The Tatas and the Indian corporate world as a whole have lost a gem with the death of Syamal Gupta, aged 88, in Mumbai on the morning of April 1, after an illness bravely borne.
An array of tough assignments impeccably done and tricky problems smartly solved grants him the status of a management impresario. Yet, Gupta kept a low profile. As much a confirmed perfectionist as group chairman JRD Tata, he enjoyed the latter’s trust – no mean achievement. As the Tata group’s business adventures unfolded over the latter half of the twentieth century, neither JRD nor his successor Ratan Tata let Gupta hang up his gloves. He finally retired from the group in 2009 as a member of the apex board of Tata Sons. After this, he actively contributed his expertise to the conglomerate’s charitable work, even serving as chairman of the Tata Medical Center Trust until his dying day.
Gupta began his career with the Tatas at age 21. A mechanical engineer from Imperial College, London, his credentials were excellent. This quote from an Imperial College publication on eminent alumni reveals something of his personality: “When I studied, classes were small; we had tutorials with the very top professors and there was a very personal touch. I had 45 minutes with the then Mechanical Engineering Head of Department, Professor Hugh Ford every three weeks, and he wouldn’t take phone calls.
“I remember one time when I’d been talking rubbish for 45 minutes, I finally realised that I’d missed the point of the problem he’d set me to solve. He had listened so patiently. I was embarrassed but he said, ‘What you’ve said is interesting. My job as a teacher is not to teach you what you may think, but to teach you how to think.’ It made for a lifelong memory.
“Professor Hugh Ford, my mentor at Imperial, was a truly remarkable person. He chose to take me to a conference in Harrogate on metals vs. plastics. We became strong friends and we stayed in touch until he died, but I never was able to call him Hugh as he requested. His wife, Lady Ford, was wonderful — after finding out that I liked fish, she would cook salmon every time I visited them.”
Gupta’s career was pitched into full-swing mode in the 1970s when he was handpicked to head the Tata group’s technology investments in Singapore in cooperation with its government. He set up Tata Precision Industries Pte Ltd which produced precision stampings for lead frames used in the semiconductor industry. Incidentally, this marked the group’s maiden major overseas foray. “Over those years, Syamal built unbelievable bonds of mutual respect with senior government officials,” recalls Ratan Tata.
In Singapore’s early days, Gupta and his employers trod the learning curve with wary steps. Today, it is hard to believe that the island nation had no raw material whatsoever, that drinking water had to be imported, foreign exchange was restricted, and that labour problems were chronic. When I last met Gupta six years ago, he laughed about how the group was initially mocked for setting up works on marshy land at Jurong, which was then being inexpensively offered by the country’s finance minister, Goh Keng Swee. The proposed industrial arena was dubbed “Goh’s Folly.” When Goh miraculously transformed Jurong into the glamorous place it is today, the original sarcastic sobriquet was replaced with “Goh’s Glory.”
In Singapore, largely due to Gupta’s drive, the Tata Group met and successfully overcame problems that it had never encountered before. The President of the republic even wrote him a personal letter of appreciation.
By the time he was recalled to India to be MD and CEO of Tata Exports and head the group’s growth globally, Syamal Gupta’s success story was a legend. His energy and enthusiasm were boundless and he went where nobody went before, opening markets for Tata products in numerous African, European and Southeast Asian markets.
In his autobiography, Quintessentially Tata (2020), he summed up his Tata innings of over half a century:
“If someone asked what I brought to Tata, they’d probably point to our collaborations with BP, Rolls Royce, Mitsubishi, AIG, Bratten Witter, MacDonald Douglas. But I’m not a businessman, I’m a professional. I have always believed that short-term gain is a long-term disaster, and I truly believe that if you follow the technology, the money will come.
The man who spent 55 summers in a lifelong journey with the corporate house will be remembered with admiration and affection by a wide swath of India’s management professionals.
Sujoy Gupta is business historian and corporate biographer
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