Cyrus Mistry, businessman, 1968-2022

An engineer by training, few would have predicted that publicity-shy Cyrus Mistry would become known for one of the most gruesome feuds in Indian corporate history, shaking the foundations of one of India’s most respected conglomerates. India, Tata Sons.

Mistry, who died in a road accident at the age of 54, was born into a prosperous industrial family in South Mumbai, the youngest son of patriarch Pallonji Mistry. But it was the family’s 70-year alliance with the Tata dynasty, members of the close-knit Parsee business community, that would shape the life of the billionaire scion.

Educated at the elite Mumbai Cathedral and the John Connon School, founded five years before the family business, in 1860, Mistry studied civil engineering and management in London before taking the reins of Shapoorji Pallonji & Co. in 1991. The construction company, one of the largest in India, had already delivered prestigious buildings including the Reserve Bank of India. Under Cyrus’ guidance, he undertook even larger projects such as stadiums and factories.

The Mistrys were the largest shareholders in Tata Sons, with an 18% stake, and Cyrus took over the family board seat in 2006. After Tata Group patriarch Ratan Tata took mandatory retirement at the age of 75 in 2012, Mistry became the conglomerate’s first outside chairman. its founding family.

“I thought he had all the credentials for the role and would serve for many decades,” said Mukund Rajan, who served on Mistry’s executive board at Tata Sons and now chairs an investment company. He described Mistry as “extremely well read”, with a sharp financial mind: “He could look at a balance sheet and know exactly what was going on.”

Anand Sharma, then Indian Trade and Industry Minister, meeting Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry in 2011 © Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Although Mistry spent a year as deputy to the patriarch before becoming president, his task was difficult. Ratan Tata, who led the group for more than two decades, had made a series of successful acquisitions, including British carmaker Jaguar Land Rover and European steel company Corus. However, the British steel operation was haemorrhaging money and Mistry was looking for an exit.

“Cyrus inherited a situation where [Tata] Engines and [Tata] Steel faced major challenges, including a large volume of debt incurred just before the global financial crisis, and it had to act quickly,” Rajan said.

But Ratan Tata was still chairman of the Tata Trusts, a charity which is the majority owner of Tata Sons, and tensions between the pair over the band’s future have been widely reported. After four years of souring relations, Mistry was unceremoniously fired, shocking a Mumbai business company accustomed to Tata’s genteel manner.

Mistry, determined to defend his reputation and his family’s position, argued that his dismissal was unlawful and sparked a fight back against India’s most powerful corporation at the time.

“It’s about governance – it’s not about me, it’s not about my position,” Mistry told the FT in a rare 2016 interview, alleging Ratan Tata had undue influence about Tata’s operating companies, a claim that Tata Sons has strongly denied. “Everything I said was said for the long-term interests of the band,” Mistry said.

The ensuing battle played out in the court system, sullied the reputable Tata brand and shone a spotlight on industry governance standards. Many Indian businessmen criticized Mistry’s campaign, which targeted India’s best-known conglomerate and hit the stock price of Tata companies.

Accusations have been made on both sides of conflicts of interest, mismanagement and failures of governance. However, Mistry kept his reputation for fair play: “For an Indian businessman, he was scrupulously honest and meticulous about the rules,” said Coomi Kapoor, a journalist and author of a book chronicling the families’ history. parsees of India.

Mistry, who is survived by his wife, Rohiqa Chagla and their two children, won an unexpected victory in 2019 when a lower court ruled he should be reinstated. But in 2021, the long battle was over – India’s Supreme Court overturned the earlier judgment in favor of the Tata Group.

Although the current chairman of Tata Sons, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, was quick to pay tribute to Mistry, Indian companies noted the silence of his old enemy, Ratan Tata.

Mistry’s untimely death sparked a reassessment of the feud in many quarters. “He rose to the challenges of the job, and perhaps, in the process of consultation and execution, he may have been misunderstood or misjudged,” tweeted R. Gopalakrishnan, author and former director of Tata Sons. . The writer added: “He was a good soul.”

Chloe Cornwall

Cyrus Mistry, businessman, 1968-2022

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