Remembering Russi Mody

The former chairman and managing director of Tata Steel was a man of mettle

By Prince Mathews Thomas
Published: May 20, 2014
Image: Getty Images

Rustomji Homusji Mody, known to most of the country as Russi Mody, was the kind of person whose legends do the rounds of Tata Steel’s corridors, two decades after he retired.

His larger than life persona was amply complemented by his keen interest in art and sports, and his love of food: He set up the famous Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur in 1987; was known to wolf down 16-egg omelets; and, during his studies at Oxford, he happened to accompany Albert Einstein on the violin, while he played the piano.
  
But what will perhaps endure longer is his legacy at the country’s largest private steelmaker, where he joined as an office assistant in 1939, and left as the chairman and managing director 53 years later in 1993.     

Mody’s style of management at Tata Steel was a reflection of his ability to connect with people, to nurture talent, and his strong will, which also rubbed people the wrong way. “His biggest contribution to Tata Steel is the depth of management and talent he left behind,” says Firdose Vandrevala, executive vice chairman of Essar Steel India. Vandrevala was recruited in  1971 by Mody at Tata Steel, and he left the company as its deputy managing director. “Since his departure, four managing directors have taken guard at Tata steel and all four were from within the organisation. Most senior positions in Tata Steel were filled internally because there was ample talent that was identified, nurtured and developed.”

Mody was popular with workers; he took good care of them. Vandrevala recounts an episode when Mody was visiting a plant in where he was superintendent. “He just visited the workers’ toilets, found them neat, clean and hygienic, patted me on my back, said ‘Well done’, and left. He believed that if you took care of the workers, they would take care of the company. But that did not mean he gave in to all their demands: He knew when and where to draw the line.”

For instance, once Mody was chairing a meeting of the top team, which was strongly debating the type of power unit that had to be set up. A decision was taken only on the following day. When Vandrevala asked Mody about the decision, he quipped that he had made up his mind even before the debate, but had allowed the discussion to give everyone the opportunity to express their opinion.

Mody’s appreciation for labour was commendable, given his privileged upbringing. He was born in 1918 in Mumbai to Sir Homy Mody and Lady Jerbhai Mody, and had two brothers, Kali Homi Mody and Piloo Mody. An accomplished man, Homy was a noted businessman and lawyer who became chairman of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and a director at Tata Group. He sent Russi to England for his higher education, where the young man went to Harrow School in London and to Oxford’s Christ Church College. On returning to India, the 21 year-old was prompted by his father to immediately join Tata Steel.

Mody rose through the ranks of the company—Tata Steel’s capacity increased from 8 lakh tonnes a year to 30 lakh tonnes during his decades there—with his conviction and strong will inevitably making him come to loggerheads with those he didn’t agree with. One was Ratan Tata, chosen by JRD Tata as his successor at a time when many saw Mody as a front runner.

In Ratan Tata’s vision for the Group, there was no place for satraps like Mody. What followed was a boardroom tussle in which Mody tried to bring in his adopted son Aditya Kashyap as the joint managing director and anointed him as his heir apparent. But the chips were now against the veteran, and he and Kashyap were forced to resign in 1993. JJ Irani instead took over as managing director.

Mody’s life after Tata Steel was unremarkable: A not-so happy stint as the chairman of Air India, a failed attempt at contesting elections from Jamsedhpur, the winding up of a company he founded with Kashyap, after the latter’s death in 2006.

One bright spot, however, was his reconciliation with Tata. “There was a time when I did and said things that had hurt Ratan Tata and Ratan had said and done things that hurt me. However, after many years of chilly relationship, I have become friends with Ratan again,” Mody wrote in his biography, The Man Who Also Made Steel, published in 2008. “Ratan is friendly with me now as he was earlier. This again means that I have completely forgotten the past.”  

Four years later, Tata confirmed the truce: “He and I have buried our differences. And, we continue to share friendship at this point of time…May be not to the extent that existed in the past, but there is no animosity or acrimony at this point.”

Following Mody’s death at the age of 96 on May 16, the mourning within Tata Group is evident. Ratan Tata, his successor and present Tata Sons Chairman Cyrus Mistry and other current and former senior employees have released statements remembering the doyen.
 
“Russi Mody was an institution at Tata Steel,” said Rata Tata.

Mody would have agreed.

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