Maybe Tata, Jaguar/Land Rover is not such an odd couple

Down a tree-lined street, the headquarters of Tata Sons feels tucked away. Practically hidden. One of India's most respected and admired companies occupies the Bombay House, a brown, four-story building built by Tata ttm in 1924, two blocks from traffic-jammed Mahatma Gandhi Road.

Still, the only time Ravi Kant, the chairman of Tata's (pronounced TAH-tuh) burgeoning motor division, gets a break from honking taxis down the block and the boisterous birds chattering at his window is when hammering by workers somewhere in the building drowns out other sounds.

From this modest, wood-paneled office, Kant is overseeing the most audacious double-play the auto industry has seen in years: Launching the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano, and taking over luxury brands Jaguar/Land Rover from Ford Motor.

Although the Jaguar deal won't close until June and Nano production begins later this year, Kant already has issued a clear directive: Keep these vehicle lines separate and distinct. "Each is going to chart its own future and own course," he says. "The conflict would come if we were to try to put them together."

Tata's catapult into the news took many Americans by surprise. And with regard to Jaguar, some have questioned whether an Indian company almost unknown in North America is the best steward for one of the world's best-known car brands.

"We are talking about perception and image," said shareholder activist Evelyn Y. Davis at Ford's annual shareholder meeting earlier this month. "Tata sells cars that are $2,500. … How could the board sell us out to people like that, who sell cars like that?"

In fact, Tata Motors has built vehicles for more than 50 years and is part of a $28.8 billion international conglomerate with businesses that range from luxury hotels to iron and steel to cosmetics. The company is highly respected by Indians, who regard the Tata family as Americans regard the Fords. Indeed, Tata's textile mills had a head start on Henry Ford's admired labor practices, instituting eight-hour days in 1912, two years before Ford did it at auto plants in the Midwest.

Better appreciation of Tata's strengths and history turned Ken Gorin from critic to fan. Head of the Jaguar Business Operations Council, a U.S. dealer group, he once told The Wall Street Journal that sale to an Indian owner would cast "doubt over the viability of the brand."

Having gotten to know the soon-to-be owners better, he now says, "I initially expressed some reservations, and I believe I was wrong."

Ubiquitous presence

Around Mumbai, you can see the Tata conglomerate's influence on almost every corner.

There are Tata-brand trucks everywhere in the crowded streets. Many are painted in vibrant colors with "Horn OK Please!" plastered along the back, encouraging other drivers to make noise as they pass as a safety precaution.

There are the blue and white Tata Indicom billboards, advertising Tata's cellphone service. Indicom posters are plastered on apartment buildings, next to bridges, on trains.

Tourists heading to one of Mumbai's major attractions, the Gateway of India monument, click photos of the stately Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel behind it, yet another Tata business. Tata's chain of luxury hotels includes Boston and San Francisco locations and the Pierre hotel across from Central Park in New York.

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