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Shapoorji Pallonji is a man who rarely appears in public and why he matters. The man who holds a bigger stake in the Tata Group, than any of the Tatas themselves is a reclusive millionaire - or is it billionaire?
An association that's half a century old and yet nowhere in the history of the Tata Group is the Mistry family mentioned by name. The Group's largest stakeholder Pallonji Mistry's father Shapoorji, muscled his way into Tata Sons by buying out solicitor FE Dinshaw's estate which was equal to 12.5% of Tata Sons. When JRD Tata took over, Shapoorji took advantage of the Group's uncertainty and bought out other Tata family members - increasing his stake to 16.5%. Yet the construction contractor was always considered an outsider and his family's relations with the Tatas eased only when Noel Tata, Ratan Tata's stepbrother, married Pallonji's daughter, Aloo.
As Pallonji says of his father, "He was a completely self-made man, he did want to do every kind of business. He went into the film business, at the time when he put money in Mughal-E-Azam, it was the largest amount of money put into a film. He was very much respected by my community and that is how we all have got this big interest in Tata Sons and everywhere also."
Underplaying any negativity between the Tata family and the Mistry family, Pallonji told CNBC-TV18, "There have always been very cordial relationship between the Mistry family and the Tatas. I would just say that. There has always been a very close relationship - both with the present generation and with the past generation." But that all important stake in the Tata Group does give him enormous leverage, so do his sons want to be on Tata's board, is a question that he deflects with "that question should be answered by Mr Tata, not by me."
Today, Pallonji owns 18.35% of Tata Sons, while Ratan Tata himself owns less than a per cent. When TCS went public, Pallonji was the biggest beneficiary, netting more than even the Tata companies. His networth, estimated by Forbes in 2003 was Rs 9,200 crore. But ask senior Tata executives who've spent a lifetime in the Group and very few know the enigmatic person. Considering his stake and credentials, has he ever been tempted to take more of a proactive stance? He reiterated, "God alone will decide it. As I said I am very happy in the way it is. I am very happy in the way the Tata companies are being run. I am very happy with the situation and God alone knows what the future holds."
But he's expanded the family business to build great quality buildings in the Middle East and he took this call years ago, before the compeition got wise to the act. Now his firm has moved onto road construction as well. He elaborated, "This is what my initiative was because I've always wanted to do something that should leave a mark in my family. Also since that day on, we have never looked back. We have been from Muscat to Dubai, Dubai to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to Qatar and finally only less than a month ago now, we have been given a contract to build a stadium in Guyana, South America."
Having lead his family business from strength to strength, he's almost handed over the reins to his sons. But a number of factors could make Pallonji break the unwritten agreement of passive partnership between the two families. The most important variable being the possibility that his son-in-law, Noel, may soon be taking over Ratan Tata's mantle.
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