feel as though I have lost someone I knew well? Was it because Mistry’s fight for his right had created a media blitz for far too long? For me, the learning as a professional who watched the bitter battle that unfolded in Cyrus Mistry’s fight for his right was simply this: there are Holy Grails in every large business house and the minority protection rights ‒ despite owning an 18 per cent stake ‒ was a mirage. 

Well, Cyrus Mistry was the son of a wealthy billionaire and never showed off his wealth or status. Despite leaving the chairmanship under such a cloud, he was never bitter and did not go public with his grievances. He maintained his calm towards the group he had led for a few years. Even though businesses where his family held stakes were in financial stress, he did not browbeat anyone. He silently sold stakes in many of these entities to financially restructure his business enterprise. He proved that he could say ‘Na’ and ‘No’‒ something he had probably tried earlier as another avatar, ruffling many feathers. He showed mettle and dignity in making business decisions and not in belabouring the point about business failure or bad cycles in the industry segment. His style was grounded and approachable. He was curious about the future and in his role as the chairman of the Tata Group, had questioned the reason for existence of many of the group’s businesses ‒ a valid rational exercise worthy of listed entities where public monies are at stake. But was it acceptable in the quieter corridors of those whom he had to deal with?

*Age proved a hurdle

Being young was probably the one factor that hurt him most in the board room. As most Indian corporate boards have witnessed, age is a Holy Grail that has a grip on company boards and their decisions, and yet, we speak of governance with a sentiment that’s unbelievably vain. Succession planning still does not exist in most of Corporate India. And even if it did, does it become a mere pulley of the older guard? Was this a challenge that Mistry had faced? Well, only true insiders would know and these secrets will lie buried in time. 

As the Tata Group chairman, it was his job to lead. Probably he did not allow for much leverage against him to toe someone else’s line. In Mistry’s case, any decision that he would have taken for the group would have an impact on his own family’s wealth ‒ for they had more to lose with their stake otherwise. When he took over, he kept his family enterprise, the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, away from construction contracts with the Tata Group. This would have meant substantial loss of business, for the two groups had enjoyed this working relationship for decades before. 

It should be acknowledged that for the first time, the Tatas appointed a Brand Custodian at the Holdco level, under his leadership. Not an easy task, and yet done without much ado. There were no controversies, no flashy news or gossip columns about him, either before, during or after his stint as the Group Chairperson. When President Obama visited India, Mistry was appointed by the Indian Prime Minister as the Co-Chair of the Indo-US forum. In that high profile role for a high profile global summit, not many had actually heard of Mistry. He played the perfect host, staying in the background, getting things ready. That’s another sign of a tall leader. Especially one who did not want any limelight.

Persian for the Sun

In Mistry’s passing away at a young age, Indian business has lost a sharp leader. With the heavy legacy burden that he knew he had to shoulder, of being Tata Group Chairman (at the age of 43 years), surely he was ready to wear down his youth for the benefit of India’s stalwart group’s future?

This is exactly why this news was a reality check to see which of the corporate giants in India, including his past associations, mourn his passing away in public. Thankfully decency still exists and many did. Old guards can have the grace and decorum to pay a mark of respect for the departed soul. As most religions and philosophies preach, paying respect to the departed is decency and humane. 

For all the battle he had to fight to clear his name, had justice been done? Was the fairness received in the spirit of ethics? For like many, I do feel that he had been wronged. A single individual fighting the system. Well, at some point in the future, case studies will be written on these episodes and the topics dissected. Especially when those who don’t like these topics are no longer around. Such is life in the world of business. 

Farewell Cyrus. Like the Persian meaning of your name, you were like the Sun, the eternal care giver, a glowing orb, but with the demeanour of the quintessential gentleman next door. Travel safe. For we still need lessons from your grace and quiet dignity, while we are at this end of eternity.

Srinath Sridharan, Corporate Advisor & Independent markets commentator

Twitter : @ssmumbai

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Magazine 24 Sep 2022 cyrus mistry