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BW Businessworld

The Suitable Boy

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Will he? Won't he? Will he? Won't he? The questions have been repeated ad nauseum over what seems like ages, but still there is no clarity over whether Noel Tata, half-brother of Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata, will take over the mantle of the group supremo when his brother retires. While Ratan Tata is due to relinquish his chair in December 2012, he has made clear that his successor will require 18 months of handover time. That means, by mid-2011, we should know the answer to the questions posed above.

In august 2010, after steering Tata's retail arm Trent for 11 years — he took Trent from a single-store company to over 90 stores — Noel, 53, had taken over as managing director of Tata International, the group's global trading company. That was his second such job in 2010 after his appointment as chairman of Tata Investment Corporation in March.

If one took these moves as signs of things to come, it wasn't to be. A week after Noel Tata's appointment as Tata International head, the group announced a selection panel to find Ratan Tata's successor —old Tata hands R.K. Krishna Kumar, N.A. Soonawala and Cyrus Mistry, group advisor and lawyer Shirin Bharucha, and corporate guru Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya —with the mandate from the chairman to look all around, including overseas. Apart from Noel, the names making the rounds include former Vodafone head Arun Sarin, Citibank's Vikram Pandit, and Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn.

Noel has the advantage of lineage, besides the small matter of being the son-in-law of the group's largest individual shareholder, Pallonji Mistry, and brother-in-law of the other Mistry on the selection panel. So, will he? Won't he? Will he… never mind, we will know soon.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-01-2011)