Tata Motors of India keeps its growth plan on track

India's Tata Group ttm— the country's oldest and largest conglomerate — has become a powerhouse in the 21st century, focusing on core businesses such as steel and automobiles and seizing opportunities, including the hugely profitable outsourcing business, that came with India's dramatic economic transformation.

A slew of recent acquisitions, including for Britain's Tetley Tea and Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, have thrust the Tata conglomerate — comprising 98 companies — into the global spotlight.

A year ago, Tata Steel became the world's sixth-biggest steelmaker when it bought Britain-based Corus Group for $13 billion. Then in January, Tata Motors grabbed the world's attention when it unveiled the planet's cheapest car: a $2,500 four-seater, the Nano, that could change the global auto industry.

The company has also been named the preferred bidder for Ford Motor's Jaguar and Land Rover businesses.

"We have been thinking bigger than we have done in the past," said Chairman Ratan Tata, 70, in an interview at Bombay House, the group's headquarters. "We have been bolder … and we have been more aggressive in the marketplace."

In five years through March 2007, annual group sales more than doubled to $29 billion, while market capitalization of its 27 listed companies increased six-fold, to $78 billion. The numbers do not include Corus, with sales totaling $19 billion in 2006.

While recent rapid earnings growth at Tata Steel and Tata Motors has slowed, net profit at Tata Consultancy, India's biggest outsourcing company, rose 21% in the October-December quarter.

The globalization strategy will only get bigger, said Tata. "We are at an early stage."

For decades after India's independence from Britain in 1947, the government fixed prices, imposed curbs on foreign goods and capital, brought draconian tax laws and set limits to what a company could produce. The restrictive regime stifled growth and bred corruption.

The Tata Group was hit harder than others because it strove to create a business culture that emphasized transparency and integrity. Tata executives are known for refusing to pay bribes, a widespread Indian practice, and their lifestyles are mostly modest.

When Ratan ascended to the top job in 1991, India's economy was starting to open up, but the Tata group was almost falling apart. Sales were sluggish, and government controls had limited new investments.

Ratan, a Cornell University graduate with a bachelor's degree in architecture, started cleaning house. He pushed out a generation of executives and jettisoned several peripheral businesses.

At Tata Steel, tens of thousands of jobs were cut. Tata Motors built the first fully Indian-designed car, the Indica — a roomy hatchback rolled out in 1998.

Tata Consultancy Services, meanwhile, hired thousands to become a global power in outsourcing, doing back-office work and software engineering for Western firms.

Just as the group's fortunes were reviving, the Indian economy hit a slump, a slowdown aggravated in 2002 by new tensions with Pakistan.

What followed was a massive push by Tata to acquire businesses abroad. Nearly 30 overseas buyouts have since helped the group's international revenues grow fourfold to $11 billion and contributed more than a third to its total sales last year.

Takeovers include the truck unit of South Korea's Daewoo Motors, Singapore's NatSteel and Thailand's Millennium Steel. The Indian giant is also snapping up mining rights in Africa and Asia.

For all that, Ratan Tata insists he hasn't traded off the group's long-cherished values.

No Tata family members are among the country's growing list of billionaires, because the family business is owned mostly by Tata-funded charitable trusts.

A substantial portion of the group's income is channeled into various philanthropies that have helped build some of the country's finest institutions, including India's first cancer hospital.

And Tata companies are also known for offering worker benefits that are rare in India, including pension and child care allowances. Tata Steel hasn't seen a strike in the past 50 years.