March 2011 | Christabelle Noronha

'I have been able to find a balance within myself'

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.

Currently a director with Tata Sons and chairman of various Tata companies operating in different industry segments, Mr Krishna Kumar has been, over the course of a remarkable and wide-ranging business career, the managing director of Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages) and Indian Hotels. That’s probably not how he may have seen his involvement with the group evolving when he joined — fresh out of the University of Madras as a postgraduate topper — the Tata Administrative Service back in 1963, but there were no doubts in his mind even then that he had found a place to call home.

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?
I would begin from the time I was a young student. The institutions I attended then — Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School, Loyola College and Presidency College in Chennai — offered a different kind of perspective. These Christian institutions belonged to a much earlier era and their foundation for intellectual endeavour was a quest for values, a quest for enduring principles. Coming through these places, and partly due to my family background and the tenets I inherited, I got strongly and boldly influenced in the way I looked at the world and my place in this world. I was extremely fortunate in being able to study at these institutions.

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?
My parents, certainly, and my extended family had a dominant role in creating the DNA of my system. But the external environment provided a tremendous stimulus, too. When I was in the fourth standard, I flunked my annual school examination and I had to repeat the year. I have always looked upon that year as the turning point of my life, and one reason was a person called Anban Isaac, a teacher of the Tamil language.

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’s a source of pride to have been recognised for academic excellence, but all of this never sat too well with me. My mind, for some reason, was forever in search of new streams of knowledge. Even today, when I have time on a Sunday, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to continue from where I have left off with my learning. I am a perpetual 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?
Internally, in terms of inspiration, not too different; there is a string of continuity in my worldview and my understanding of the foundations of life. But as a professional, yes, I wouldn’t say that I am the same today as I was when I started. My understanding of business has certainly grown. My diverse experience, including moving from one industry to another, has sharpened my business instincts and also created an appetite in me for boldness and business audacity. I don’t think I would have taken such decisions in the first two decades of my career.

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?
The one closest to my heart is Tata Global Beverages. I say that because the initial inspiration was to change the business model and changing the quality of lives of people with plantations who had remained frozen in a timeframe that is more than a century old. I was challenged by the idea of transformation and that got me started on Tata Tea, not just with its tea operations, but also with beverages and nutrition. This journey touches lives, in India and abroad, in many ways.

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?
It is a challenge and one that the Tata group has had to face. But it’s good to believe that a new world is emerging and transparency is going to become the norm. Businesses are going to be conducted in a more open system where the internet and other forms of communication make everything accessible. As with businesses, so with countries, as is evident from what is happening in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The need for open societies is more felt today than ever before. In the circumstances, there is no better alternative than to be upright and straightforward.

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?
In India, sadly, we do find that to be true. We had an era, up to the early 1990s, with plenty of constraints on growth and development. Then, in the post-1990 period, a strange thing happened: the ideology of the past was replaced by a system in which vested interests became deeply entrenched. Hopefully, the market economy which is expanding will solve this problem.

What’s your opinion of Ratan Tata, as the architect of the modern-day Tata group, as a leader and as a person?
Ratan Tata is a much revered and respected person globally. He has made seminal contributions, not only to the Tata group, but business and industry as a whole. His focus and knowledge of technology and technological development are amazing.

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?
Our committee has come to the conclusion that we cannot find a replacement for Mr Tata! We may have to change and rearrange the model in terms of what we are looking for. We are now considering people — from within the group and outside, including expatriates — who can fill the role we have in mind. There are challenges but we will soon come to a conclusion.

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?
I have certainly not been able to achieve this. I would have liked to spend more time with my wife, Ratna, Ajit, my son, my sisters and my network of family and friends. But, I have not been able to do this. That said, I have been able to find a balance within myself. Hopefully, soon, I will be able to step down and spend more time on things that I love to do.