He is a difficult person to pin down or to pigeonhole, but get him talking and
RK Krishna Kumar is more than willing to offer up a candid, erudite and eloquent view of the world and his place in it. And Mr Krishna Kumar’s place in this world has a definite Tata flavour to it, for the simple reason that he has spent the larger part of half a century as part of the group, advancing its businesses, defending its causes, and living by the ideals that underpin a unique organisational ethos.
In this rare interview, Mr Krishna Kumar talks to Christabelle Noronha about his student days and his time with the Tatas, the people and situations that influenced and moulded him, and the highs and lows of business and all that it touches.
You have been part of the Tata organisation for close to half a century. If I were to ask you to encapsulate this lifetime of experience, where would you begin?
When I passed out of college I was looking for a kind of a career that was high on directed action. When I say directed action, what I mean is that I wasn’t lost in the glamour of a career, in remuneration and all of that. My thoughts were concentrated on the role I could play in the context of a larger canvas, where there was a mission and a purpose. Government service during those days, with the civil services and the like, certainly was a sphere where you could devote yourself to a larger purpose, but I had the good fortune of joining the Tatas.
Two-thirds of Tata Sons [the promoter enterprise of the Tata group] is owned by charities. This exerts a powerful and strategic influence on the direction that Tata companies take. For me there was a perfect alignment, in terms of the values I spoke about and the mission and operations of the group. It was, I think, a strange and beautiful convergence of individual goal and organisational purpose. This was the insight, the feeling I had when I joined the Tata Administrative Service.
You mentioned family influences. What were these like?
He had an extraordinary love for Tamil and I had just got poor marks in the language. That would change as this teacher took control of my life and opened my mind. He explained what Tamil was about and its great classics in a manner that, even after some 65 years, I continue to cherish the language. So forceful was his influence that Tamil, which is not my mother tongue, became for me a heavenly kind of bridge, between everything that was ordinary and normal and the higher place that I would one day aspire to reach.
Similarly, at Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School, I attended Bible classes conducted by Kuruvila Jacob, who I like to think is the greatest headmaster ever to grace an Indian educational institution. School was also where I first started reading Mahatma Gandhi’s works, beginning with his letters to the young. I have tried to be selfless in the way that I operate and I can trace that trait back to the influence of Gandhi’s books and other writings. Yet, to this day, I struggle with ethical dilemmas; but what this struggle has done is to hone something inside me. It may seem peculiar that at the age of 73 in the evening of my life, I continue to struggle over such issues, but that’s how it is, and my constant inspiration in this battle within me has been Gandhi.
By the time I passed out of Madras Christian College, I had become a school leader. Then I went to Loyola College, where again there were excellent teachers, in history and English literature particularly. It wasn’t only about acquiring intellectual knowledge, but also about building a solid moral foundation. I was at Loyola for four years and I truly enjoyed that period. I visited the college church quite often, mostly when there wasn’t anybody there, and this had a profound effect on me. It seemed that, while I was there, I was being nursed continuously by some unseen force.
Two years of postgraduation at Presidency College was what I pursued after Loyola and this was a definitive period of my life. I really did give up everything else, like I had never done before, to satiate my quest for knowledge. I did not spend enough of time on my regular class material; my mind was travelling in a different direction, taking in everything from quantum physics to history or sociology or even medicine.
You were a standout student...
It has become something of a paradox, I think, the way I function in two different and distinct universes. There is my job with the Tatas, which has evolved and gone through many forms, many challenges and many situations. Then there is this parallel, the intellectual journey that I embarked upon. I hope someday that these two themes will find convergence. The reason I say this is that there are so many battles, so many conflicts, so many issues and yet it is necessary for you to step back and look at the moral narrative.
The world of business and industry, if you perceive it, may seem to be all about bottom lines, financial engineering and so on. But there is a lot more to it than that, and the house of Tata shows you that there is. I sometimes like to believe that business is incidental now to the Tatas, if you can see what the group has accomplished and how it has contributed to the greater good. The central core, the principal purpose, if you will, of the Tata group is not business; it’s humanity, it’s about India and that’s what I find satisfying.
I have often thought about what would have happened if I had worked for some other business organisation, or if I had gone abroad and worked in a university or in a company. I don’t think I would ever be able to find the convergence I spoke about.
How different was the Krishna Kumar of then from the Krishna Kumar of today?
You have been, and continue to be, involved in different industries and Tata businesses. Which of these have been closest to your heart and why?
Staying on the straight and narrow in business dealings is difficult in this country. Where does that leave companies and businesses that want to do the right thing, but find themselves severely compromised if they do?
That’s what the Tatas visualised and put into action more than hundred years back. They were selfless; they were not investing in themselves. From the Founder right down to the current Chairman, it has always been about the larger objective. This has helped us crystallise our guiding principles of business, what is today termed as good governance. But it is more than just fashionable terminology. The Tatas are what they are today — big, diverse, global and successful — because they did the right things.
There are those who argue that much of the success of entrepreneurs in India today is due to ‘connections’ and crony capitalism. What would be your prescription to stem the rot?
What’s your opinion of Ratan Tata, as the architect of the modern-day Tata group, as a leader and as a person?
As a person he is one of the most humble and decent human beings I have met. He is a born leader and you can see this wherever he goes. Be it at an airport or on the street, people come up to him all the time; the manner in which he greets and speaks to them makes it seem like he has known them for years. He has a place in the history of post-Independence India.
You are part of the committee that has been handed the onerous task of finding a successor to Ratan Tata. How difficult has this task been?
Work-life balance has become a terminology that’s much in vogue. Have you been able to strike this balance? How do you find time that you can call your own?