Remembering Russi Mody, corporate India’s original maverick

Rustomji Homusji Mody joined Tata Steel as an office assistant. By the time he left, he had quadrupled the company's production capacity and set the tone for India's nascent human resources practice.

May 09, 2021 / 09:38 AM IST

This week it will be seven years since Russi Mody, India's original maverick manager and the man who built Tata Iron and Steel Co. (TISCO, now Tata Steel), passed away in Kolkata at the ripe old age of 96. Whether his longevity was a consequence of his famous 16-egg omelettes or his insistence on living life on his own terms isn’t clear. Suffice to say, Mody was undoubtedly a rare Indian corporate hero.

Rustomji Homusji Mody, to give his full name, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Sir Homy Mody was the governor of Bombay Presidency and Uttar Pradesh and a member of the Indian Legislative Assembly. Young Russi was sent to Harrow School in London and to Oxford’s Christ Church College for his studies. On his return he joined TISCO as an office assistant on a salary of Rs 50 per month. But soaring ambitions and a fierce will to succeed, took him right to the top of the company’s hierarchy. Indeed, so successful was he in his leadership of the steel major that he, and many others, fancied him as J.R.D. Tata’s successor to head the vast Indian conglomerate. It wasn’t an unwarranted expectation since JRD thought so highly of him that in 1984 he resigned as chairman of TISCO just so that Mody could be anointed to that post.

By then he, along with others like Darbari Seth of Tata Chemicals and Ajit Kerkar at Indian Hotels, had emerged as the powerful satraps of the widely-dispersed Tata empire of  the 1970s. Once Ratan Tata took over the group’s reins, these men who enjoyed a free hand under JRD, found their wings clipped. While most of them chose to walk away into the sunset, Mody was among those that resisted fiercely even though with the reforms of 1992 altering the fundamentals of Indian business, TISCO was increasingly being found wanting. It had become a lumbering giant with obsolete processes and gross overstaffing which made it vulnerable to competition.

Mody’s successors, under Tata’s watch, restructured the company, making it the highly competitive global powerhouse it is today. While initially, he opposed the changes, even calling his successors “clowns”, eventually he accepted that they had done a great job.

In truth, they were only building on the structure he had created over the previous two decades as managing director and subsequently as chairman. Until the bitter boardroom battle led to his exit, he moulded the company as per his vision and will. Its best could be seen in the quadrupling of its capacity over the years he was in charge, as well its just and humane industrial relations policies. If the first positioned the firm firmly as the country’s steel industry leader, the latter made TISCO a path setter in the nascent human resource field in corporate India. It also allowed the company to function smoothly without losing a single man day to the kind of strikes and bandhs that led to the hemorrhaging of business and industry in the country’s eastern states of West Bengal and Bihar. In fact, when in 1979, the Janata government under Morarji Desai threatened to nationalize TISCO using the 47% stake it had in the company, thousands of the company’s workers led by Mody took to the streets in protest.

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Once he had lost out in the succession battle, it was evident his days at the top were numbered. But he chose to fight on and ended up paying for his belligerence, being sacked from the company’s board while he was away in London. In any case, even if Ratan Tata had wanted to be charitable, Mody made sure there was little scope for a rapprochement with some ill-advised remarks against the new chairman. The two did patch up in later years and Mody was magnanimous enough to accept that Ratan Tata had been the right choice to head the group.

That really summed up the man. He was quick to please and equally quick to take offence. But that last didn’t linger too long. There was always golf and his grand piano waiting. More comfortable in wildly floral Hawain shirts, which he would pick based on his mood of the day, and bermudas than in suits, he was a true epicurean. Birthdays, for instance, were celebrated with one-tonne laddoos and a 400 kg cake.

After his exit from TISCO, Mody served briefly as chairman of Air India and Indian Airlines and dabbled briefly in politics, standing for elections as an independent. He also set up a trading house with Aditya Kashyap, his protégé whom he had backed to head the company after him but who lost out when Ratan Tata installed J.J. Irani as his replacement. Even this venture met with limited success and after Kashyap’s untimely death, it was wound up.

Clearly Mody without Tata Steel was a fish out of water. After his exit from Jamshedpur, he chose to settle in Calcutta, a city he loved because, as he told one journalist, “I can stop at a green light and go when the lights are red.”

Also read: Veterans Unpacked | Ishaat Hussain: 'The corporate discourse has to completely change and we have to focus on the basics'
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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