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Ishaat Hussain: The wise man of Bombay House

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-08-2017 Harish Bhat

Over the past four decades, Ishaat Hussain has worn many hats in the Tata Group. But who really is this corporate veteran, and what has made him such a stalwart? He has been finance director of Tata Sons Ltd, the holding company of the Tata Group. He has also been chairman of Voltas, the consumer durables company of Tata that has delivered superlative shareholder returns over the past few years.

He has played a key role in steering the fortunes of companies as diverse as Tata Steel Ltd, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and Titan, as a senior director on their boards. He has helped nurture many strong alliances, in companies such as Tata Sky, Tata AIA Life Insurance and Tata AIG. He has been a voice for the group par excellence, having successfully handled difficult situations ranging from the Tata Finance episode nearly two decades ago, to the extraordinary general meetings of some Tata firms less than a year ago.

Yet, as he retires from the Tata Group, he is best known to many not merely as a senior finance whiz, or as chairman of several successful companies, but as the wise man of Bombay House, the stately building in south Mumbai that serves as headquarters to India’s largest corporate group.

R. Gopalakrishnan, a former director of Tata Sons, describes him in two wonderful words—“wise and dependable”. Other colleagues who have worked closely with him recall his instinctive diplomatic skills, and his thoughtful decision-making—both signs of wisdom in corporate life.

Hussain has had the unique experience of working closely with four chairmen of the Tata Group over his long tenure of 36 years—J.R.D. Tata, Ratan Tata, Cyrus Mistry and now N. Chandrasekaran.

For most of his distinguished career in Tata Sons, he was a key member of Ratan Tata’s core team, contributing actively to a long period of rapid and sustained growth. These were the two decades when the Tata Group successfully entered several new consumer businesses, made pioneering global forays, struck new alliances and, along the way, also listed its flagship business Tata Consultancy Services. Hussain’s wise mind and steady hand helped steer and support many of these bold new ventures. Should he ever decide to write his memoirs, there will be many interesting stories.

These stories will include his extensive interactions with colourful legends of the Tata Group, including Russi Mody and Jamshed Irani of Tata Steel, Darbari Seth of Tata Chemicals, and Xerxes Desai of Titan. There will be gripping narratives, I am sure, of some extraordinary business turnarounds that Hussain has been an integral part of—including Titan’s jewellery business, and Voltas’s air-conditioning business, both strong market leaders today.

But I am sure the most interesting stories will be about the people he nurtured and worked with, because Hussain has always been, in his essence, a people and relationships man.

One such person is P. Venkatesalu, currently the finance director of Trent Ltd. He has worked closely with Hussain, and talks about two facets that have most impressed him. “Ishaat has balanced a strong drive for results coupled with a humane approach. He has developed an instinctive appreciation for where value emanates from—and a distinctive corollary of this has been his emphasis on consciously choosing what not to do. This ‘inversion’ approach has stood us in good stead many times over.” C.K. Venkataraman, CEO of Tanishq, highlights another important facet when he recalls what Hussain said at his farewell event in Titan, “I have always believed in only seeing the positive side of any person.”

I have interacted with Hussain for many years now, during my stints in Titan and Tata Sons. I have seen many CEOs in the Tata Group spontaneously turn to him for guidance. What has stood out for me is his absolute focus on doing what is right, his unique blend of being tough and gentle at the same time, his pragmatism and his native wisdom.

Many of these unique characteristics come together in the words of N. Chandrasekaran, chairman, Tata Sons. Chandra describes Hussain as “an outstanding director on our boards, a great coach, and a fabulous human being.”

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of the book “Tata Log”.

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