Noel Naval Tata, Vice Chairman, Tata Steel: Stepping into the limelight, slowly

When the Tata Steel board appointed him as vice-chairman on Tuesday, Noel Naval Tata may have just taken his first definitive step towards a long-awaited board slot at Tata Sons.

If and when that happens, he will be the only Tata (his half-brother Ratan Tata is Chairman-Emeritus now) in the board of the group’s holding company that owns two-thirds of India’s largest private conglomerate. Though he is already the chairman of four Tata group companies — Tata International, Trent, Voltas and Tata Investment Corporation — and vice chairman of Titan, the Tata Steel vice-chairmanship is an important landmark for three reasons.

One, it’s the first time that Noel, 65, is joining the board of one of the three most important companies of the Tata group (the other two being TCS and Tata Motors). Tata Steel, with reported revenues of around Rs 65,000 crore last year, is expected to post record profit this fiscal riding an unprecedented commodity boom. Interestingly, Tata Steel has revived the position of vice-chairman after eight years. The last occupant of that office was B Muthuraman, for five years, from 2009 to 2014.

There is a sentimental angle too. For many Tata insiders, Tata Steel, founded in 1907, holds a unique position. They give special significance to the Tata Steel decision and draw parallel to Ratan Tata becoming vice-chairman of Tata Motors before taking the big leap in 1992. Many observers now expect the Tata Steel model to be replicated at Tata Motors also.

The second reason why the Tata Steel move is perceived to be important is that this will be the first time Noel and Tata Sons chairman N Chandrasekaran will be on the same board. Chandra, as he is popularly known, is also the chairman of Tata Steel.

And third, his induction into the Tata Steel board comes barely four months after Noel joined as a trustee on the board of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, a major philanthropic institution of the Tata Group. He became a trustee on the board of Sir Ratan Tata Trust in 2019. The closely-knit Parsi community was also perceived to be rooting for a Tata to be inducted on the board of the Trusts.

Taken together, the twin moves are being seen as a definite signal that while a professional will continue to have operational control of the Tata group, Noel Tata will be the family member to represent the Trusts on the board of directors of Tata Sons in future.

That will be a natural progression as Noel joined the Trust after giving up executive responsibilities at the Tata group in November last year. The Tata group requires executive directors to retire at 65. His career track record, observers say, has been quite impressive as he built up Trent, the company that owns retail clothing store Westside, serving as its managing director for more than 11 years.

He had taken over from his mother Simone Tata in 1999 and has overseen the growth of Trent across formats from one store operation in 1998 to nearly 350 stores as of 2021. Noel, who is married to Aloo Mistry, sister of former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry, was appointed vice chairman in 2012 and chairman in 2014.

Many have of course criticised Trent’s ultra-cautious approach towards growth, but then that was a conscious call taken by Noel, for whom profitability always took precedence over growth. After all, “retail is detail”, was one of his favourite mantras.

The son-in law of Pallonji Mistry, the single-largest shareholder in Tata Sons outside the Tata Trusts jealously guards his privacy and prefers to work in the background. He avoids suits, shuns the CEO cocktail circuit and is usually last-in-first out in corporate dos. People close to him say he is essentially a family man who likes to spend his after-office hours with his wife and two children. Trishna, Mumbai’s very famous seafood restaurant, remains a favourite family outing joint.

But as he steps into the limelight, Noel Tata may find it that much more difficult to remain in the background for long.

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